Motorists stuck on Mercer Street this summer have been treated to an odd overhead sight as they crawl under Aurora Avenue toward I-5. Wielding banners and signs, a small band of protesters has appeared on certain evenings, waving at drivers below and encouraging them to honk if they hate Xenu. On other nights, farther west in the Uptown neighborhood, the same merry pranksters have shown up outside an empty old office building declaring their opposition to thetans and federal tax exemptions. Other times they march to Westlake or Seattle Center to hand out flyers. Always they conceal their faces with bandannas and masks—often the smiling white plastic visage of Guy Fawkes from the Wachowski brothers’ movie V for Vendetta (which concerns a heroic rebel band fighting against a totalitarian state).
Xenu, you may recall, is the malign alien ruler who, in Church of Scientology doctrine (codified in the 1950s), scattered the unhappy souls of extraterrestrials among us earthlings 75 million years ago, creating a host of mental problems that cannot be solved by modern psychiatry or pharmacology. And now, following a notorious Tom Cruise video released earlier this year and a certain prior South Park episode, Scientology finds itself the target of a new generation of activists who have declared this coming Saturday, August 16, to be their next worldwide Scientology protest day. Hundreds are expected to participate in Seattle, where the publicity-shy church is undertaking a major expansion into new facilities in lower Queen Anne and downtown.
Their organization—many of them, actually, self-organized and leaderless on the Web—is called Anonymous. Its Seattle members preferred to remain just that during recent meetings with the Weekly; instead they go by their screen names.
During a recent meet-up in Redmond, a smart mob of Anonymous members gathered to spray-paint a wall by the local skate park (with city permission). The friendly, boisterous gang—median age about 20—numbered around a dozen; matching their unmasked faces to their screen avatars can make it difficult to assign quotes to exact parties. Still, they feel passionate about their new cause, opposing the controversial church—which includes Dianetics, Narconon, and other arms—that charges its members thousands of dollars to be audited and made “clear” of alien particles.
Yet, strangely, none of these young activists are disgruntled former members of the church.
“Not a whole lot of us are like, ‘This affected me personally,'” says AnotherSP. (SP in Scientology speak means Suppressive Personality, i.e., an enemy of the religion and its tenets.) Only one among the spray-painting party described a parent’s prior involvement with Scientology. According to AnotherSP, “A lot of the ex-members are older. The forums inherently attract younger members.”
The “forums” include Web sites such as www.enturbulation.org (at the national level) and www.lulznw.com (the Seattle chapter), which either launched or saw huge traffic spikes after the Cruise video went up on YouTube. (“We are the authorities in getting people off drugs,” raves the actor on a cheap set with bad lighting, an ’80s guitar sample blaring in a soundtrack loop behind him. “We are the authorities on the mind. We are the authorities on improving conditions. Criminals, we can rehabilitate criminals.”) Attracting roughly equal attention was South Park‘s 2005 “Trapped in the Closet” episode, which provided a cartoon thumbnail history of the religion and introduced Xenu to kids who were in diapers when Risky Business came out. (Fun fact: South Park co-creator Trey Parker owns a condo here in Seattle.)
The Seattle version of Anonymous is “only four months old,” says an individual known as Anon, He Mussed, who at 30 is something of an elder spokesman for the group. “Kind of like the Battle in Seattle. It’s all self-initiative. It just started with a few cities, like a Google group.” He claims that roughly 150 protesters participated in an April Anonymous event, which included a march to the Pike Place Market. In a March event to commemorate the birthday of L. Ron Hubbard, the late sci-fi writer and Scientology founder, he guesses 250 people took part. Come Saturday, when the group is planning another protest march, they’re hoping for even higher numbers.
The group’s hallmark, other than the masks, is a carnivalesque approach to protesting and pamphleting—no angry tirades or rock-throwing. “We’re always on city property,” says anonyk23. “We let the cops know. Always adhere to the law—we follow that rule.” (The church disputes this.)
But why Scientology? Why not protest the Iraq War? The situation in Darfur? Or the Catholic church? Anon, He Mussed responds, “We all have our own individual activist causes, but Anonymous is for this.”
According to a local church-affiliated Web site, L. Ron Hubbard lived briefly in Seattle, attending Queen Anne High School, during the 1920s while following his father, a Navy man, from port to port. Residing in Port Orchard during the late ’30s, he wrote a few of his early Scientology texts, some prompted by a supposedly near-death experience at a Bremerton dentist in 1938.
Now members of his church may soon be able to look out on the same body of water that inspired Hubbard. In 2005, the Scientologists bought an old state-government building in lower Queen Anne for $3.7 million. According to drawings and a description on the local Scientologists’ Web site, the building eventually will be equipped with a rooftop deck “looking out over Puget Sound where LRH used to live and write—a perfect place for pcs and students to go during session and course breaks, as well as for dissemination activities and events.” (A “pc” is a “preclear,” explains Seattle Scientology Reverend Ann Pearce, “a spiritual being who is now on the road to becoming clear.”)
But renovations, which would cost millions for any comparable project, have been slow in coming. The city permits have been issued. The five-story tower at Third Avenue West and West Harrison Street has seen weeds sprouting from the windowsills, some cracked windows, and graffiti tags outside. It’s partially ringed with construction fencing. The 1955 building has been off the county tax rolls since it was sold; in a controversial 1993 decision, the IRS granted Scientology tax-exempt status.
Members of the Seattle Anonymous chapter say the building is already in use. They staged a protest there in June, the same night as a gathering—according to a church mailing—to meet “the Commanding Officer of the entire Western United States.” (Maritime terminology runs strong in Scientology, which includes a branch called the Sea Org, whose officers wear naval attire.)
In Los Angeles, at its Celebrity Center, the church hasn’t been shy about attracting recruits with star power—not only Cruise and John Travolta, but hipsters like Beck are among the fold. Here in Seattle, however, there don’t appear to be any high-profile politicians, public figures, or sports stars who’ve been so identified. So while the church raises money, it continues to rent space in a small, nondescript old complex alongside Aurora Avenue, just west of the new Lumen condo and QFC.
“We’ve been on Aurora for seven or eight years,” says Reverend Pearce. “Our congregation wanted to own property and have a permanent location.” Is there a timetable for a move to the renovated building? “There’s no imminent departure at this point.”
The church also paid $1.1 million last December for the basement of the Gilmore Building at Third and Pine, below a McDonald’s, a Money Tree, and a low-income housing facility. Pearce declined to discuss the property in detail, other than to say, “We will be moving there as well. Don’t know when. We’re gonna be renovating it at some point, and the same with the location at Harrison [Street].” Meanwhile, signs offer “Free Stress Tests” in the Gilmore entryway on Pine Street, which otherwise appears in a state of dusty disuse.
She describes the Anonymous protesters as “a group of cyber-terrorists who’ve been harassing us for six months. This has been happening around the world. On a local basis, they have attempted to infiltrate our church. They’ve trespassed, they’ve graffitied our property, they routinely harass our parishioners and staff. The police department is working with us on this.”
However, Pearce wouldn’t give any particulars or police-complaint information, making her claims impossible to verify. Again, Anonymous says it protests from the sidewalk, not on the premises.
Pearce wouldn’t confirm whether any church services are scheduled for this coming Saturday, when Anonymous plans its next protest. What about extra security or other precautions? She responds, “I’m not circling any dates in my calendar with regards to Anonymous.”