Michael Jackson Stans React to 'Leaving Neverland' with Bus Ads and Death Threats
In the lead up to the premiere of the documentary this weekend, Jackson fans were ramping up their attempts to discredit the film.
Pro Michael Jackson protesters in Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Keen Zhang
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
According to Anthony King, 100 percent of his income is in some way related to Michael Jackson.
As a dance instructor and Jackson expert, he’s written multiple books about the singer, led Michael Jackson-themed team building workshops, taught Michael Jackson dance classes, and released several Michael Jackson dance workout DVDs. A YouTube video of him teaching the moonwalk has been viewed over 35 million times.
But now, he says, he’s finished. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s over,” he told me in a phone interview. “I’ve removed Michael Jackson’s name [from] my Twitter bios, my Instagram, and I’m working on literally doing a Pharaoh Akhenaten—they removed the guy’s name from ancient Egypt, every statue, and I’m doing it.”
The change came about as the result of Leaving Neverland, the upcoming HBO/Channel 4 documentary focusing on accusations of sexual misconduct against Jackson by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who knew the singer when they were children. Jackson's estate denies the allegations and is suing HBO for $100 million.
The film’s impending release prompted King to post a series of tweets in which he said that, regardless of whether or not Jackson ever molested any children, everyone should be able to agree that it’s unacceptable for an adult to share a bed with a child in the way the singer allegedly did. He also wrote that it's wrong to attack "victims and alleged victims of child abuse."
The tweets were not well received.
In the days since posting, King has been sent thousands of messages from Jackson fans. Most just tweeted the reasons they believe Jackson is innocent. But some went further. Several people implied that King was projecting his own pedophilic sexual fantasies on to Jackson. Others called him “inhuman” and “scum” and “a dumbass bitch.” One guy commented on his Facebook, telling him that he'd just burned his book. Some told him they hoped he would one day be falsely accused of child abuse, or have his own children be sexually abused. “U are so effin lucky u don’t live closer to me,” wrote one fan in a Facebook message. “I swear to almighty God up above I wud tear you from limb to limb” (sic).
This backlash, coupled with the new attention on the accusations against Jackson, made King decide to completely sever ties with the singer and his music. He said he'll be canceling all of his upcoming Michael Jackson dance classes, and doesn't plan to start any new Jackson-related projects. “This is my whole life and income,” he said. “I just feel like it is the right thing… When the dust settles, I wanna be on the right side.”
The comedian and writer Matt Lucas (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) saw Leaving Neverland a couple of weeks ago and tweeted about it.
He too received thousands of responses. “[They] decided that because I believed the accounts of Robson and Safechuck I must surely be a pedophile myself, that I have been paid by HBO and [Channel 4] to promote the films, that I am a white supremacist,” he told me. “The list goes on. I even had a death threat on Facebook which was handed over to the police.”
Several of the (non-threatening) tweets aimed at Matt came from the account of Seany O’Kane, a Jackson fan in London who has sent out hundreds and hundreds of tweets making the case for Jackson's innocence in the last few months. "If people are messaging things on Twitter knowing it’s going to provoke a reaction of some sort, they can’t then be surprised at some of the responses," O'Kane told me. "But that said, no response should ever be abusive. It should all be dealt with in a very factual and logical manner."
I pointed out to O'Kane that one of his tweets to Matt Lucas had called him a "White Supremest Scab" (sic). "I stand by it 100 percent," he said.
O'Kane's fight against the documentary isn’t limited to the internet. He is one of several people taking the campaign to the real world.
At the start of February, he launched a Gofundme campaign to raise £12,000 (around $16,000) to place ads promoting a website proclaiming Jackson’s innocence on the side of London buses. The campaign exceeded its goal and the ads are currently making their way around the city. He said he also plans to buy billboards and newspaper ads carrying the same message.
“I thought of ways the public could be reached in a bit of an unconventional manner,” said O’Kane. “Not everybody is on social media.”
“I feel like some kind of social work firefighter, or social firefighter, trying to put out the flames of injustice against him and his legacy,” he added. “And it’s really sad because that’s not the role I want to be playing. I want to be, you know, the person who I am in society, enjoying Michael Jackson’s art.”
About £6,000 of the money for the bus ads came from a fan organization called the Michael Jackson Chinese Fan Club. The president of that organization, Keen Zhang, has posted photos of around 20 events across China to his Facebook, apparently showing Jackson fans protesting against Leaving Neverland. These gatherings are in addition to an unrelated pro-MJ protest at the Sundance Film Festival, and upcoming ones in London and New York.
Zhang told me he too has been involved in the digital bombardment of Jackson’s critics. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter last month, Leaving Neverland’s director, Dan Reed, said he’d received “about a thousand” emails from China. “I had humbly asked Chinese fans to write to express their anger and disagreement,” Zhang told me via email. “I feel sorry that he received some nasty words or threats (though it's just verbal) and that's not what we wanted, but you know, when some fans are angry, they might do so and it's understandable.”
I understand why people want Jackson to be innocent. I am a huge fan of his. When I had one of those iPods that tells you what your most played artist is, it was always Michael Jackson. He's featured prominently in both of my Spotify year end reviews. I have Michael Jackson memorabilia around my apartment, and own multiple items of clothing with his face on them. I performed the near impossible feat of sitting through Captain EO more than one time. But I saw an advanced screener of Leaving Neverland a couple of weeks back. As with others who have seen the film—which is mostly made up of interviews with Safechuck, Robson, and their families—I was completely convinced by it. After seeing the documents and theories being pushed by Jackson's fans in an attempt to prove the singer's innocence, I remain convinced. (I won't go into those reasons here for space reasons, but if you're curious, I'd recommend tweeting "Michael Jackson was guilty." A few hundred people will probably fill you in.)
As O’Kane and Zhang haven’t yet seen the documentary they’re protesting, I asked if there was a part of them that was worried that they might see the film and be swayed by it, and have to deal with the fact that they’ve been taking part in the mass shaming of victims of sexual abuse. Neither felt this was a possibility.
“Michael Jackson fans never want to shame real victims of sexual abuse,” said Zhang. “People never imagined and thought how these groundless allegations have been hurting and taking tolls on Michael's family, children, friends and fans (and their families) and all those people who loved him so dearly and cherished him as their own family."
Jennifer Marino is a Jackson fan in California who has been attempting to crowdfund a Los Angeles version of O’Kane’s bus campaign. She has also not seen Leaving Neverland. I put the same question to her. “There’s just too much evidence showing that Michael was full of love and only wanted to help people and change the world,” she said. “A few of his choices, OK, I’m sure they were questionable. But they had nothing to do with children.”
Throughout my conversations with Jackson’s fans, they repeatedly said things to discredit his accusers, offering a number of reasons why they believe the men are lying. O’Kane, Marino, and Zhang all said they believe Robson and Safechuck are motivated by money. O’Kane said he felt that racism, or a desire by the accusers to associate their names with Jackson’s legacy might be responsible. Marino said she felt Robson might be retaliating because he’d missed out on a job choreographing a Michael Jackson show, or that he might have mental health issues, or that he’s being secretly funded by Harvey Weinstein in an attempt to draw attention from an upcoming documentary about his own alleged sexual misconduct.
It began to feel like, in spite of all of their talk about evidence, the fans were acting more out of loyalty to Jackson than an interest in the truth.
I asked O’Kane if there’s anything that could change his mind about the allegations against Jackson. “What if, similar to the Bill Cosby and R. Kelly stories, this starts a tidal wave of accusations, and more and more people come out and accuse Michael of similar things?” I said. “Can you see any scenario in which you might change your mind?”
“There’s no scenario that would make me change my mind,” he replied. “I would be very surprised if anyone does come forward with legitimate claims, but I think it would be very, very difficult for me to be convinced at this stage."
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