KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At first glance, a rally calling for an end to human trafficking sounds innocuous enough.
But experts are warning that many of these so-called “Save Our Children” rallies, including at least three planned in the Kansas City area, are actually linked to an extremist conspiracy group.
QAnon has ricocheted around the darker corners of the internet since late 2017, but has been creeping into mainstream politics more and more.
The baseless theory centers on an alleged anonymous, high-ranking government official known as “Q” who shares information about an anti-Trump “deep state” often tied to satanism and child sex trafficking.
Of course, no cannibalistic child sex trafficking ring involving celebrities has been taken down by the Trump Administration.
That hasn’t stopped the movement from gaining popularity. This week, President Donald Trump, for the first time, addressed the conspiracy group, which the FBI considers a domestic terror threat.
Speaking during a press conference at the White House, Trump courted the support of those who put stock in the conspiracy theory, saying, “I heard that these are people that love our country.”
Trump insisted he hadn’t heard much about the movement, “other than I understand they like me very much” and “it is gaining in popularity.”
Julian Feeld, the co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, has covered the phenomenon since its inception. He said the group has been attracting new members.
“They essentially are a new wave of QAnoners, coming from diverse backgrounds, kind of new age thinking or broader spiritual thinking and these are the people that are currently organizing some of these rallies,” he said.
At the time of this publication, there are at least three rallies linked to the #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren movement planned in Kansas City.
Save The Children, a non-profit based in London, that works to improve the lives of children around the world, issued a statement saying they were not involved with the hashtag.
When FOX4 reached out to the organizer of one of these rallies, a 20-year-old woman named Alexis, she started talking about a mysterious celebrity pedophile ring on the phone.
During a virtual interview, however, she demurred.
“Um, I mean, I have my personal beliefs and so does everybody in the group. We’re not all united on one belief, so I’m not necessarily going to speak on that, but I know that our group isn’t — we just don’t have a label on our group,” she said.
“There is probably people in our group who do believe certain things and are part of the QAnon, but that’s not what I believe and that’s not why we started the group.”
Feeld isn’t convinced.
“I feel pretty confident that any kind of Save the Children organizing that’s happening in these months currently is related to the resurgence of interest in QAnon and Pizzagate.”
Pizzagate refers to a debunked conspiracy that led to real-world violence. A North Carolina man drove to a Washington D.C. pizzeria and fired gunshots because he believed children were being sex trafficked in the non-existent basement of the building. He’s now in prison.
Facebook pages dedicated to the rallies scheduled in Kansas City are awash in QAnon language.
“#SaveOurChildren #Pizzagate,” reads one. Other accounts refer to QAnon directly and uses the hashtag “#EpsteinDidntKillHimself” in the description.
People who work with organizations that combat human trafficking in the metro said they’re concerned that false information will hurt the cause.
“It is concerning being a boots-to-the-ground organization that things are being distorted and miscommunicated,” said Roxie Lloyd, the director of programs and services at Restoration House KC.
Restoration House provides housing and faith-based programs for women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking.
“We get referral requests for beds for restoration opportunities every day, sometimes more than one,” Restoration House President Rodney Hammer said.
“There’s always different motivations for why people go about something. I can’t say I know QAnon’s motivations,” he continued. “I can say if the issue of human trafficking is gaining more attention, more awareness, in general that’s a good thing. We would certainly not encourage anyone to co-opt a serious issue like this for political or other gain.”
It’s a message shared by Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, who sits on the Missouri Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force.
“It doesn’t help anybody get help when we focus on these kind of wild, outlandish accusations because it’s a lot more mundane than what people would think,” he said.
To start with, the prevalence of labor trafficking likely outpaces sex trafficking, according to the Polaris Project.
“We often talk about human sex trafficking, which is a real problem, but human labor trafficking occurs as well when people are just tossed out there for labor purposes without being paid appropriate wages,” Zahnd said.
When it comes to sex trafficking, victims are often tricked into the situation by people they know or people they meet online.
“Often times, when people are trafficked, they’re trafficked by somebody who we would expect to be a trusted adult. Sometimes it’s a parent. Sometimes, it’s somebody else that this person has met,” Zahnd said.
“Often times, the way it starts is with a young person meeting somebody via the internet. And the victims of human trafficking often are adolescent girls or boys who, like many adolescents, are trying to find their way in life and trying to find somebody who appears to appreciate them and like them and want them to be a part of their lives,” he said.
“And then sadly, many of these people fall into the clutches of somebody who doesn’t have their best interests in mind, but wants to exploit them.”
Sex traffickers rarely kidnap their victims. Zahnd, who has been a prosecutor for over two decades, said he’s never prosecuted a case where the victim and the trafficker didn’t have some form of prior contact.
“I will tell you that I have never worked a case like that. I’m not going to tell you they don’t happen. They do occur, but they are extremely rare,” he said.
Both Zahnd and the advocates at Restoration House said that people who are concerned about combating human trafficking should get involved with reputable organizations in their communities.
“What we would encourage people to do is to become aware of the real needs and issues of human trafficking and then seek to make a difference in their community by supporting organizations that have been around that are addressing the needs of survivors and victims, the needs for stronger legislation, the needs to do prevention and awareness education,” Hammer said.
“That’s where we would want to focus people’s attention.”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
You can find information on how to donate or volunteer at Restoration House here.
You can find information and resources from the Missouri Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force here.
You can find information on trafficking from the Polaris Project here.