While having a bit of a clear-out recently, I came across a bundle of old documents I’d saved from an interesting period of my life – when I was involved with, and writing about, a series of worldwide protests against the Church of Scientology.
The protests were organised (and I use that term loosely) by Anonymous, an online collective known for various Internet hijinks, and made headlines for several months both due to their popularity, and because it was one of the first times online chest-puffing had translated into real world action.
I’ve been aware of – and a critic of – Scientology since my University days. Often we’d see the Scientology cart down in Plymouth (innocently dressed up as a “Stress Test”) and start debates with the Scientologists on the merits of L Ron Hubbard’s methods, as well as the misbehaviour of the Church of Scientology as an organisation.
(For the uninitiated, the “Stress Tests” are a sort of confidence trick using a machine not dissimilar from a lie detector – when the operator notices a fluctuation in the reading they focus in on whatever it was you were thinking about at that moment and convince you Scientology methods can help ‘heal’ you.)
Back then the anti-Scientology movement was called “Operation Clambake” – a loose collection of critics, victims and ex-members. As a part of this movement and a member of many of the websites that house the disparate members of Anonymous, the anti-Scientology protests were simply too fortuitous a coming-together for me not to attend.
Given Scientology’s enthusiastic pursuit of its critics (usually involving threats of lawsuits, letters, and sometimes even stalking and harassment) it was decided that the protests be masked, to help limit identification of individuals. I decided to attend unmasked, given my previous with the Church – and the fact that they don’t particularly scare me.
The protests went from strength to strength – the first in London attracted a few hundred, the second over a thousand, and we were effectively able to close down a section of Tottenham Court Road around Goodge Street tube with our numbers. We raised a few grand and paid for a truck to drive past all the Scientology locations in town, emblazoned with the URL of a website containing all the stuff the Church doesn’t want its followers to know (remember, this is an organisation which distributed “Internet software” to its members which blocked websites it had blacklisted).
At first the response from the Scientologists was fairly muted; we noticed cameramen with telescopic lenses on the roof of their HQ snapping pictures of people as they lifted their masks to take a drink or have a cigarette, but other than that their reaction was largely to ignore us. As much as an organisation can ignore a thousand people across the road from their shop blasting Rick Astley and waving nonsensical placards.
Things got interesting when we started encroaching on the mothership.
Adventures in Saint Hill
By pure coincidence, about six months before the Chanology protests began I’d taken a weird pilgrimage over to Saint Hill, Scientology’s spiritual home (and literal home of L Ron Hubbard before he took to the high seas to escape criminal charges). I posed as a writer for a country magazine, saying I was interested in writing about Saint Hill and it’s history (I’m finally writing this now, so technically I wasn’t lying… sort of), and got a guided tour from one of the higher-ups.
The actual manor at Saint Hill is much as you’d expect – a smart country pile set in verdant Sussex surroundings. Another thing to bear in mind – Scientology usually purchases grand old buildings to give themselves an inflated air of history and permanence. The Manor was almost 200 years old by the time Scientology moved in.
Just to the north of the manor proper is Scientology’s addition to the grounds – a hulking great horseshoe of a building housing treatment rooms, a canteen, a vast reception featuring a brass bust of L Ron Hubbard, and the requisite fully-kitted-out office, ready for Hubbard’s return.
From afar the new building looks impressive – the entrance is flanked by two medieval turrets with stained glass windows. However get closer and you realise it’s little more than a facade. The masonry appears to be made from the same faux-rock used in theme parks, and upon closer inspection on Google Maps, the entire complex has a flat, 1970s-style roof, belying its true origins.
In that respect, at least, the building is quintessential Scientology. A paper-thin veil of grandeur, which falls away under even the slightest interrogation to reveal the organisation’s true nature.
I was shown around by an Estate Agent-ish man. Short, quite bad dandruff, and a cheap suit. I was not permitted to go near the actual Manor as, he claimed, there was an event happening. The car park was empty and nary a sound could be heard, but nonetheless I was commanded not to approach the building.
After half an hour or so of being shown pre-fab rooms within the new building (the perfect thing to show a writer ostensibly interested in 16th Century Manors) I made my excuses and left.
Fastforward a year and I find myself and around 100 of my protesting companions walking up the same road I’d driven to get to Saint Hill the first time around. This time, given the proximity to my own home, I’d decided to mask up.
It speaks volumes of Scientology’s weirdness that as we walked up the road towards Saint Hill dressed variously as aliens, cartoon sleuths and Guy Fawkes, a man leant out the window of a passing van to shout “Fucking Scienos!” – he thought we were Scientologists, presumably based on how bizarrely we were dressed.
The protest was timed to coincide with a big annual Scientology gala, and people came and went through the gates in cars and coaches. Protesting with us were several ex-Scientologist who still have family members and friends inside (a policy called “disconnection” mandates anyone who leaves the Church is ostracised, so many defectors lose contact with their loved ones). One escapee saw a friend from their time in the Church and tried to speak to them through their car window. The Scientologist shouted, threw a book and then sped away.
After the protest (which also involved hiking to Saint Hill’s back entrance and taking them in the rear, as it were) we dispersed, walked back into East Grinstead and made our way back to the car. En route, someone in our group noticed a man following us so, not wanting them to get my number plate, we walked straight past my car and led this man (who was later identified to us as a member of OSA, Scientology’s special branch) on a merry chase around a housing estate.
This fairly farcical pursuit ended in the following confrontation, when our Scientologist friend realised he was rumbled.
Once we threatened a call to the Police he slunk away down an alley – only to reappear a few minutes later around a corner. He saw us and quickly retreated, only to poke his head around the same corner 30 seconds later. A master spy at work.
We eventually ditched him and, all five of us piling into my spectacularly under-powered Nissan Micra, got the hell out of there.
Throughout this period I had been dealing with press, helping to arrange a Times supplement cover story about the protests, amongst other things, and also appeared on a radio show talking about Scientology and the protests against them.
I was clearly on Scientology’s shitlist, and a few weeks later a threat of legal action landed on my doormat claiming all kinds of illegal activity on my part. All of it complete rubbish, of course – but that doesn’t matter; these letters are purely designed to scare people.
Thinking about it now, they could have grabbed my details from any number of places. I was never particularly security-conscious and, having done nothing illegal, assumed Scientology would have no cause to get legal. I replied asking for specific details of the illegal actions I was alleged to have been involved in, and received no reply.
Despite the threats I continued protesting and writing about it where I could. Eventually life got in the way and I moved to Asia and lost touch with the friends I had made protesting. I still remember the time fondly, and have enjoyed watching the ongoing protests from afar.
If you want to know more about Scientology, their Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It has been locked for editing several times due to astroturfing attempts from within the Church. Other good resources (all unabashedly anti-Scientology):
- Xenu.net (website of Operation Clambake)
- Scientology & Me
- Bare-faced Messiah (the unofficial autobiography of L Ron Hubbard)
- The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power (Time’s 1991 cover story on Scientology)