A strange standoff between the Church of Scientology and a group calling itself "Anonymous" played out during a downtown demonstration Saturday morning.
About 20 members of Anonymous, most wearing masks and carrying signs with anti-Scientology slogans, stood for about an hour across the street from the Dianetics center at 391 Castro.
The event was said to be one of several across the country organized on March 15 by the group, which uses the Internet for most of its communications.
It is not clear what exactly caused the friction between the two groups. Two Scientology members, giving a presentation to the Voice last Friday, said Anonymous is a terrorist organization with no real point to its actions beyond spreading fear and mayhem for their own sake. They presented videos to support their claims.
The previous Friday, two Anonymous members came to the Voice to decry the practices of the Church of Scientology, which they said has destroyed families and lives, and even caused the deaths of innocent people.
Two people taking part in Saturday's demonstration said they were former church members, and claimed that the Church of Scientology has broken up their families.
"There's real brainwashing going on -- people will defend [Scientology with their lives," said Bill Offerman, a former member of the church.
Offerman said he joined the church in 1969 in San Francisco, where he was a member for 14 years. "It seemed to promise self-betterment," he said.
Holding a sign that read, "Scientology split up my family," Offerman claimed his sister and her children were forbidden to speak to him after he became disillusioned with the church -- an alleged practice known as "disconnection policy." His sister's children also are not allowed to use the Internet, he said: "The Internet, I think, is the church's worst enemy."
Anonymous members handed out fliers advertising a Web site called www.exscientologykids.com, where several former members, including the niece of the church's president, talk about their experiences. "I was born, I grew up, I escaped," is the site's tag line.
Offerman was reluctant to give his name at first, because of what he called the "fair game policy" -- another alleged practice which he said Scientology has used to justify "some pretty horrible things" done to its perceived enemies.
As for the Anonymous members with him on the street that day, "These people aren't terrorists," he said.
The Church of Scientology vigorously disagrees, and members of the Mountain View church, located on Easy Street, said they could prove it.
"I believe they are domestic terrorists," said public affairs director Matt Ward, presenting a package of information about the Internet-based group's activities since it began its anti-Scientology campaign in January.
Since then, he says, Scientology churches have been subjected to hate campaigns all over the country. He said Anonymous tactics include thousands of abusive messages and threats <0x2014> including bomb threats -- by e-mail and phone, Web site hacking, vandalism and other attacks. Ward said the local church is working with police to find the people who made threatening phone calls to Mountain View offices this year, but so far no leads have been found.
Ward played several videos, posted on YouTube, where supposed Anonymous members vowed to destroy the Church of Scientology. The videos were stylized to be disturbing and intimidating, and demonstrated that a group defined by its anonymity can't be accountable for its actions.
"That's what's scary about it," said Darlene Bright, a Scientologist who accompanied Ward.
Ward said the videos and actions of Anonymous were more than just intimidating: In many cases they could be legally defined as hate speech. He provided documents showing racist and other offensive messages which the Church of Scientology attributes to Anonymous.
Protestors on Saturday had a different take on the group.
"Being anonymous is not our strength, it's our numbers," said one member who called himself Dave. He admitted that "Most of us actually don't know each other, we're complete strangers."
With one exception, the only protesters not wearing masks were former members of the Church of Scientology. One such former member, Rose Velasco, told her story.
"It's hard to talk about this because it sounds stupid," Velasco said. "I was a follower. I thought it was the answer to the universe."
She said she was recruited, like many others, during that "critical time after high school, when you are up against the world." She was 19, and remained a member for 30 years, attending Scientology churches in San Jose, Mountain View and Los Gatos.
Velasco said she endured constant requests for money at the San Jose and Los Gatos churches. "It's a business," she said.
Velasco said she parked at the police station on Saturday, because she and her sister were followed to their cars after a similar protest in February -- a typical intimidation tactic, say the protesters. Despite the perceived risk, she said the protests are "healing" for her.