Sunday the 10th of February saw a noisy little crowd gathered behind police cordons on the east pavement of Tottenham Court Road. Most wore V for Vendetta masks, all were chanting slogans, many were waving placards and encouraging passing buses to HONK IF YOU THINK SCIENTOLOGY IS A CULT.
Plenty of tooting ensued, of course.
Yes, this was the organised protest of Internet Group "ANONYMOUS." They're a confederacy of hackers, activists and Netaphiles who recently declared war on Tom Cruise's sci-fi posse, the Church of Scientology. Why? Well: for all sorts of reasons, most of which relate broadly to freedom of information and pernicious financial policies. Anonymous's grievances are explained in brief HERE.
The cynical viewers of that clip may suspect Anonymous's motives have more to do with having some high-profile fun at the expense of an easy target than with moral justice; about which I dare not comment. What I will say is that I'm far more concerned about the motives of "the church" than I am about a bunch of sunlight-starved hackers looking to pick a digital fight.
And so, given that the enemy of my enemy is... well, an entertaining way to spend an afternoon, I headed down there to watch the crowd at work.
For the record: I'm not a Scientology hater per se. I haven't invested the time required to read into it fully and thereby become an Informed Opponent of the organisation. If a Scientologist arrived on my doorstep right now I'd have a hard time debating him (which, of course, is what the "front line" of so many religions count upon whilst recruiting - that whole "let me set you straight on your misconceptions" shtick). I've taken a vague interest in its growth and have watched the likes of THIS VIDEO, which attempts to explain why Scientology is a pernicious trend. Frankly its arguments (and those in other videos like it) come across as overly-sensational pieces of schlocky scaremongery which probably do more harm than good, so I don't exactly buy into them either.
What I do believe is that Scientology is an insidious process of thought and belief which appears dangerously alluring to vulnerable, suggestible and emotionally pliable individuals. That in itself needn't be a problem - you could argue the same about pretty much any religion.
It does become a problem, however, when those same vulnerable people are made to feel as though their lives are flawed, worthless or empty unless they permit the guiding wisdom of a dead Science Fiction Writer into their lives. It becomes a problem when those vulnerable people are encouraged to change their routines, alter the way they think, spend vast (and I mean vast) amounts of money on self improvement, and eschew common-sense. It becomes a problem when a religion, cult, philosophy or School Of Behavioural Technology - call it what you will - has asserted its intention to become financially and politically influential in an already-turbulent world, and looks troublingly set to achieve it. It becomes a problem when something which is just so obviously fucking STUPID starts to become powerful.
I have no beef with faith. But faith should be free, harmless and helpful.
Also: Tom Cruise.
So - back to the protest. A small but determined host of masked youths on one side, with the suit-wearing agents from the Church handing out propaganda and offering free stress tests on the other. (I have no idea what they really call themselves - delegates? believers? hubbanauts? - "agent" is suggested only due to a sort of greased-back anonymity that recalls the Matrix). All very entertaining, especially as the protestors occasionally snuck into the shop and caused trouble inside. Good, wholesome, childish fun - and a lot of bored cops.
When eventually I decided the long-haired forces of electronic Justice and geekgasm Right had benefited enough from my presence for one day, I ambled off to get a pint, which is when it happened. As I passed by, sighing in satisfcation, a church goon appeared before me like a vision of smirking retribution and shoved a newspaper directly into my hands.
Across the street the crowd chanted "don't take it, don't take it, don't take it". Too late. What else could I do but hold it up for them to see and maniacally tear it to pieces? I had Made My Contribution. The crowd cheered, the church goons rolled their eyes, I smiled and continued on my way.
Which is around about when the cops dragged me off, told me my rights, and handed me a Fixed Penalty Notice. Outrage! (and not just because my newfound comrades across the street didn't even bother to howl in fury - let alone surge forwards to rescue me.) Why, I demanded, had I been singled out? I wasn't alone in my symbolic protest. Had I caused a public offence? Had I incited religious hatred? How, precisely, was I any more guilty than the mask-wearing traffic-hazard across the street?
"Littering, sir," the bored cop explained. "You didn't correctly dispose of the paper after you tore it up." Bugger.
My girlfriend managed to restore just a fraction of my flustered dignity by telling the officer - while he wrote out his Fixed Penalty Notice - that the Metropolitan Police would be very very rich indeed if it had a few more officers like him, and would he mind changing his beat to West Hampstead, where the streets are covered in shit and there are absolutely no inconvenient protests whatsoever? He didn't get it.
Still - it was a fair cop. It simply annoys me that I was fined because of the context rather than the crime: at any other time a "pick it up or I'll nick you, son" would've been the limits of a watching plod's involvement. But no amount of wheedling could help me.
Curiously, as I sit here right now writing this cheque for £50 to the Metropolitan Police Service, I can't help feeling I'm somehow swelling the coffers of the Church of Scientology. Oh - not because I believe they've infiltrated the ranks of Our Brave Boys In Blue or any conspiracy nonsense like that. No, it's just that I've spent the last half hour writing a whiney blog-entry about the bastards, thereby adding one more hit to the daily Google count.
By writing all this I'm absolutely guilty of not taking my own advice, but - for the record - I beseech each of you: treat insidious cultish organisations like schoolyard bullies. If you ignore them, they might just go away.
...and you might save yourself a few quid.