Unusual Collaboration Grows Between Scientologists and Nation of Islam Amid Turmoil In Ferguson
The anti-violence initiative Stop the Killing has been wildly popular among street demonstrations in Ferguson since the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer on August 9.
The campaign’s simple message with a design of purple hands held aloft, hearts on each palm, has seemed almost tailor-made to fit the protests of Ferguson's most popular chant “hands up, don’t shoot!” The chant stems from witness accounts that Brown’s hands were up when he was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson last month.
The initiative, however, started three years before Brown’s death and, according to Kevin Bryant, who designed the anti-violence campaign with his company Conversions Global Marketing, it means something different now.
As Bryant explains, the Nation of Islam initially commissioned the campaign to target urban violence among young black males. “It doesn’t necessarily point to gang violence as it did then,” he said. “Instead, it’s kind of a one size fits all. So, now if you holding up a sign that says, ‘stop the killing,’ it kind of sounds like police violence.”
As the message has come to be associated with Brown’s killing over the past seven weeks, Bryant says demand for Stop the Killing materials has increased one hundred-fold.
“It was just dumb luck,” he said. “Using the symbol of the hand with the heart that it just stopped you and grabbed your attention. Now it applies to the hands-up thing and that’s just cosmic coincidence.”
Though founded by the Nation of Islam, Stop the Killing is supported by a coalition of local groups including Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori Catholic Church, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and St. John United Church of Christ.
The Way to Happiness
In Ferguson, the message has been distributed most widely by a group sponsored by The Church of Scientology called The Way to Happiness.
When Bryant created the Stop the Killing campaign, “the Church of Scientology grabbed hold of it,” he said, “and [said], ‘Hey look, we want to help you all spread this message.'”
The Way to Happiness is a list of moral codes written by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Its content is rather non-controversial, comprising 21 generally accepted principles such as: be temperate, do not murder and respect the religious beliefs of others.
Roughly 20,000 of The Way to Happiness booklets, printed with the Stop the Killing design on their covers, have been distributed around Ferguson since last month, said Barry Coziahr, CEO of Response! Targeted Marketing, who has spearheaded effort.
While The Way to Happiness program is supported by the Church of Scientology and individual Scientologists, the outreach effort is not intended to promote the church, said Coziahr.
“This book, regardless of the author, is a message that doesn’t belong to any religion. It’s just a universal message. It’s based on what the society knows is right,” he said.
The distinction, said Coziaihr, is similar to Noah Webster’s dictionary, a secular text authored by a devout Christian and intended to benefit society at large.
“Like the YMCA. I’ve never once gone to the YMCA and had somebody try and turn me into a Christian, but I have gone there to play racquet ball,” said Coziahr, who has been a Scientologist for 27 years.
A representative for the Church of Scientology’s International Center in Los Angeles confirmed that “the Way to Happiness Foundation in St. Louis has been quite active in distributing the book in St. Louis and in Ferguson,” but also emphasized the effort “embraces a respect for and tolerance of the religious beliefs of all people.”
The representative did not respond to questions regarding how much the effort has increased interest or membership in the Church of Scientology from the community. It is also unclear how much the outreach is part of a broader effort to reach black communities in the U.S.
But, as Kevin Bryant sees it, the program’s outreach in Ferguson is part of a new push to reach more diverse groups.
“The Church of Scientology had been trying to court the black community for a while in terms of recruiting members. I don’t think they’re going to have a great deal of success because I don’t see black people giving up Jesus.”
He said, however, it has been making inroads with the Nation of Islam. Since 2010, Minister Louis Farrakhan has strongly encouraged members to study Dianetics. The Nation currently claims it has trained more than a thousand auditors, or personal spiritual counselors, in Scientology.
According to Minister Donald Muhammad of local Mosque 28 on West Florissant Ave., that includes 30 auditors in the St. Louis area.
“Actually, we have here at Muhammad’s Mosque become auditors in the field of Dianetics. In other words, we provide therapy on each other through the process of auditing,” said Muhammad.
He said Scientology offers a framework that helps members better realize their spiritual potential without compromising their beliefs.
“In the Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed, he said ‘go and get knowledge even if it’s as far as China,’ so we are very open to knowledge, very open to knowledge, wherever you find it, as long as it is true.”
Although the anti-violence campaign has brought the different groups together in Ferguson, there is some divergence when it comes to seeking recourse for Brown’s death.
Muhammad’s Mosque and the Stop the Killing effort are both part of the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition, which has laid out five demands related to the official handling of Brown’s killing.
Those include firing and arresting Officer Wilson, removing St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch from the case, and having the mayor and police chief of Ferguson step down.
Coziahr's approach to helping resolve the conflicts surrounding Brown’s death, however, is more measured and does not include the coalition’s specific demands.
“We need to find out what the truth is and then act accordingly,” he said. “I’m not an expert and certainly not the court that’s going to hear this [case],” Coziahr said.
The unrest in Ferguson has drawn greater support for a number of St. Louis-area anti-violence campaigns.
Better Family Life’s Put Down the Pistol program has also seen a surge in volunteers and donations, said James Clark, the Vice President for Community Outreach.
He said he welcomes the renewed interest in addressing violence in North St. Louis and North St. Louis County, but acknowledged some of the limitations associated with the Stop the Killing initiative.
“I agree with [raising] that level of public awareness, but public awareness has got to transfer into resource delivery. It’s got to transfer into providing someone the necessary tools not to be violent.”
Bryant is quick not to oversell the scope of their efforts in Ferguson and agrees the campaign alone is no panacea, but an important first step in acknowledging the deep-rooted social inequities that have fueled the protests.
The Stop the Killing initiative relies on donations, which Brant said all go toward the printing and distribution of more marketing materials.
“It’s just an ad campaign the same way that the Ad Council creates Smokey the Bear, or Woodsy Owl,” said Bryant. “You have to create something that does not marginalize the message.”