Radio jock Steve Malagodi, caught in the headlights of the Van Van controversy
Steve Satterwhite

Free the Felon!

In the evening of October 9, more than 3000 determined music lovers defied a bitter, expletive-ranting, bottle-throwing gauntlet of protesters to enter the Miami Arena. After spending a few hours getting down with Cuba's most popular band, Los Van Van, concertgoers faced the same treatment while exiting.

The toxic brew of bitter viejitos, riot gear-clad police, and amped-up music fans anxious to witness the group's first Miami engagement resulted in eleven arrests. Ten protesters were apprehended on a variety of charges ranging from battery on a police officer, a felony, to urinating in public, a misdemeanor. Five were accused of disorderly conduct, also a misdemeanor.

Only one concertgoer was taken into custody. Police slapped WLRN-FM (91.3) on-air veteran and infamous contrarian Steve Malagodi with a third-degree felony charge of inciting a riot. If convicted, he faces up to five years in jail.

Five years.

"I think it's ridiculous," says Jeffrey Knapp, a poet and Florida International University English professor who was with Malagodi on the night of the concert. "Police overreacted."

But arresting officer Capt. Hector Martinez contends Malagodi chose the worst possible time and place to do a triple-revolution weenie dance. According to Martinez, the DJ whipped angry demonstrators into a dangerous frenzy by wiggling his ass at them.

It seems fitting that Malagodi, a long-time fixture on the Miami cultural scene who can be heard daily on local segments of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, should be the cops' lone pro-Van Van collar. He's been in the fray on previous occasions when art lovers were pitted against offended exiles with First Amendment rights in the balance.

For more than a decade he has hosted The Modern School of Modern Jazz and More, a show that airs on Sundays from midnight until 2:00 a.m on WLRN. It is the Miami area's edgiest and best jazz program. But Malagodi has done more than play free jazz. He seems to live his life in the spirit of the music. According to several friends interviewed by New Times, he is the closest thing to an unreconstructed radical you can find in these parts.

Malagodi has a long history of advocacy for the disenfranchised. The radio announcer and producer was a board member at the Haitian Refugee Center, one of the area's best known human rights groups, from the early Eighties until 1996. "He's fought vigorously for all immigrants' rights, not just Haitians'," says Cheryl Little, who worked seven years as an attorney for the HRC during Malagodi's tenure. Little is now executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

More recently Malagodi has worked intensively with Union Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. For the past decade he has helped track issues that affect 5000 nonteachers who work for the school system. "We'll never be able to compensate Steve for the amount of hours he puts in," said the local's president, Sherman Henry. He says the radio host pitches in at union offices about twice a week.

In 1996 Malagodi's activism was particularly public. That year three events rocked Miami's cultural scene: violence at a concert by Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba at the Gusman Center, cancellation of an appearance by Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera at the Center for Fine Arts (now the Miami Art Museum), and pipe-bombing of a Little Havana restaurant before a scheduled performance by singer Rosita Fornes. Malagodi publicly chastised local politicians for their cowardice in not condemning the incidents. He also helped organize several citizens' meetings to discuss First Amendment rights.

Perhaps the most interesting of Malagodi's actions, though, took place in the summer of 1985. He was jailed with four others after participating in a worldwide demonstration. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Malagodi drew chalk "shadows" of Hiroshima victims at various Miami Beach locations. Police charged him with criminal mischief and defacing public property.

Charges against Malagodi were dropped in 1985. But is he guilty this time? According to Knapp, police, and a New Times staffer who witnessed part of the October 9 incident, here's what happened:

Malagodi was decked out in a blue Pierre Cardin suit that night. Following the performance he joined hundreds of others concertgoers in the lobby. All were anxious to leave, but a phalanx of police blocked the exit doors. As the crowd grew increasingly restless, 150 riot cops arrived. The crunch, crunch, crunch of their boots added to the tension.

Visibly frustrated by the delay, Malagodi paced back and forth repeating, "This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous." Then he tried to depart. A female police officer blocked his exit and warned that he would receive no police protection outside.

Next the bearded, bespectacled 46-year-old made his way from the Miami Arena lobby like an Ornette Coleman riff escaping into space. Exactly what transpired then is unclear. Neither Malagodi nor his attorney, H.T. Smith, would comment for this story. Knapp and New Times lost sight of the radio jock. Soon after his arrest, Malagodi told the Herald that he only waved to friends when police took him in.

But Captain Martinez, whose name is on the police report, alleges that protesters began hurling debris when Malagodi walked outside. The disc jockey whipped the demonstrators into a frenzy by wiggling his hips at them. "It was getting pretty hectic," the officer says, "and this idiot stopped and began taunting the crowd, waving his hands around, dancing, doing his thing."

One thing is clear: Prosecutors will likely drop or reduce the third-degree felony charge. Because Malagodi acted alone, he'll likely get off, according to John de Leon, chapter director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami. "You must establish circumstances of clear and present danger of a riot, and you must have at least three individuals working in concert to that end." Bruce Rogow, a professor at Nova Southeastern Law School, agrees: "I think the charges will be dropped by the State Attorney's Office. They are good enough lawyers to see it as the thing to do."


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