Scientologists crash protesters' line

[Tampa Tribune 9 March 1997]

3/30/97 -- 1:32 PM

Scientologists crash protesters' line CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune

Published in The Tampa Tribune March 9, 1997

CLEARWATER - About 30 demonstrators protested the Church of Scientology on Saturday, drawing about 300 Scientologists who protested the picketers.

There were no reports of violence, but the accusations and verbal exchanges were intense. Scientologists accused their critics of being child molesters, ``druggies,'' pornography dealers and criminals.

The church critics accused Scientology of responsibility in the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

For every protester toting a sign critical of Scientology, at least a half-dozen Scientologists crowded around with signs of their own, at times bottlenecking the sidewalks in front of the church's world spiritual headquarters, the former Fort Harrison Hotel.

In some cases, Scientologists tried to block the signs of the protesters with their signs.

``Do you mind moving your sign out of my face?'' demanded a church critic to a Scientologist who had blocked his way. ``Move your face,'' she responded.

A church critic yelled out ``Scientology can't stand free speech!'' A Scientologist responded: ``It's our free speech, too, buddy!''

Church critics carried signs that read: ``Lisa McPherson's Blood On Scientologists' Hands,'' ``Welcome To The Ft. Homicide Hotel,'' ``Jonestown Was A `Church' Too,'' ``How Many More Will Die, Scions?,'' ``Clear Today, Gone Tomorrow'' and ``Scientology Killed Lisa.''

One critic waved to passing traffic wearing an ``alien'' mask and bright blue suit with the label ``Xenu'' across the chest. Church critics say Xenu is, in Scientology lore, an extraterrestrial ruler who massacred millions of his people 75 million years ago. Scientologists carried signs that read: ``Bigots Go Home,'' ``Clearwater Police - Go After The Druggies,'' ``Druggies Stay Out Of Clearwater,'' ``Stop Crime Not Religion,'' ``Jeff Jacobsen, Porno King'' and ``No More Hate Crimes.'' Jacobsen is an Arizona activist who organized the protest.

McPherson's family in Dallas issued a statement supporting Jacobsen's group.

``We wish to take this opportunity to express our sincere thanks for your worldwide support and kindness which we have received as we continue to cope with the tragic and preventable death of Lisa.''

Her family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the church. Police are investigating McPherson's death.

During the protest, the church held an ``Anti-Drug Awareness Day'' in the vacant lot across the street from the Fort Harrison. Children played on jungle gyms and made puppets and anti-drug posters while a band performed such tunes as ``Somewhere Over the Rainbow.''

Scientologists at the event were critical of the protesters.

``These people are a bunch of slime that crawled out from under a rock and are exploiting Lisa's name to forward an agenda of bigotry,'' said Brenda Hubert, a Scientologist who said she was a friend of McPherson's for 16 years. She praised the church as caring.

``To remotely think anyone would have done anything to harm her is an outrageous lie,'' Hubert said.

Scientologist Greg Barnes, who said he was a friend of McPherson's for 18 years, said her death at 36 has been blown ``out of proportion.''

``How many people die every day and have an autopsy?'' he asked. ``And then to have this carried on like it's something weird.''

An autopsy determined that McPherson, who spent the last 17 days of her life at the Fort Harrison, died of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed rest.''

Her thin body was bruised. Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood determined that bites on her hands were probably from cockroaches and that she was comatose for the last 24 to 48 hours of her life. Wood said McPherson went without fluids for at least five to 10 days and possibly for her entire stay at the hotel.

Church officials have called Wood a liar and say McPherson was well cared for. They say she suddenly fell ill on Dec. 5, 1995, and died later that evening.

``I think she got sick and she died,'' said Bennetta Slaughter, a Scientologist who said she was McPherson's friend and supervisor at AMC Publishing. ``There's nothing else there. She would be appalled by this. She would not want to have her name used to trash her church.''

Jacobsen said that, since McPherson is dead, it's impossible to know what she would think.

``If she had survived her ordeal, I think I know which side she would be on, and I don't think it's the church's side,'' Jacobsen said.

As for the accusations about the character of the protesters, Jacobsen said Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard taught his followers to discredit critics.

``The idea is to smear the reputation of the person bringing the bad news about Scientology,'' Jacobsen said.

At nightfall, the protesters held a candlelight vigil in McPherson's name.

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