Our man Rod Keller keeps his mindful watch on Scientology’s social media presence, and that’s once again netted him a dynamite story…
In July, Tampa minister Savanna Hartman became Internet famous when her Facebook video, apologizing through tears for her “white privilege,” went viral. It’s now been seen more than 17 million times.
She was reacting to the disturbing death of a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In video of the incident, two white Baton Rouge policemen can be seen holding Sterling down as they were trying to arrest him. They were responding to a report that a man had been selling CDs on the street and had pulled a gun on someone. In the video, one of the officers trying to hold Sterling down yells that he’s going for his gun, and the other officer shoots Sterling multiple times from just three feet away.
Several onlookers recorded the shooting, which sparked protests in Baton Rouge and other American cities. At a July 7 protest in Dallas, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed, shot, and killed five police officers before being killed himself by police with a robot controlled bomb.
Reacting to the racial tensions that were boiling over, Hartman recorded herself reciting her poem.
I wasn’t born rich, but don’t get it twisted.
See how I look? My white skin is my privilege.
I don’t get watched when I go to the mall.
If I get stopped for a ticket it doesn’t end in a brawl.
I don’t know what it’s like to go out for snacks
And end up lying dead on my back
My car’s never been watched or followed around
My kids don’t play in parks and then get gunned down
Hartman’s video got her a profile on CNN, a book deal, and a large following online. She’s also started a new Christian church in Tampa called Banner Church.
We noticed that Hartman has been invited to speak at a human rights walk in the Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City on December 4. The event is being sponsored by a Scientology front group, Youth for Human Rights.
Ybor City was founded as a cigar manufacturing center in the 1880s. With the decline of that industry the former factories have been converted to restaurants, bars, art galleries and hotels. In 2011 Scientology renovated and re-opened the Ybor Square building as the Tampa Ideal Org.
Curious about Hartman’s involvement in a Scientology event, I called her up to ask her about it.
“I travel and I speak about social justice and human rights and Christ’s plan for us,” she said. “Gracia Bennish reached out to me to ask if I would do a special spoken word address” reciting her poem at the Scientology event.
Gracia Bennish is the President of Youth for Human Rights Florida, charged with implementing the L. Ron Hubbard policy “The Safe Point,” in which prominent citizens, or “opinion leaders” are recruited as allies to create a safe space for Scientology expansion.
Bennish recruits Opinion Leaders to serve as Scientology allies across Florida, and is seen in the photo below with Ana Maria Pineres, Executive Director for the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce…
…and with Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard:
I asked Hartman if she had ever heard of alleged human rights abuses by the Church of Scientology, such as the policy of coercing abortions in the Sea Org, the prison camp at Gold Base and The Hole, and the practice of Disconnection from family members who have left the Church. “No, I have not. I did hear about Disconnection. But from my understanding, [Youth for Human Rights] is funded by the Church but they are not an affiliate of the Church.
“I was told that the only member of the Church who is speaking at all is the President of the Tampa Church,” Hartman said. “I would like to read more about the things you mentioned [about human rights violations]. That’s very interesting to me.”
I also spoke with another invited speaker, Rev. Manuel Sykes, who is the former President of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP and pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church. He says his address will focus on “Uniting a divided country based on our common humanity. We have to get in touch with the fact that we all bleed red blood. We all have hopes and desires, and we should all have a heart for the poor. I believe in America we have too much for some people to have so little. I want to encourage the audience to recognize and be motivated to promote the rights of others.”
Rev. Sykes is well acquainted with the Church of Scientology. “I’ve been working on and off with them for the past several years. I’ve spoken there several times, and I was given the President Obama award there for community service. We held our church’s 93rd anniversary banquet at their facility. I attended a Juneteenth celebration there, and Pat Harney has been very hospitable, and I consider her a friend.”
Pat Harney (center in the photo below) is a member of Scientology’s secret police – the Office of Special Affairs, and works in a variety of public relations roles.
It’s her job to safe point local Opinion Leaders. In this next photo she’s seen receiving the key to the city of North Miami Beach and a proclamation from Councilman John Patrick Julien and Florida House member Daphne D. Campbell for Scientology’s relief efforts in Haiti.
The award Rev. Sykes mentions is the President’s Volunteer Service Award, named after President Obama, and Scientology is one of a number of Certifying Organizations empowered to bestow the award to community leaders. The association of President Obama with Scientology is an important public relations tool for the church in dealing with historically black churches.
Rev. Sykes’ involvement in Youth for Human Rights is recent. “I met Gracia [Bennish] about a year ago through a friend of mine. She allowed me to use excerpts of the materials on peace in my school. And when this opportunity came up to participate in an event, I jumped at it, it’s right down my alley.” Rev. Sykes has announced plans to retire from being a pastor at Bethel Church, although he plans to remain active in promoting civil and human rights.
Since we spoke, Savanna Hartman has been researching allegations of human rights abuses by Scientology. I received an email from her stating, “I will no longer be speaking at the human rights walk. I wanted you to know so you could update that in the article.” I responded that it was not my intention to pressure her to cancel, and she assured me I had not. “Oh, no worries. You didn’t. My decision was my own. I am looking forward to looking into it.”
— Rod Keller
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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield