Laura Flynn remembers the first time she met a Scientologist. Living in Clearwater -- also known as Flag Land Base or Mecca by L. Ron Hubbard's acolytes -- she had unknowingly come into contact with them countless times. The 56-year-old, who describes herself as "good country people," didn't ask questions, though. It didn't matter to her or her husband what people did when they walked into the church's buildings downtown. It was like the don't-ask, don't-tell policy of cult membership.
But after 1993, she couldn't ignore the organization's influence on her fellow Clearwater residents any longer. Although she's retired now, Flynn used to work as a floral designer. One day she saw her then-boss huddled in the corner, drinking a Coca-Cola she'd pilfered from a coworker.
"She was shaking like a leaf, just trying to get some nourishment in there," Flynn remembers. "She begged me not to tell anyone."
Flynn later learned that the fast was part of a Scientology-related cleanse called the Purification Rundown. She thought it was strange, sure, but she still felt distanced from whatever happened within the four walls of Scientology headquarters.
That's until her husband brought it home. Dallas, a six-foot-four, 300-pound teddy bear of a man, was contracted to do some electrical work at that very building. She says Dallas would relay tales of 15-year-olds being forced to work as day laborers there and recount how elder Scientologists would just curse and scream at them all day long.
"One day he came home, took off his boots, and was at the brink of tears," Flynn says. "He kept talking about the kids there and wondering how they'll ever be OK."
It was 2007, a few months before a church-produced interview with Tom Cruise leaked on YouTube, and they infamously tried to censor it. In response to the attempted censorship, Anonymous founded Project Chanology, a multiday protest of Scientology that now happens every year in Clearwater and plenty of other cities around the world.
Anonymous is -- as its name suggests -- leaderless. (And it's also made up mostly of users of sites like imageboard 4Chan and forums like Something Awful.) But when it comes to Flag Down, the latest incarnation of Project Chanology, an unlikely spokeswoman has emerged. It's Laura Flynn, the retired floral designer who calls the online troublemakers "Channers" and "whippersnappers."
"I'm this old woman, and it's hilarious to be part of such a young movement," she says. "This is like a full-time thing for me now."
She attended the first-ever Project Chanology as a participant. In 2010, 4Chan founder Christopher Poole gave a TED talk called "The Case for Anonymity Online" in which he showed a photo of Flynn underneath a Guy Fawkes mask. She became a celebrity to her nieces and nephews.
In 2011, the group's two former leaders quit over a fight regarding a girl. Flynn reluctantly stepped up with two other organizers. The other two have since left, and now she runs things with two other organizers. She couldn't do it alone -- it would be too big of a target to put on her back, she says.
This is a position Flynn takes very seriously. Since she's stepped up to a more visible position within the protest, she's been both jailed and sent cease-and-desist letters by the church, she says. But it's also been fun. At one point, 4Chan gave Flynn her own page on Encyclopedia Dramatica, the Wiki site for the subculture's memes and in-jokes. Although ED pages are typically vulgar to the extreme, Flynn says that hers was actually nice and that she asked people to make it grosser so she would be part of the club.
"They added some naked pictures of old women and put my name on it," she says.
Flag Down 2014 begins on Monday, May 5. It extends for five days and features a talk by John Sweeney, an Emmy-winning journalist and author of Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology. Defectors from the church and its paramilitary wing, the Sea Org, will also be sharing their stories.
It's the Sea Org that particularly incenses Flynn. Scientologists who want to join sign a symbolic billion-year contract, and Sea Org members are reportedly as young as 14. They work for almost nothing, seven days a week, and are cut off from the rest of the world.
"If you're an adult and you don't have enough balls to walk away, I can't help you," Flynn says. "But when you've been duped and can't get out due to brainwashing techniques, that's not right. It's happening in our backyard, and it's gotta stop."
Send your story tips to the author, Allie Conti.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti
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