Johnstown rally raises awareness of child sex trafficking

A woman holds a sign at a #saveourchildren rally held on the front lawn of Johnstown City Hall on Saturday. (Jason Subik/Staff Writer)

A woman holds a sign at a #saveourchildren rally held on the front lawn of Johnstown City Hall on Saturday. (Jason Subik/Staff Writer)

A #saveourchildren rally — not to be confused with the #savethechildren movement — was held on the front lawn of Johnstown City Hall Saturday, highlighting the problem of child sex trafficking and child molestation, while attempting to steer clear of politics.

The rally was organized by Sarahann Britt, 22, a self-described stay-at-home-mother of an infant child who lives in Johnstown. She said she became inspired to get involved in the fight to raise awareness about child trafficking while she was at home recovering from a surgery and she saw stories and images connected to a viral hashtag on illustrating the horrors of child sexual abuse.

“My daughter will be 2 in February, and I have seen pretty unimaginable things since everything has been coming to light about child trafficking,” she said. “This is serious. This is right in our backyard, and people don’t want to hear it, but this is the harsh reality we are living in.”

Britt wore a grey t-shirt with “Save the children” printed on it under the picture of an adult handprint with a child’s handprint inside of it. Britt said printing “Save the Children” onto the t-shirt was a mistake made by her aunt prior to the event, and there wasn’t enough time to change it. She handed out #saveourchildren wristbands to people attending the rally.

“I try to stick with #saveourchildren because #savethechildren is funded by people that I strongly believe are behind it, same belief as many others … ” she said.

Over the last several months rallies linked to followers of the online right-wing conspiracy group QAnon have been held around the country to promote the #savethechildren fundraising campaign of the nonprofit Save the Children charity, a respected international nonprofit organization.

A story published by the New York Times Aug. 12 showed that human trafficking-related content has surged on Facebook, with interactions with the #savethechildren hashtag increasing by more than 500 percent since early July.

QAnon has promoted conspiracy theories involving hollywood elites and Democratic Party politicians like Hillary Clinton, who they claim rape and cannibalize children for “life extending chemicals,” among other theories.

The New York Times and the fact checking website have reported Facebook temporarily blocked the #savethechildren hashtag from showing up in searches of posts on the site on Aug.5 after the social media company determined the hashtag was being inundated with pro-QAnon conspiracy theory content.

The nonprofit Save Our Children Inc. is a group founded in the U.S. by religious conservatives originally created in opposition to the gay rights movement, but Britt said her rally isn’t affiliated with that group either.

“That may have been [where it] started, but that’s not where it is now,” she said. “I did not base this off of that in any way.”

The #saveourchildren rally Saturday was promoted by the Fulton County Area News Facebook page and its operator Ryan Lorey.

“He really helped me get everything together. He helped me organize this whole thing, because I’m new to this,” he said.

Britt said Lorey offered to help her after she had attempted to promote the event on her own via the Fulton-Montgomery County Virtual garage sale Facebook page, but her post kept getting pulled down with warnings stating “This listing goes against our rules for selling on Facebook.” She sent the Daily Gazette/Amsterdam Recorder cell phone screenshots of what she said were the Facebook warnings. She also said a meme she attempted to share onto her Facebook account stating “Facebook protects pedophilia and human trafficking yet silences those fighting against it. We will not retreat or surrender” could not be uploaded to the social media platform, and she provided a screenshot of what appears to be a warning from Facebook stating the content could not be uploaded.

Lorey said Facebook did not pull down his promotion of the event, and he’s not sure why it would pull down other similar content. He said he has no knowledge of the QAnon conspiracy being involved in the rally.

“I don’t have the answers, all I can say is it’s a mysterious world, and there’s a lot of questions out there,” he said.

Approximately 40 people, many of them displaying signs, some with pictures of missing children and some with slogans like “People don’t ‘just’ Disappear!?”, “End Human Trafficking, Here, Everywhere,” and “protect! Heal! Save!”

One sign stating “People shouldn’t be sold like Pizza Slices! Especially Children!” appeared to allude to the QAnon “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory circulated during the 2016 election alleging Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were involved in a child sex ring run out of a Washington D.C. pizzeria. The conspiracy led to harassment of pizza restaurants, including one incident when Edgar M. Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, on Dec. 4, 2016 fired three shots from a rifle into a pizza restaurant. He ultimately pleaded guilty to interstate transport of firearms and was sentenced to prison for four years.

The event in Johnstown Saturday featured a prayer from Josh Wrabel, senior pastor of Love City Church and a speech from Mayfield Mayor Jamie Ward. Ward works as a cybersecurity solutions manager at a company called the “Center for Internet Security.” He offered tips to parents for preventing potential online sexual recruitment of children, including advising them to download apps for mobile internet devices that allow them to remotely monitor their children’s location and internet use.

“Having access to your children’s devices is huge for parents, and for law enforcement,” he said. “Sometimes children will be discreet and use like an old phone, and with these new apps — like Tiktok or WhatsApp or WeChat — can have encrypted disappearing messages that you can’t get access to. A subpoena won’t help you with those apps, especially ones based in offshore countries like China or Russia.”

No uniformed members of law enforcement attended the #saveourchildren event and none appeared to monitor it, a stark contrast from when the Black Lives Matter rally was held in front of Johnstown City Hall in June. During the BLM event a strong police presence monitored all of the approximately 300 people in attendance.

During the #saveourchildren event members of the “Bikers Against Child Abuse” organization attended and handed out pamphlets. A member of the group said he goes by the code name “I Lean” and the members of the biker organization do not reveal their identities, but offer support to the vicitims of child sex abuse, sometimes appearing with them in court situations.

Ward attempted to keep the event focused on child sex trafficking and sited statistics he said he found on the internet showing the No. 1 state in the U.S. for sex trafficking complaints is California, followed by Texas, Nevada and then New York state.

“What do all of those four states have in common? And this is not political, I know we have members from both sides of the media here today, this is not political,” Ward said. “What do they all have in common?”

“Are we allowed to say Democrats?”, one woman with a sign asked.

“No — it doesn’t — yeah, Republicans or Democrats I don’t care, my mother is a diehard Democrat and my family is mixed in its views of politics — this is not political, but it was made political,” he said responding to the woman. “This is about saving lives. All four of those states are border states. New York with Canada, or those other states with Mexico. At the border, whether it’s a Mexican drug cartel using it for their own gain or a creepy individual, it’s easier to put someone into their vehicle and take it over the border where it’ll be a lot less obvious for these things to occur.”

Eric Perkins, a Johnstown resident, read a series of personal stories of sexual abuse written by several people attending the rally, including one woman who said she was sexually molested as a child and would later experience the trauma of knowing her children had been sexually molested by her stepfather.

Britt said she was traumatized when she was 13 years old and the incident led to anxiety, depression and self abuse. She said she wants people to know that sexual abuse of children is more common than people realize, and must be exposed.

“People need to understand this isn’t about conspiracy, this is about the truth and saving people from it,” she said. “These monsters do not care how old you are, your race, all they see is a price tag and vulnerability.”

Britt said she is not a follower of the QAnon conspiracy, although she agrees with some of their theories, including the one alleging the Save the Children Charity is suspect because of donations it has received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gates, a frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theories, has been shown by reporting in an Oct. 12 New York Times article to have met with high- profile convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein on multiple occasions; Epstein died in federal prison on Aug. 10, 2019. The Times article showed Epstein had meetings with Gates in New York City starting in 2011, which was after Epstein had been convicted of soliciting sex from a minor.

Britt said she is a supporter of President Trump, but she was disturbed when Trump issued multiple public statements of support for Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell who was arrested in New Hampshire in July and charged with enticement of minors, sex trafficking of children, and perjury.

“I just wish her well, frankly,” Trump said to reporters when asked about Maxwell.

Trump was friends with Epstein and Maxwell and was known to socialize with both, appearing in numerous photos together, which have circulated widely throughout the internet.

“I think that’s total crap,” Britt said. “I don’t think he should be defending someone who was knowingly with a pedophile, knowing what that person is doing and has done. I like Trump yes, but is Trump right on everything? No, no one is.”

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