Sheriff David Clarke’s Misguided War on #BlackLivesMatter

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Last Friday, POLITICO reported that the White House is considering Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. for a position at the Department of Homeland Security.

According to the report, “Clarke is in line to be appointed as assistant secretary at DHS’ Office of Partnership and Engagement, which coordinates outreach to state, local and tribal officials and law enforcement.”

This announcement should come as no surprise to those who have astutely observed Sheriff Clarke’s recent dramatic rise to national notoriety since coming out as a vociferous supporter of Donald Trump.

It is worth noting that Clarke’s claim to fame as a vocal Trump surrogate was bolstered considerably by his outspoken stance on gun rights, and his constant incendiary denunciation of the Black Lives Matter movement (Clarke often dubs the movement, “Black ‘Lies’ Matter”). In fact, it seems that the more inflammatory his rhetoric about BLM became, the more frequently Clarke was rewarded with media airtime.

In the wake of the tragic 2015 shooting death of Houston County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth, Sheriff David Clarke–capitalizing on the publicity of the high-profile event–appeared on Fox News alleging that BLM activists’ “war on cops” rhetoric was directly responsible for the officer’s death:

“I’m tired of hearing people call these people black activists, they’re not activists, this is black slime and it needs to be eradicated from the American society and the American culture…stand up and start pushing back against this slime, this filth.”

These comments are manifestly heinous, and a proper analysis of this rhetoric should take place within a broader critique of the BLM movement.

There are numerous legitimate criticisms of BLM, not the least of which are its disorganized and misdirected leadership, and its affinity for propping up unsavory personalities like limelight activist DeRay McKesson and unrepentant race huckster Shaun King. Additionally, the movement utterly lacks a robust intellectual vehicle for achieving its ostensible goal: ending the extrajudicial killings and brutality of blacks at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes. In fact, until just last year when they released their “list of demands,” BLM failed to articulate any concrete, clear objectives in support of their primary goal.

What exactly does BLM want, and how do they plan to accomplish it? Few people can answer this question. Further, what exactly is the difference between BLM, the movement, and the closely related, Campaign Zero? Even fewer people have an intelligent answer to this question, and this is wholly BLM’s fault.

To say that BLM has a messaging problem is certainly an understatement.

However, BLM leaders do not seem especially concerned about the fact that the movement is largely bereft of a cohesive strategy. In fact, BLM seemingly prides itself on being an indistinct and amorphous organization with no discernible form of centralized leadership. At blacklivesmatter.com, they declare:

“The Black Lives Matter movement is a ‘leaderfull’ movement…#BlackLivesMatter is an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue among Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement…Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes…Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.  It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.  It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”

What began organically as an explicitly anti-brutality movement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin (the movement gained steam following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri) has morphed into a shambolic campaign for LGBTQ advocacy and Black Liberation through broadly-defined “social action and engagement.” Meanwhile, its inaugural issue–police brutality– has been effectively back-burned.

The movement clearly lacks focus.

As a result of these deficiencies, leaders and representatives of the movement have had tremendous difficulty distancing themselves from several extremist spin-offs or latch-on groups that condone or encourage dangerous behaviors, such as rioting or violence against cops. BLM members and affiliates have also been known to engage in undisciplined and unproductive activities, such as disrupting travel at airports and on congested roadways. The lack of direction and strategic leadership plaguing the movement has been the most significant impediment to its success. Notwithstanding the many valid critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement, Sheriff David Clarke deserves scathing criticism for his comments.

The Sheriff’s Delusional Denial of Disproportionality

First, it is possible to disagree with the tactics employed by a movement, and yet still acknowledge and affirm the impetus for the movement. The ability to engage in this form of nuanced analysis is a crucial indicator of intellectual maturity. That police brutality is a real problem is a fact, and BLM–an albeit deeply flawed organization–exists to shed light on this issue. Sheriff Clarke, however, maintains that police brutality does not even exist–in utter defiance of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

Appearing in an October edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Clarke had this to say:

“Well first of all, there is no police brutality in America. We ended that back in the sixties. So I don’t know where they’re coming from. You look at the data and the research, and there’s a new Harvard study out that shows that there is no racism in the hearts of police officers.”

Put aside for a moment the obviously false contention that “police brutality ended in the 1960s.” The study that Clarke cites does not even support his assertion that blacks do not disproportionally suffer cruelty at the hands of cops. Nor does the study conclude that “there is no racism in the hearts of police officers”– a declaration that is impossible to prove in any event. The study, which was published last year by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, concludes that though there appears to be no racial bias in police shootings, there are demonstrably significant racial inequities in police use of force. Moreover, Fryer’s finding that racial biases do not exist in shootings remains hotly contested by criminal justice scholars who cite concerns about the methodology and logical assumptions Fryer employs.

Given Clarke’s delusional denial of the existence of police brutality, it is unsurprising that he does not acknowledge the principal grievances of BLM, and as such, its validity as a movement. It is this stubborn denial of verifiably existent problems that turns many black people away from conservatism as a palatable philosophy.  Black conservatives like Sheriff David Clarke cannot claim to care about the plights facing black people insofar as they remain apathetic to the legitimate issue of police brutality.

Republicans cannot keep complaining about the seemingly unbreakable Democratic hegemony of black communities so long as they continue to promote callously unaware characters like Sheriff David Clarke. Since conservatives and Republicans continue to prop up people like David Clarke who assert that black grievances are fictional, they deserve their reputation as the political wing that is insensitive to the needs of blacks.

The Sheriff’s Careless, Contemptuous Characterizations

Second, the insinuation that extremist elements are representative of the BLM movement as a whole is as baseless as it is inflammatory. The fact is that the vast majority of activists and advocates who associate with the movement simply want to end the barbaric extrajudicial killings of black people by law enforcement–and do so peacefully. That the deleterious segments or affiliates of the movement that most frequently make news headlines represent a minority of individuals who take action under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. Clarke, however, has no interest in participating in this kind of careful differentiation because it would not earn him media appearances. It is far more profitable to make sweeping characterizations and gross misrepresentations of the movement and the things for which it stands.

Insinuating that an entire movement standing against police brutality is complicit in the crimes of a few individuals’ crimes against police is especially abhorrent. This tactic is particularly upsetting in incidents where the criminal suspect has a history of severe mental illness and has no discernible link to BLM. The suggestion that all Black Lives Matter activists want to wage a “war on cops” is just as vile and inflammatory as the assertion that all cops are merely assassins in search of black victims. Interestingly, however, the same people who defend Clarke’s incendiary sweeping generalizations of the Black Lives Matter movement are often the first to denounce sweeping generalizations of all cops as killers. This blatant hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness are astounding.

Sheriff David Clarke’s increasing prominence shows that a brash vulgarian with no intellectual gravitas (sound familiar?) can become a leading conservative voice so long as he adheres to the following rules:

  1. Worship the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment.
  2. Display a callous disregard for black life.
  3. Repeatedly perform rules one and two on national media outlets.

Beyond his delusional denial of facts, and his careless characterizations of the movement, the actual language Clarke uses to describe BLM activists is truly repulsive. In what sense does calling protestors “black slime” and “subhuman creeps” accomplish anything besides exacerbated tensions? If a white sheriff referred to a group of black protestors as “black slime,” we would (rightly) call him an anti-black bigot. Clarke, however, believes his blackness buys him an all-access pass to engage in brazen anti-black bigotry unscathed. His blackness is merely convenient currency–a useful tool–that he leverages in his unceasing campaign to bludgeon black people and his political opponents.

Sheriff Clarke knows full-well that his rhetoric is unproductive. But it earns him pats on the back from his sycophantic audiences who share his repulsive opinions but lack the courage to vocalize them in public. It is quite remarkable that Clarke, who frequently lambasted President Obama for having “fanned the flames” with rhetoric that “worsened race relations,” has suggested that BLM should be designated a terrorist organization and that its members are worse than the KKK.

Astoundingly, the absurd contention that BLM is akin to the KKK or ISIS has gone largely unchallenged by prominent influencers within the movement. As farcical as the comparisons are, they are popular among right-wing media darlings like Tomi Lahren and Sean Hannity. Reasonable people should understand why comparing BLM to the KKK or ISIS is nonsensical, but in today’s hyper-partisan political climate, reason often takes a backseat to thoughtless tribalism.

Why Many Conservatives Love Sheriff Clarke

Clarke is the quintessential token black conservative. Black conservatives like Clarke are swiftly promoted within mainstream conservative ranks because they lend credence to a variety of fallacies.

First, conservative media can cite them as evidence that racism is nonexistent in conservative circles. For if a black man can be considered a prominent conservative leader, the argument goes, conservative racists must be nonexistent. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that anti-blackness is a core tenet of Clarke’s brand of conservatism. There is nothing that white supremacists love more than a black man who is willing to be their public mouthpiece and berate the black community at every turn. In truth, black conservatives like Sheriff Clarke rarely mention black people unless the purpose is to chastise them, or feign outrage at the fact that Democrats enslave them on the “welfare plantation.” For Clarke, if only blacks would join the Republican Party and get off welfare, all their problems would be resolved.

It is undeniably true that Democrats take the black vote for granted. And the progressive notion that more government welfare is the best way to ameliorate poverty is patently wrong. But to pretend as if blacks only vote for Democrats because they want welfare is asinine. People who parrot this claim need to explain why it is that even well-off blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The fact is that the Republican Party of today can be openly hostile to blacks. It is no longer the Republican Party of Frederick Douglass. Conservatives and Republicans need to start admitting that white supremacists and their sympathizers now feel much more at home in the Republican Party than they do in the Democratic Party. If conservatives and Republicans spent less time patronizingly calling black people slaves to Democrats, and more time purging these white supremacists from their tents (in addition to doing some serious self-reflection on the many other reasons black people largely reject the GOP), perhaps more blacks would be receptive to their message.

Moreover, the notion that welfare dependence is the sole reason for the social maladies that poor black communities experience is sociologically illiterate–not to mention economically unlettered. It is simply fraudulent to blame welfare and dysfunctional cultural features without also mentioning the racist government housing policies that led to the formation of inner cities in the first place. Or the pervasive racial discrimination in employment that blacks face, or the profound structural changes in the economy that have shifted jobs (in formerly stable industries) away from urban areas.

Black conservatives must be adept at presenting a balanced picture of the black community, and the variety of factors that impede or promote black success, without espousing the anti-black sentiment that marks Sheriff Clarke’s odious brand of conservatism:

“Let me tell you why blacks sell drugs and involve themselves in criminal behavior instead of a more socially acceptable lifestyle–because they’re uneducated, they’re lazy and they’re morally bankrupt. That’s why.”

Second, Clarke’s “tough on crime” stance affirms the popular notion favored by conservatives that the ultimate solution to the social maladies found in inner cities is harsher criminal justice measures. Undoubtedly, a core pillar of authentic conservatism is respect for the rule of law, and as such, the criminal justice system should promote measures that deter and punish crime. But these measures must be enacted fairly, and a plethora of evidence suggests that the overly-harsh measures implemented in recent decades have produced demonstrably unfair results.

The criminal justice system is a blunt instrument. It cannot be used to “fix” sociocultural and economic problems, and attempting to do so has done more harm than good. Denying the dastardly effects of mass incarceration does nothing to diminish this reality. Repeating the hackneyed, “but what about black-on-black crime?” protestation does nothing to refute the fact that our criminal justice system inequitably affects blacks–whether law abiding or not.  Conservatives who claim to care about blacks must be serious about recognizing and addressing the way the criminal justice system disproportionally affects them.

Whose Lives Matter to Sheriff David Clarke?

Sheriff David Clarke’s rhetoric and policy positions leave much to be desired. But nothing he has said is more reprehensible than his flippant response to the people who have lost their lives on his watch.

Last year, four people (including a new born baby) died over a period of six-months in the Milwaukee County Jail. Clarke, who heads the Milwaukee Sherriff’s Office that runs the jail, has been notably silent on these events–probably because he has been hit with two federal lawsuits for these incidents since December.

In one of these cases, Terrill Thomas, a 38-year-old inmate with bipolar disorder, was found dead on the floor of his cell last April. Thomas’s family has since sued Clarke and the county, alleging that the jailors intentionally withheld water from Thomas for almost seven days as punishment. The medical examiner has confirmed that the cause of death was indeed “profound dehydration,” and classified the death as a homicide. On Monday, a jury recommended that the responsible officers face felony charges.

In response to the lawsuit, Sheriff Clarke told the Associated Press:

“I have nearly 1,000 inmates. I don’t know all their names but is this the guy who was in custody for shooting up the Potawatomi Casino causing one man to be hit by gunfire while in possession of a firearm by a career convicted felon?” Clarke told the Associated Press. “The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about.”

Only someone with an utter lack of conscience could respond to the death of another human being–for whom he was responsible–with such apathy. The propensity to narrate a victim’s criminal history upon learning of their death is indicative of profound moral bankruptcy. This dirty tactic of launching smear campaigns that posthumously put the victim on trial is a tactic practiced by the media (particularly with black victims of police violence), and it is beyond repulsive. The implicit assumption  is that if victims of brutality happen to have brutal criminal histories, they probably deserve to be extralegally executed–in other words,” they had it coming.”

It is truly appalling.

Wisconsin legislators have called for Clarke’s resignation, citing his incessant absenteeism (he visited 20 states in 2016 giving paid speeches in the adulation of Donald Trump) and “gross mismanagement” of the county jail. Despite Clarke’s utter ineptitude, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has remained hesitant to seek his removal as county sheriff. Walker’s lack of moral fortitude on this issue reflects what I have been saying: Republicans often elevate the most odious personalities, so long as they check a few boxes of the conservative platform.

Mainstreaming the likes of Sheriff David Clarke will only further cement the already prevalent notion that conservatism is hostile towards black people. But given we are now living in Trump’s America, the steady ascension of Sheriff Clarke–and the callous, opportunistic conservatism that propels him–is all but certain.

 



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