Photo: (Adam Ferman/for The Daily News)
A “Save Our Children” protest formed around downtown Midland on Saturday afternoon to raise awareness of child abuse and human trafficking.
The protest was organized by a group of residents who created a “SaveOurChildren” private Facebook group, including Midland resident Hunter Pruitt. The group was created on July 26 and has attracted over 12,000 members Saturday.
Pruitt said they wanted to raise awareness of the issue of child abuse as well as advocate for harsher punishment for offenders and pedophiles, specifically longer jail sentences. He said many sentences aren’t justice enough for children who were abused and have to cope with the trauma their entire lives.
“Our children are our future and if we can’t protect them then we are not protecting the future,” Pruitt said.
Another protester and Windover High School senior, April Davila, said human trafficking is a serious problem that doesn’t get enough attention.
“Most people don’t realize it’s something that can occur right in your very home and so despite whatever background we come from — you know religious background, political background and so on and so forth — we are coming together to protect our children because we are all one big community in the end,” she said.
For some of the protesters, the cause was personal. Sanford resident and sexual abuse victim herself, Kaley Smith, accompanied her 11-year-old stepson, who is a victim of sexual abuse. Joined in support by his two siblings, the four of them marched with the group Saturday.
“If you touch a child – no matter how you touch a child – you should be sentenced to life,” Smith said. “You know right from wrong; you’re old enough to know the difference from right or wrong; you’re an adult. And if you harm children you should be punished for life like they are.”
Word of the protest was spread across Facebook and was to begin at Dow Diamond and take a route toward the courthouse. However, without permission from Dow Diamond to gather there, the protest moved last minute to Grove Park.
As the protesters marched in a zigzag along the streets of downtown, they chanted things including, “hey, ho! Where did the children go?” and even brought detained immigrant children at the U.S./Mexican border into the spotlight by chanting, “What’s outrageous? Kids in cages!” As they walked along, they got several honks from passing cars.
The protest comes in response to the national conversation about child sex trafficking and pedophilia, often displayed on social media with the hashtag #savethechildren or #saveourchildren. Across Facebook, maps of registered sex offenders have littered timelines and last week the Trump Administration announced $35 million in Justice Department grants to fight human trafficking.
In July, public figure Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested for multiple charges connected to abuse of underage girls by Jeffery Epstein, a prominent figure who was charged with sex trafficking but later found dead in his jail cell. The incident has sparked media attention including a show on Netflix.
The online conversation surrounding #savethechildren has been accused of being infiltrated with theories and falsities by a right-leaning conspiracy dubbed QAnon.
Davila said they combat the naysayers by keeping politics out of the conversation.
“We want to call out all pedophiles; all human traffickers regardless of who they are,” she said.