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Michael Jackson in the lion's den

By Leslie Feinberg

"Not guilty." Those two words received short shrift in the massive media storm surrounding Michael Jackson's Jan. 16 arraignment in Santa Maria, Calif., on child molestation charges.

The word "circus," however, took center stage in media coverage. And in virtually all the accounts, it was Jackson--facing charges that could lock him in a jail cell for more than two decades--who was accused of creating that atmosphere.

Christopher Darden, who was a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial that ended in acquittal by the jury, told reporters, "The circus has begun, and he [Jackson] is the ring master." Darden told the syndicated TV show Entertainment Tonight, "It's a circus from minute one, and it's going to be a circus up until sentencing happens, or"--Darden had gotten ahead of himself--"up until we get a verdict in this case."

The mass demonstration of public support for Jackson outside the courthouse was also billed as a "circus." Thousands came from Los Angeles and Fresno, Calif., Las Vegas, Phoenix and Philadelphia, and from South Carolina and other parts of the United States. People also traveled from Brazil, England, Japan, France, Spain, Holland, Germany and Australia to stand up for Jackson.

Police estimates of the crowd outside the courthouse seemed low--1,500 to 2,000--based on the aerial views visible on electronic coverage. But the day after the arraignment, virtually all the print media reported "hundreds."

Assume for a moment that the widespread use of the word circus is not being used to dehumanize Jackson by associating him with the most immediate images of circuses: clowns, "freak shows" and performing animals. Perhaps the media are merely trying to convey the mood of spectacle?

If that is true, might not the following have been offered as the generator of spectacle at Jackson's court appearance?

More than 2,500 police were standing six rows deep around a court complex now guarded 24 hours a day. Cops used attack dogs for "crowd control." Extra court officers were shipped in from nearby Santa Barbara.

Half a dozen police and media helicopters circled and hovered in the air above the court complex.

More than 600 journalists, producers and television crew members jostled each other and everyone else. Some 100 television stations from around the globe sent personnel. Forty TV satellite trucks were parked outside.

Vendors hawked T-shirts and fast food.

If Jackson's court appearance was a circus, it was reminiscent of the brutal ancient circuses organized by the emperors of the Roman Empire as part of the political tactic of public diversion. Those who found themselves in the center ring of the Circus Maximus had to fight--often to the death--for their freedom.

In the lion's den

Inside the courtroom, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville castigated Jackson for being 10 minutes late.

Attorney Mark Geragos tried to explain that unprecedented traffic and crowds had delayed their arrival.

But the judge interrupted: "There are no ifs, no excuses. I will not have it."

Under pressure from the prosecution, Melville imposed a gag order to keep any parties from speaking to reporters.

The judge ruled that Jackson's lawyers can see copies of search warrants and affidavits, and transcripts of tape recordings on which the prosecution is basing its case. Prosecutors had fought to keep a seal on the records. Melville denied a motion by media outlets--including The Associ ated Press--demanding the material be released into the public record.

The judge also barred cameras, including television, from the court--a ruling that enraged the networks.

Geragos asked the judge to recognize Jackson's new co-counsel, Benjamin Brafman, a New York attorney who is not a member of the California bar. "Such requests are routinely granted," the Jan. 17 New York Times reported, "but Judge Melville refused to allow Mr. Brafman to speak. Later, the judge relented and gave Mr. Brafman courtroom privileges."

Jackson's role in the proceedings only took five minutes. Two hours later, when his lawyer asked if Jackson could leave the courtroom, "as a personal courtesy," the judge told the court, "I assume Mr. Jackson has to go to the bathroom."

Melville then warned Mr. Geragos to instruct Michael Jackson to restrict his "liquid intake" before court.

Support for Jackson is becoming an objective factor that the judge and prosecutor have to take account of now. Jack son's entire family was with him during his court appearance. The Nation of Islam is providing security for him. The Rev. Jesse Jackson admonished the prosecutor and media for the way they have treated Michael Jackson. Civil-rights activist Dick Gregory is waging a 40-day hunger strike to support Jackson. And many other African American political and cultural leaders have publicly stood up for Jackson.

The day of the arraignment, simultaneous demonstrations of support for Jack son took place in Mexico, Ireland, Hun gary, Russia, England, the Nether lands, Sweden and other countries.

Jermaine Jackson said that his brother Michael and their entire family "are overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from the fans. It is a testament, a true testament to Michael's messages of love and inclusion, that so many people of diverse backgrounds are traveling around the globe to support him."

Jackson appeared not to leave the courtroom intimidated. He climbed up on top of his vehicle and sang to the crowd. The throng of supporters pushed past police and surrounded Jackson, chanting slogans and singing lyrics from one track of his 1995 album " that indicts the Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom "Mad Dog" Sneddon for what is widely perceived as his vendetta against Jackson.

'Mad Dog' Sneddon

Jackson is accused of sexual misconduct with a 12-year-old boy with cancer who had asked to meet the singer. The alleged acts for which Jackson was being arraigned were supposed to have taken place between Feb. 7 and March 10, 2003.

That timing is very odd.

According to the charges, Jackson would have begun molesting the boy amid the furious scrutiny and criticism he faced after having appeared with the 12-year-old in a television documentary, aired last Feb. 6, in which they were shown holding hands and saying that they had slept in the same room but not in the same bed.

Reportedly based on a complaint to a county hot line from an enraged school administrator who saw the documentary, Los Angeles County child welfare officers began investigating Jackson's relationship with the boy.

The investigation, which ended Feb. 27, concluded that the allegations of molestation were groundless. The boy, his mother and his siblings all denied that any improprieties had taken place.

Further adding to questions of credibility in this case is the fact that the boy's family has a history of litigation involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation claims.

Sneddon, who unsuccessfully brought charges of child molestation against Jackson a decade ago, said he did not think the Los Angeles County findings were relevant to his case.

Sneddon's widely publicized appeal in November 2003 for anyone, anywhere, who had any evidence of misconduct by Michael Jackson to contact his office is a prosecutorial version of "reality television": Who wants to be a millionaire?

Attorney Mickey Sherman told the CBS News Early Show: "I think everyone expected there would be more victims com ing out of the woodwork and that hasn't happened. I think that's rather significant."

The stench of racism

"Wacko Jacko," "bizarre," "freak"--Jackson is publicly dehumanized by media pundits for his perceived sexuality, gender expression and sex ambiguity. But this inhuman tabloid-journalism scarcely masks the deep racism involved in this case.

Googling the words "Jackson" and "race card" lifts the rock.

In actuality, the "racist card" has already stacked the deck. Just two examples, pain ful to repeat in print, offer greater understanding about the intensity of racism involved in the demonization of Michael Jackson.

One newspaper article refers to the compact-disk players that some Jackson supporters played outside the courthouse as "ghetto blasters." (The Australian, Jan. 16)

And Orville Schell, dean of the graduate journalism school at the University of Cali fornia at Berkeley, dredged up a vicious Jim Crow metaphor familiar to white supremacists when he said of Jackson, "He is a tar baby of monumental proportions, into which all too many reputable news outlets are being stuck." (St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 11)

Jackson faces an amorphous charge of molestation, defined in California as lewd and lascivious. According to Michael Hestrin, a Riverside County, Calif., deputy district attorney, "There's no requirement that Michael Jackson touched the child underneath the clothing, it could be on the shoulder, it could be anywhere on the body." (, Jan. 16)

Hestrin added, "The prospective jurors in this case are going to be largely affluent, largely white." There is no legal requirement to include any number of Black, Latino, Native or Asian people as jurors.

Michael Jackson, in the center ring of the Circus Maximus, is fighting for his life.

Reprinted from the Jan. 29, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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