Scientologists Ask City To Block Picketing

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: December 1, 1997

Saying it fears violence from a group of protesters, the Church of Scientology is asking city officials to close the sidewalks in front of its downtown headquarters this week.

Police Chief Sid Klein rejected the request and has offered to seek a compromise, but the church is appealing Klein's decision to City Manager Mike Roberto.

The protesters, meanwhile, say they are the ones who should be fearful. They cited the tactics of an estimated 200 Scientologists who surrounded and taunted them at a similar event in March.

The protesters, expected to number 20 to 30, say they are planning two non-violent demonstrations to mark the second anniversary this week of the death of Lisa McPherson.

McPherson was a 36-year-old Scientologist who was physically healthy when she entered the church's Fort Harrison Hotel on Nov. 18, 1995, to recover from psychological problems. Seventeen days later, gaunt, bruised and dehydrated, she was driven by church staffers to a Pasco County hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Clearwater police are expected this month to conclude a two-year investigation into whether criminal charges are warranted in McPherson's death.

The protesters announced their plans to picket the Scientology building in August and applied for a city special events permit in October. The city granted the permit for a candlelight vigil Friday in front of the Fort Harrison and a street picket Saturday that will begin in front of the hotel.

The church, meanwhile, scheduled the opening of its annual Winter Wonderland holiday display for Friday evening, coinciding with the protest. Winter Wonderland is on a vacant parcel across the street from the Fort Harrison.

Ben Shaw, a director of the church's Clearwater operations, appealed to Roberto in a letter last week, calling the protesters "violence-prone demonstrators" who "present a clear danger to the children and families who enjoy and participate in Winter Wonderland."

Klein said in an interview that the church raised its concerns well after the protesters received their city permit. He said he told church officials they could eliminate any problem by opening Winter Wonderland later in the month, as they have done in past years.

Shaw called Klein's decision "outrageous." He said there were other locations near the headquarters the demonstrators could use.

He also argued that the rights of residents who participate in Winter Wonderland were more important than "the rights of radicals imported from around the country who pose a threat of violence."

The protesters are a group of Scientology critics from around the country who communicate on the Internet. Some oppose the church's practices and the tactics it takes against critics. Others base their opposition on what they say is an effort by the church to censor what is said about Scientology on the Internet.

In his letter, Shaw used some of the protesters' Internet messages as evidence that they "have histories of promoting violence against Scientologists."

He cited one message from Tampa resident Mark Dallara, which said: "Somebody walked into the Scientology Celebrity Center in downtown Clearwater and opened fire. They didn't give details yet, since ABC national news is still on. . . ."

Shaw characterized the message as "a parody of a terrorist attack on the church."

Dallara, who plans to join the protest this weekend, said in an interview it wasn't a parody. He said he sent the message moments after seeing a television news bulletin on a shooting at a Scientology building. He said he caught only the end of the report and thought the shooting was in Clearwater, but later discovered it was in Oregon.

The incident, in which four Scientologists were wounded, happened in September 1996.

Shaw also cited another 1996 incident in his letter to Roberto. He said someone fired a shot at a church door in Phoenix the day before a picket by Scientology critic Lisa McPherson Memorial Page is one of the best Scientology resources on the net.">Jeff Jacobsen.

Jacobsen said in an interview there is no connection between his protest and the shooting. He is a primary organizer of this week's demonstration in Clearwater.

"As you can see," Shaw wrote, "this is not an idle security concern; it is real."

Roberto said he planned to make a decision on Shaw's request by today.

"This is nothing but false martyrdom," Dallara said of the church's attempt to close the sidewalks. "And they're looking for an excuse to stop the picket because they have no other way to do so."

Jacobsen said Scientologists, not the protesters, "are the violent people during these pickets."

He cited the Clearwater demonstration in March where a small group of protesters was hounded by dozens of Scientologists. He also said a Scientologist spray-painted the sign of a lone protester in Los Angeles recently.

Klein said he has asked the church not to mount a counterdemonstration this time. "I told them that without counterdemonstrators it won't be a media event."

Church spokesman Brian Anderson said the church has no plans to counter the picket. In a statement, he also made reference to several holiday events that have been sponsored by Scientology or its members. One of them is the Saturday opening of the downtown Clearwater stretch of the Pinellas Trail, which coincides with the picket.

Anderson said the protesters will "disrupt the cooperative efforts of the community to help those in need and create a bright holiday spirit. The only reason they come here is because they know the media, particularly the St. Petersburg Times, will give them a forum to vent their hatred."

Jacobsen said the protesters' only motive was to mark the Friday anniversary of Lisa McPherson's death.

"We didn't choose when Lisa would die," he said.