13-Year-Old Arrested at July 4th Pro-Choice Protest

A social media firestorm erupted on Independence Day after a mom posted a video of her 13-year-old daughter being arrested by Lakeland police for using a megaphone at a pro-choice rally in Munn Park. The video gained traction well beyond Lakeland when it was tweeted by Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor of Florida.

The video begins the moment Lillie Johnson was taken into custody as a crowd shouted, “My body, my choice!”

Lillie, draped in a pink and blue cape, was holding up a megaphone. In other photos and videos, she was seen waving a rainbow flag coupled with an upside down American flag. At the beginning of the video, she was shouting, although no longer into the megaphone.

Officers lead Lillie Johnson, 13, to a police cruiser.

One officer is seen taking Lillie by her left arm and walking away with her.  When she stumbles, he steadies her and another officer comes alongside her and takes her other arm. The first officer then uses his free hand to remove the megaphone from Lillie’s hand and the other officer holds the two flags, which he had apparently removed from her other hand before the video began.

Lillie’s mother, Lakeland birth doula Lauren Johnson, videotaped the encounter.  She can be heard yelling to her daughter throughout the 51-second video.

“Lillie, don’t resist, honey. It’s OK. I gotcha,” Johnson yells to her daughter as someone else asks the unnamed officers what state statute Lillie had violated. “Lillie, you’re ok, bug. I got you. Mom’s right behind you. You’re OK. Don’t resist.”

As her mother follows close behind, the officers take Lillie to a marked patrol SUV and she voluntarily gets into the back seat without being placed in handcuffs. The second officer rolls up the two flags and places them in the front seat. The officers do not respond to requests for their names.  Someone says they don’t have to. Johnson posted the citation and the officer’s name is listed as Thompson.

Lakeland Police arrested 13-year-old Lillie Johnson at a July 4th pro-choice protest, saying her use of a megaphone violated state statute and city codes for noise violation, according to her mother.

The second officer was seen by LkldNow last week at another pro-choice rally, where he also asked protesters not to use a megaphone and they complied.  A polite exchange between that officer and an organizer also took place.

Johnson’s Facebook post had 333 comments by Tuesday afternoon, most of them expressing outrage about Lillie’s arrest.

“13 years old, placed in handcuffs … for using a megaphone at a protest,” her mother wrote in a public Facebook post.  She also listed a Paypal account number. “We don’t know details yet. Court date Aug 9 for 2nd degree misdemeanor charge for a noise ordinance violation. If anyone has any other videos or photos please send them to me in messenger.”

The video picked up traction when Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate

“I’m posting this with her mother’s permission because I need everyone to see what Ron DeSantis’ Florida really looks like. 13 year olds being arrested for protesting for their own freedom,” Fried’s campaign Twitter feed reads, followed by another tweet on Tuesday afternoon at about 1 p.m. “Florida doesn’t have to be like this. This young woman is an inspiration. Let’s give her a better, freer future.”

The version of the video in Fried’s tweet had received 4 million views as of Tuesday afternoon. The tweet also attracted 9,700 comments and had been shared 32,700 times.

Fried, who is Florida’s elected agriculture commissioner, is vying with former Gov. Charlie Crist for the Democratic nomination in this year’s race for governor against Republican incumbent DeSantis.

Lillie’s father, Mike Johnson, who was not at the rally, said he was proud of his daughter.

“Lauren went and got her she has a court date,” Mike Johnson commented on his wife’s Facebook post.  “Lauren said Lillie got out and walked straight back to the protest without asking. As Lillie’s father, I couldn’t be more proud of her standing up for all the people who can’t or don’t understand what’s at stake here … The charge was noise violation — like that will stick at a protest with everyone else shouting too; they wanted to make a point that they have the power and control and she’s right now showing them they don’t by marching right back out and standing tall again.”

Commenting on Facebook, Lauren Hilley-Bardwell asked if there is an earlier portion of the video that showed more of the encounter with officers.

“Why are you only showing the part where she is being detained? Believe it or not, police are only doing their jobs and following the law,” Hilley-Bardwell said. “Obviously, your daughter was not. Why not teach her to respect and follow the law and then maybe she won’t be ‘arrested’ at 13.”

Johnson said she did not capture video before the officer approached Lillie to take her into custody.

A source close to the incident said Lillie was asked at least three times to stop using the megaphone before Thompson took her into custody. Another source said she was never placed in handcuffs. Lillie is 5’5″, and the officers appeared to be 5’8″.

Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia said he could not comment on the incident, citing provisions in the Florida Public Records Act that protect juveniles.

“I can’t really acknowledge whether we arrested a juvenile,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately if it’s a juvenile arrest, I can’t comment because it’s confidential and exempt.”

Lillie’s attorney, David Haas, said the case will proceed to juvenile court if the State Attorney’s Office files a case.

“Then we’ll see if there’s any challenges to the ordinate itself on a first amendment basis and see if it’s even applicable to what the allegations are here,” said Haas.  He is not related to State Attorney Brian Haas. “My understanding there’s — I need to look at the ordinance — there’s some decibel amount contained in it and it’s supposed to pertain to screeching tires and loud music.”

Lakeland Police Department spokeswoman Robin Tillett said since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal protections on abortion, hundreds of people have peacefully protested in various locations throughout the city. Hundreds of people gathered in front of Southgate Shopping Center on Thursday evening, holding up signs, shouting, honking horns and some used megaphones. But Lakeland Police were not on scene at that time.

Video from the Thursday night protest in front of Southgate Shopping Center:

“Officers are in attendance to assure a safe and secure environment for those exercising their rights while doing so in accordance with Florida state statutes and city ordinances,” Tillett said.

Last week, two pro-life protesters were arrested in front of Lakeland Women’s Health Center, Lakeland’s only abortion clinic.

Quentin Eugene Deckard, 47, of Seffner, was arrested for using a megaphone and shouting at a black woman entering the clinic: “Black lives don’t matter” and “Black people are like cockroaches that should be exterminated.” The arresting officer said Deckard told him he was quoting Margaret Sanger, the founder of modern birth control and the precursor to Planned Parenthood. According to the Planned Parenthood website, in speeches and private letters, Sanger professed to being a eugenicist, a person who believes in only the fittest having children. She also believed in population control.

Deckard was charged with disturbing the peace and violating the city’s noise ordinance. He has a court date of August 5

Angela Marie Delauney, 39, was charged with resisting an officer without violence after she tried to stop a police officer from removing pro-life signs protesters had affixed to a power pole at the clinic. The officer had told the group the signs were blocking the view of the roadway for vehicles pulling onto South Florida Avenue.  He removed them once and was trying to remove them again when he said Delauney tried to stop him.

Garcia said he knows there will be more protests and he hopes citizens lawfully participate in anything they would like to.

“I hope all our citizens, regardless of their viewpoint, conduct themselves in a safe and lawful manner,” Garcia said. “We’re certainly here to support the First Amendment and their police department is there to assist and keep them safe.”

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Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected]