On Saturday morning, protesters showed up to the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in Los Angeles, carrying signs. To passing drivers, the scene looked pretty typical. There have been protests in Los Angeles nearly every day since the civil uprising in June over police brutality, and the signs’ language resembled slogans popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement. One woman scrawled “CARE NOW” on her cardboard. Another sign read: “DEFUND HOLLYWOOD.”
Among the crowd was a 28-year-old resident of Phoenix, Arizona, named Tara Nicole, one of the event’s organizers. She passed out water bottles, fliers, and signs labeled “Freedom for the Children,” the group she co-founded just under two months ago. Back in June, Nicole said, a friend suggested they form a non-profit to raise awareness about child sex-trafficking. Nicole, who claims to work as a caretaker for patients with disabilities, alleges that “half of [her] career network has worked with legitimate survivors of abuse and human trafficking.”
The result was not a nonprofit, but a group with a Weebly website, Facebook page, and GoFundMe. With her co-founder, Bhairavi Shera, Nicole planned Freedom for the Children’s first event: an “annual international multi-city” march “to expand global awareness of child exploitation and human trafficking.”
The mission statement of Freedom for the Children is broad and vague, with little information on child sex-trafficking or how it might be curbed. But on Saturday, protesters carried more specific signs, many tinged with conspiracy. One poster referenced “Frazzledrip,” an unsubstantiated conspiracy that Anthony Weiner has video footage of Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin drinking a child’s blood while wearing masks made from her skin. Another mentioned “Spirit Cooking,” a nod to performance artist Marina Abramović, whose gothic dinners became an obsession of the fringe right after they learned she once emailed John Podesta. A third protester paid blunt homage to QAnon, the gonzo cult whose adherents believe a secret agent is leaking confidential information about a global cabal of blood-drinking pedophiles on neo-Nazi-friendly message boards. His green board read: “Q.”
The protest was one of roughly 100 similar gatherings held on Saturday, united by a vague maxim to “Save the Children”—a phrase that has skyrocketed in popularity since June, primarily through Facebook. Spurred in part by the Wayfair hoax, the unfounded theory that a furniture wholesaler was trafficking kids through overpriced cabinets, the Save the Children movement has been criticized for stoking conspiracy under the guise of “raising awareness” for human trafficking. It has also caused headaches for Save The Children, the well-known humanitarian aid organization, that has lately been inundated with faulty tips about rampant pedophilia.
And the Saturday rally came to the surprise of many in Los Angeles—including the Los Angeles Police Department, who have made a habit of showing up in military gear and abusing participants at Black Lives Matter protests. “I had no idea this event took place,” said a sergeant at the nearby Hollywood and Vine LAPD station. “Our office was not familiar at all. This is the first I’ve heard of this event.”
“I wasn’t aware of it,” said a deputy at the LAPD Special Events Permitting Unit. “I don’t know if anybody was notified about it. It didn’t have a permit. There are no permits being issued right now because of COVID.”
At Saturday’s protests, the generically sympathetic, Helen Lovejoy-style concern for child well-being was often undercut with overt references to QAnon, with businesses and buildings defaced. This was not an accident. When NBC News reported on the movement last week, they found that both Nicole and her co-founder, Shera, had shared similar conspiracies involving the QAnon precursor pizzagate and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic on their Facebook pages, only to delete them when asked for comment.
But Nicole now claims that she never supported QAnon, pinning the group’s conspiratorial overtones squarely on her co-founder. Since Saturday, Nicole said, Freedom for the Children has fractured, allegedly due to QAnon supporters “hijacking” the movement. “I actually dropped the program Freedom for the Children, which is what I was involved in,” she said. “My other co-founder—I’m sure you’ve heard of her—she’s the one that was talking about pizzagate. I’m not a conspiracy theorist.”
“It turned into this whole everybody’s QAnon, everybody wants to scream from the rooftops, ‘There’s an elite cult of blood and eating babies,’” Nicole said, “and I’m like, what the hell is going on?”
As Nicole sees it, Freedom for the Children began with pure ambitions—to “provide factual information so people can educate themselves,” she said, declining to expand upon what that information is. The problems emerged, she said, from the fact that the marches were not only organized by FFTC, but by a smattering of smaller groups, many working independently of one another. The Los Angeles rally alone, Nicole said, was launched by “six or seven” unaffiliated groups, each staking a claim to different parts of Hollywood Boulevard.
Among these other protests was one run by a guy named Scotty Rojas. A small-time rapper who uses the moniker “Scotty the Kid,” Rojas pivoted from making music to “saving children” after having “a revelation that he needs to get involved in spreading awareness.” The vision led to his new organization, Stop KIDding, which describes itself as “the true source behind the #100CityMarch, the protest into CNN, and #saveourchildren.”
Nicole claims Rojas had co-opted Freedom for the Children’s fliers without permission and used them to promote his conspiracy-tinged events (Rojas did not immediately respond to comment). After attending the Hollywood rally, Nicole alleges that she split from her co-founder, Bhairavi Shera, over disagreements on the conspiracy. “It turned into this whole everybody’s QAnon, everybody wants to scream from the rooftops, ‘There’s an elite cult of blood and eating babies,’” Nicole said, “and I’m like, what the hell is going on?”
“Some fringe theorists have started shedding the Q label to recruit converts through more innocuous causes, like sexual abuse in Hollywood or saving children.”
Shera, Nicole says, has taken over the project’s website and Instagram. Nicole deactivated the group’s Facebook page shortly after The Daily Beast requested comment. The event pages, however, have been converted into private groups.“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Nicole repeated. “I know ‘Frazzledrip’ is from a metal cover of a band named Abnegation”—referring to the photo often circulated with the conspiracy that was ripped from the album artwork of a ‘90s metalcore group.
To prove her disavowal of QAnon, Nicole provided screenshots to The Daily Beast of Facebook posts from June. “I do not support this ‘spiritual movement’ that preaches Qanon theory,” she wrote. “The theory was debunked by one of its own members.”
But many proponents of the Save the Children movement have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the tin-foil-hat reputation of Q. Rojas, for example, has also maintained that his events are not related to QAnon. “We are NOT affiliated with Antifa, QAnon, or any political / corporate agenda,” Rojas’ website claims. Its homepage photo, however, features protest signs referencing “Frazzledrip,” pizzagate, and adrenochrome—a common chemical compound that conspiracists have falsely claimed is harvested from tortured children.
The move marks something of a new strategy among QAnon-adjacent conspiracists, observed Mike Rains, a QAnon researcher who produces the conspiracy-debunking podcast Poker Politics. Some fringe theorists have started shedding the Q label to recruit converts through more innocuous causes, like sexual abuse in Hollywood or saving children. “That’s the angle they’re doing a lot,” Rains said. “They’re getting these Instagram influencers and these yoga women to get into QAnon in this very apolitical, save-the-children kind of way. They ignore the whole thing about the Clintons and Obama and they just focus explicitly on Hollywood being this place of corruption.”
To some extent, it appears to have worked. On Saturday, the crowd gathered at Hollywood and Vine didn’t resemble the typical Q believers, who skew white, elderly, pro-Trump, and evangelical. The participants represented a broader swath of the Los Angeles population: shockingly young, broadly non-white, and vaguely New Age. Photos from the protest show teenagers milling around the intersection holding pizzagate signs. Several attendees showed up in yoga gear. A few signs appeared in Spanish or Korean.
Byron, an Uber driver who emigrated from Jamaica years ago and declined to give his last name, described the messaging vaguely. “I don’t know about Hillary Clinton,” he said, referencing the common QAnon target, “But if you know the history of this country, you know that people are capable of incredible evil.”
Originally published: 2020-08-27 03:44:00