WESTFIELD, NJ — About a dozen supporters, most of them holding signs protesting human trafficking, walked from the Westfield Rescue Squad up East Broad Street and into Mindowaskin Park on Sunday while people dining outdoors cheered them on.

While ostensibly held in protest of a heinous crime — human trafficking — the march and subsequent rally lacked the size of other recent demonstrations held in Westfield and the presence of local elected officials, who typically have turned out at such events.

Experts say that it came amid a national rise in false reports about human trafficking, something that has strained the resources of the National Center for Human Trafficking. That, however, was not the narrative conveyed at the march in Westfield.

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“The number of victims are notoriously underreported as the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 11,500 cases this past year in the United States. The number is certainly larger,” said David Sloan, president of the Westfield Volunteer Rescue Squad, who organized the march in his capacity as a private citizen.

At the protest, Sloan hinted at the conspiracy theories that have driven the recent surge in reports of human trafficking, but he also referenced his social media posting about the issue.

“I’m sure you’ve all seen the hashtag #savethechildren,” Sloan said at the rally. “That’s a real big thing going on right now, and particularly with the stuff going on and with mainstream media covering it with the Jeffrey Epstein and the Ghislaine Maxwell arrests, recognizing how pervasive this is.”

In an interview afterward, Sloan said that because the majority of attendees at the rally already are familiar with the theories he follows, he omitted some of what he had intended to discuss, including certain portions of QAnon — what The New York Times this week described as a “viral pro-Trump conspiracy theory.”

“The worst parts of this delve into what I referenced as ‘elite human trafficking,’” Sloan said. “QAnon has certainly referenced this. QAnon delves into a certain satanic element within our power structure.”

According to Sloan, traffickers in some cases drink the blood of their victims.

“They scare the victims to the point of right before they kill them,” he said. “So, the blood is adrenalized because they’re in a fear-based state.”

This is a modern take on the classic antisemitic trope, known as blood libel which, according to the anti-Defamation League, comes from the false notion of Jews sacrificing Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes. (Sloan said he does not believe any one religion is responsible, but that traditional religion serves as a cover for the extreme practices.)

At the rally, Sloan handed out flyers showing a “Child Trafficking Watch List and Warning Signs,” along with tip lines for the FBI and National Human Trafficking Resources Center.

A surge in reports

The national surge in reports of human trafficking is something that Caren Benjamin, chief communications officer of the Polaris Project’s National Center for Human Trafficking addressed in a recent email to supporters.

“When our social media feeds begin to fill up with misinformation about complex and secretive child sex trafficking rings, even the most implausible scenarios feel a little more believable than they might have just a few months ago,” Benjamin says.

She says that the efforts of people who might otherwise be real partners in protecting children are being misdirected at looking into these unverifiable reports rather than working to change the conditions that allow sex trafficking to thrive.

“These well-meaning reports — all of which are taken extremely seriously — may actually be harming the very people they are intended to help,” Benjamin says. “The Trafficking Hotline is overwhelmed with duplicative, unverifiable reports while victims and survivors are on hold, perhaps losing precious windows of opportunity to seek help before their traffickers come back.”

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Rosario V. Sanchez, a forensic nurse, lecturer, and finishing doctoral student at Rutgers University School has focused her research on human trafficking.

“Misinformation that uses shocking stories, images and language to grab public attention at the expense of accuracy is truly detrimental to both the movement against this horrific inhumane crime and the victims/survivors of human trafficking,” Sanchez said. “Unfortunately, it is common practice in the representation of human trafficking and its victims/survivors. Though at times, it may be done often with good intentions to attempt to entice public involvement, it should be handled with extreme caution.”

In post to a local Facebook group after the demonstration, members of the public appeared unaware of what motivated the rally — one that Sloan said he hopes to make an annual event.

“Sorry I hadn’t heard about this. Absolutely would’ve come,” one person commented. Another person wrote: “Caught a glimpse of you all from my apartment on E. Broad. Thanks for being a voice!”

A professor in the Department of Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University, Jack Bratich, has written extensively about misinformation and moral panics. He said the QAnon followers’ interest in human trafficking is narrow.

“They don’t seem interested in ongoing efforts by organizations to track and halt trafficking,” Bratich told TAPinto Westfield. “Instead they use child trafficking as a pretext to get at their main objective: defeat Democrats, who are representatives of Satan, and defend Trump. Trafficking becomes the graphic and salacious hook that gets the followers to feel they are on a moral crusade.”

Email Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net | Twitter: @MattKadosh

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