If you passed the Church of Scientology’s Toronto chapter at Yonge & St. Mary on Sunday, you may have momentarily entertained a dark fantasy that Tom Cruise would emerge from the masked masses amid gales of manic laughter, igniting the dissenting throng with bolts of righteous lightning.
Sadly, no such fun. Rumour has it that Mr. Cruise was under lockdown during Anonymous’ global day of action against L. Ron Hubbard’s brainchild. As the Toronto campaign got underway, Sunday commuters voiced solidarity with the placard-waving Vs and Vaders through their horns. “Honk for Xenu” read one such sign; “Honk if you think Scientology is silly” read another. On the other side of the street, police wedged themselves between Scientology’s Toronto headquarters and a crowd that was only getting louder.
The war Anonymous wants is over ten years old, fought on a digital battleground. Many of the demonstrators gathered on Yonge Street were rallied through Facebook or YouTube, new recruits in a struggle that, in this city, can be traced at least as far back as a guy named Gregg Hagglund (pictured above) and “The Great Internet Wars” of the late nineties.
“I started picketing because Scientology attacked me for criticizing them on the Internet,” he said. Referring to a Usenet newsgroup on the subject, he says, “Some of it was wild, but a lot of the posters were very, very educated in their information about Scientology. So I made the comment that if what they were saying was true, Scientology should be investigated.” As exchanges and e-mail bombings escalated, things got ugly. Before long, Hagglund and his compatriots were embroiled in a struggle which, at its heart, was about freedom of speech, information, and challenging a “culture of surveillance.”
That was something like ten years ago. And while Anonymous is a new movement, it is fighting the same war.
Watching the swelling crowd across the street, Hagglund reminisced. “We never had this many. The most we ever had was fifty people from all over North America,” he said. “This is incredible.”
Surrounded by watchful shutters, Rev. Yvette Shank, president of Scientology’s Toronto chapter, dismissed Hagglund’s and Anonymous’ allegations of harassment, suppression of dissent, and even stalking. “Bushwash,” she responded. “That is such bushwash. I have never, ever had that happen. If we did, we would be very busy. We wouldn’t be doing anything else.” “Anything else” probably refers to Scientology’s outreach campaigns, many of which are youth-targeted. “We have a drug-education campaign where we get kids from the age of 6 on up to pledge to be drug-free.”
“Anything else” also refers to Scientology’s infamous stress tests. “All that does is help us locate where the person is having the most difficulty,” Shank said, “and then you can start working on improving that.” When asked to elaborate further on the methods involved, Shank declined. (An invitation to “show us how it works” through participation, but that’s about it, and no mention of Thetans.)
Such details of the Scientology mythos have remained tightly-guarded for years, available only to the Church’s ladder-climbing members. With the advent of the Internet, the conflict between Anonymous and Scientology has become an information war, one that’s rapidly approaching critical mass.
“We’ve always said that the Internet is Scientology’s Vietnam,” Hagglund continued. “Now, years later, so many people between the ages of 18 and 25 are on YouTube or Facebook. When I stopped picketing, YouTube was just starting. Facebook didn’t exist. And they want to attack that?” Hagglund chuckled a little, remarking, “It’ll be like throwing a hand grenade into an African Bees’ nest.”
Since Anonymous’ first video appeared on YouTube, Scientology has been vigilant in defending itself and its interests, profiling Anonymous as an “Internet hate machine.” In its reporting, FOX News echoed the accusation. “I think FOX News did a good job at exposing the intent of these guys, honestly,” Shank asserted. “The hate crimes of Anonymous should be condemned. This is a country that is free, and I don’t want people that believe and follow Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto as their Bible.” Pressed for her source, she said, “It comes from Anonymous. That’s the source. You have to look at…” as an aide whispered in her ear: “It’s on YouTube.”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “On YouTube.”
Outside, a masked demonstrator offered his answer. “Anonymous likes to think of itself as a school of all literature,” he said. “So, likewise, we also educate ourselves through 1984 and Brave New World, which I’m sure they’d love their followers to read. Or not.”
If this is an information war, Anonymous’ outrage concerns a lack of transparency on the Scientology side. “We just like to raise attention on certain matters. If the church wanted to debunk some of [Anonymous’] claims, then they could make more of their information available and not be so secretive. If people knew all that they were getting into, they might have a different opinion.”
When asked for his name, the masked demonstrator simply answered, “My name is Legion.”
All photos by Miles Storey