At the UA, members of Tucson Anonymous admit the anti-Scientology movement--also called Project Chanology--began as an Internet prank, what userboard members refer to as lulz, or Anonymous-speak for shits and giggles.
During the past three months, however, the movement has gotten a lot more serious, and Anonymous has become an Internet phenomenon. Members hold monthly protests in front of Scientology centers from Los Angeles to Paris, many of which are actively chronicled on YouTube.
Tucson Anonymous members claim that the group has no identified leaders--both on local and national levels--but works in a decentralized fashion, relying on the Internet to organize protests.
One UA student, who goes by her userboard name Muffin, says she considers Anonymous to be Internet superheroes. Muffin says Anonymous has taken credit for helping police catch a Canadian Internet predator, and helping to close down a white-supremacist radio show produced by Hal Turner.
Last week, Muffin and a small crew--mostly other UA students--stood on the UA mall passing out fliers regarding Scientology. A few say they joined up after reading more about Anonymous and Scientology, while a few like Muffin affectionately call themselves "b/tards"--people knee-deep in the userboard culture where Anonymous started.
What motivated most of these students initially to focus their energy on Scientology was a video, posted on YouTube in January, of Tom Cruise accepting Scientology's Freedom Medal of Valor.
However, the Church of Scientology claimed the post violated copyright-infringement laws, and YouTube pulled the video. For a short time, the only place to see the video was on New York-based Gawker.com.
The Anonymous community went nuts, accusing the church of censorship. On Jan. 21, a video was released--credited to Anonymous--titled "Message to Scientology."
The video's dark clouds and computer-generated voice is undeniably morose: "Hello, Scientology. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation, suppression of dissent, your litigious nature: All of these things have caught our eye. With the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as leaders has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. ... We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."
Anonymous hackers later caused the church's Web site to crash, and Scientology offices were deluged with prank phone calls and faxes. Church documents showed up on YouTube and other Web sites.
The protests started on Feb. 10, the birthday of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who allegedly died under Scientology's care in 1995. Anonymous directed protesters to wear Guy Fawkes masks and business suits. In Tucson, a group of about 30 gathered across the street from the Church of Scientology Mission at 1703 E. Fort Lowell Road.
The group held a second protest in March, with about 60 people involved locally. Tucson Anonymous also organized a series of activities, such as the UA mall information table and a candlelight vigil at Reid Park last week.
The next scheduled worldwide protest is Saturday, April 12, locally starting at the UA's cactus garden at 8 a.m., and proceeding 2.5 miles to the Scientology center on Fort Lowell Road.
According to Walter Freeman, a UA graduate student in physics, Anonymous may have started with pranks, but its protests against Scientology have created a social movement beyond userboard culture.
"I was an outsider," Freeman says. "I learned more, and realized this is something worthy and something that really needs doing."
Freeman wants to educate the public about Scientology principals and policies that critics say prove the organization is a cult that controls its members. It didn't help that Scientology tried to control postings on YouTube, either--after all, the Internet generation takes information-sharing seriously, Freeman says.
While Freeman agreed to use his real name, he'd prefer to use his userboard handle, anon137. Freeman says using handles is part of userboard culture, but it also follows Anonymous' intention to not identify members. Members point out it prevents Scientologists from identifying and harassing protestors.
Like Freeman, Ronald Krizp--not his real name--says he was drawn to Anonymous because of the issues he sees with Scientology, not the userboards. Krizp and other local members began a blog for local Anonymous members at yiitucson.com.
"I think while we initially started out as people just latching on to something to do, it has become a movement of activism against the Church of Scientology," Krizp says. "For me, the Cruise video was the boiling point. I've been a critic privately of the Church of Scientology for many years. I've had a family member affected by the church, so I haven't been supportive of it."
Krizp sits with an Anonymous friend who goes by the moniker Captain Jack. The two say Scientology has compared Anonymous to the Ku Klux Klan or Nazis, a label they vehemently reject.
"I believe it is a cult and a scam. I don't want anyone to think I'm a bigot or that I'm against certain religious beliefs. I'm of the opinion that everyone is free to do whatever they want. If they want to believe what Scientology believes, that's fine," Krizp says. "What we are taking issue with are murders and crimes perpetrated by Scientology. The church is latching on to the message that we are religious bigots terrorizing them for their beliefs. That's not the case whatsoever."
The Tucson Weekly contacted Church of Scientology Mission of Tucson representative Julianne Boudreaux for more information. Boudreaux said she feels the UA students at the protests are misinformed, but then requested the Weekly submit all questions in writing. As of press time, Boudreaux hadn't replied to the questions.