Four freaky souls with an apparent vendetta against the Berkeley-based Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) donned V for Vendetta-style Guy Fawkes masks as they blockaded the entrance to a retreat venue the group was using for an alumni weekend on Friday.
This all happened in the woods of Occidental, at the Westminster Woods camp on Bohemian Highway. And much like protesters of yore used to picket the entrance of nearby Bohemian Grove during its annual summer gathering of powerful men and politicians, these protesters seemed to have vague ideas about the evils about the seven-year-old CFAR's larger intents in the world.
As the Chronicle reports, via Sonoma County Sheriff's spokesperson Misti Wood, four individuals were arrested on suspicion of false imprisonment, conspiracy, and felony child endangerment, as well as wearing a mask while committing a crime and trespassing (both misdemeanors). Two of those people had no known addresses, and appeared to be transients. The four suspects are 28-year-old Jack Lasota of Berkeley; 28-year-old Emma Borhanian of Albany; 25-year-old Gwen Danielson; and 24-year-old Alexander Leatham. Wood said that the group spoke incoherently when they were being detained, and deputies had to use fingerprints in trying to identify them.
The Center for Applied Rationality is a non-profit organization that hosts expensive workshops with the mission of teaching people to train their minds like a computer — or like artificial-intelligence software — in order to better deal with life's problems and one's own bad habits (or "bugs," as they call them here). Vice profiled the group in 2016, discussing their unique approach to workshop-based self-help, which seems to have its roots in both AI science and cognitive behavioral therapy. They also touch on futurist issues, and they have talks about what they call "x-risks," or existential risks facing the planet, including those posed by AI.
At Westminster Woods over the weekend, CFAR was hosting an alumni weekend retreat for its devotees, which included previous workshop attendees along with their families. And as the Chronicle reports, some of the drama on Friday with the arrested protesters was that they arrived in these scary-looking masks, hooded robes, and black rubber gloves just as a bunch of kids were out on the grounds on a ropes course. A rumor went out that one of the individuals had a gun, but no weapon was found. The group was nonetheless difficult to detain, and were reportedly shouting profanities at officers and being unruly.
Sheriff's deputies found a protest plan and a flyer with some kind of manifesto on it, but the reason for blockading the venue with three vehicles (including a box truck and a shuttle bus) were unclear. The flyer said, in part, "CFAR does not do remotely what they claim to do on their website: they do not appreciably develop novel rationality/mental tech. CFAR’s founding premise (that people were blocked in having the tools to think) was falsified long ago."
CFAR organizers say that two of the arrested individuals were known to them, and had been told in the past not to come to their events. Do they think of themselves as part of the Anonymous hacker collective that also is fond of these masks? That's unclear.
Writing on Facebook Saturday, organizer Adam Scholl explained what happened, saying the individuals were protesting "for reasons we don’t fully comprehend," and in the end the action appeared to be "aggressive but non-violent protest theatre." He informed alumni who were planning to attend that it was "totally reasonable" if they chose not to attend after the drama of Friday — in which some 50 people had to be evacuated to another venue for the remainder of the day — but the retreat was resuming as planned on Saturday.
One of the four people arrested, Borhanian, was released on $50,000 bail on Saturday, while the other three remained in jail. Those three were expected to appear in court Tuesday, while Borhanian is expected at a hearing on November 25, according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.
As for calling in a SWAT team and shutting down four miles of highway, helicopter patrol and all, the Sheriff's Department just says it was being cautious. "We were taking the most precautions possible because this can be really dangerous when you’re dealing with people who are hiding their identities," Wood says.
Photo: Luther Bottrill