Anonymous, a self-described legion without faces, converged on downtown Clearwater on Saturday morning to protest the Church of Scientology (COS) for the third time this year.
The march began inside the Royalty Theater, and later moved out to the streets of Clearwater. Mike Henderson, a former member of the COS, left after 34 years of serving as a public Scientologist as well as a member of the Sea Organization, a group that Henderson described as, “a fraternal order within the church that manages the church.”
Saturday’s protest, dubbed “Operation Reconnect,” denounced the church’s policy of disconnection. Henderson said the policy forces family members who belong to the church to disconnect with those who have left.
Henderson’s speech was brief and he paused often, at one point apologizing to the audience for coming close to tears.
“It happens every time,” he said.
Henderson recalled his father’s departure from the church and what seemed to be the end of their relationship.
“I was out of communication with my father by my own action for the next four years,” he said.
Since he left the church, Henderson has lost contact with his family and become increasingly frustrated over the three decades and $2 million he gave to Scientology.
“I can live with any one of them making their own decisions to not talk to me. What I will not tolerate is a church telling them what they can or can’t do,” Henderson said, choking back tears.
Although he was able to reconnect with his father before his death in 2007, Henderson was regretful of how his father’s life ended.
“His greatest accomplishment in life was denied to him for the last five years of it,” he said.
The theater’s owner, Socrates Charos, 60, donated the space to Anonymous for the afternoon. While Charos is not affiliated with Anonymous or the COS, he felt obligated to provide a safe place for Henderson and the protesters.
“Theaters are open asylums of free speech and expression,” he said. “That’s why I’m giving them the theater today.”
Charos did, however, require all protesters to remove their trademark Guy Fawkes masks inside the theater.
While former Scientologists, and now Anonymous members, have attempted to force the COS recognize and end the disconnection policy, Pat Harney, spokeswoman for the COS in Clearwater, refuted its existence.
Although Henderson vividly recalled a family in turmoil from disconnection, Harney attributed it to miscommunication and ignorance.
“There’s no such thing as what they’re portraying,” she said. “If you’re going to attack something, you should at least understand it.”
Harney also said that Scientology has not hindered her communication with family members who aren’t Scientologists.
“I have family in Jamaica who aren’t Scientologists and I have very good communication with them. I feel I have a better relationship with them because of Scientology,” she said.
Harney also discredited threats made to the Royalty Theater and Charos, saying they must have come from a member of Anonymous.
“It’s a vicious prank, no Scientologist would do that,” she said.
Scientology has labeled Anonymous as a hate group and their worldwide protests as hate crimes.
“If you look at what the Ku Klux Klan did with African Americans, it’s the same campaign. It’s picking out information about a certain group and painting them with one brush.” Harney said.
Saturday’s demonstration, however, was peaceful. After leaving the Royalty Theater, Anonymous’ ranks swelled to well more than 100 masked protesters.
Before splitting into groups to picket downtown Clearwater, the protesters were briefed by Sgt. T.J. Donnelly of the Clearwater Police Department.
“We haven’t had any problems in the past and don’t expect any today,” he said.
Donnelly, as well as the protests organizers, confirmed that no arrests were made.
Although many stores in Clearwater posted signs reading, “We’ve chosen not to serve anyone from Anonymous,” the protesters received public support from onlookers. Special teams of protesters were assigned specifically to pass out literature to drivers, including flyers and brochures leading them to Operation Reconnect’s home page, enturbulation.org.
While there has been no dialogue between leaders of COS and members of Anonymous, one of the protest’s organizers, Joshua Nussbaum, remained hopeful of the groups’ efforts.
“Our major goal is to inform the public,” Nussbaum said. “We are also talking to local politicians to see if anything can be done against the COS.”
While it has not yet been officially confirmed, another worldwide protest may be held in May. Nussbaum was unable to provide a focus for the next campaign, but speculated that it will target the church’s front groups and their rejection of psychiatric medicine. He said it could be called “Operation Freakout.”