The handsome black sheriff with the baritone voice is the conservative media's latest darling, but his background and the beliefs he espouses are deeply disturbing.
To his admirers on Fox News and other media outlets, Milwaukee County’s sheriff, David Clarke, is a plain-spoken hero, an African-American law enforcement officer who stands up against a tide of liberalism and says what needs saying.
To his critics – including the U.S. Congresswoman from his district in Wisconsin – it’s a schtick made for right-wing media like Fox, which “needs a black sheriff to give voice to the dog-whistle narratives its anchors dare not vocalize themselves.”
There’s little doubt that Clarke – who was first appointed sheriff by former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum in 2002, and has won re-election four times since – has no hesitation about wading into racial issues. Much of his reputation, in fact, has been built on the incendiary nature of his public pronouncements.
His media profile has skyrocketed in the past two years, fueled primarily by multiple appearances on Fox. But his influence has spread to other venues, including a keynote address to the National Rifle Association (at which he suggested adding an assault rifle to the national seal), as well as a recent CBS News report profiling “other voices” in the national debate over gun rights.
As Media Matters notes, Bradley’s contribution consisted of the discredited claim that mass shootings are occurring largely in “gun-free zones” (in reality, only 13% of such shootings occur in these zones). The report included similar disinformation from gun-rights extremist Larry Pratt.
All of these programs present Clarke as some kind of a normative law enforcement officer with conservative views, but in reality, Clarke’s views and advocacy go well beyond the mainstream and are, in fact, deeply mired in right-wing extremism.
Clarke calls himself a “constitutional sheriff” – which is not the benign label it appears, but rather signifies his membership in former sheriff Richard Mack’s Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the antigovernment organization that promotes the Posse Comitatus-derived belief, among others, that the county sheriff is the supreme law enforcement entity in the United States.
Not only is Clarke a member in good standing with the CSPOA, he was named its “Sheriff of the Year” in 2013, and addressed its annual convention. His speech openly endorsed the organization’s radical interpretation of the Constitution, and he called its members “the true patriots.” Clarke also emphasized his view that “our common enemy” is “the government.”
Earlier that same year, Clarke made an appearance on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars radio program, during which he contended that any attempt by federal authorities to confiscate guns would inspire “the second coming of an American Revolution, the likes of which would make the first Revolution pale by comparison.” He then appeared on a Fox News show to explain that he and Jones were envisioning a scenario with “the feds coming in and going into homes, forcing their way into homes and removing firearms,” an idea he admitted is “preposterous.”
Clarke’s subsequent career as a frequent guest on Fox News included segments featuring vicious attacks on President Obama, whom he claims is attempting to foment racial unrest due to his “divisive policies,” as well as accusing Obama of waging a “war on cops.” He has been especially vicious in his attacks on black activists and the Black Lives Matter movement, describing them as “scum” and “subhuman” and calling for their eradication.
His rise to conservative media stardom began in early 2013 with a contentious appearance on CNN with Piers Morgan, defending his anti-gun control policies and a controversial public-service announcement Clarke had made urging residents to arm themselves with guns. Mack later said that the appearance caught his eye, since he had not heard of Clarke before then.
Shortly afterward, Clarke was named “Sheriff of the Year” by the CSPOA, a selection which provoked a piece from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Dan Bice exploring the organization’s background and radical beliefs. Clarke fired back with a press release attacking Bice and defending the CSPOA as “a group of honorable Sheriffs and officers who vow to uphold their oath of defending the U.S. Constitution.”
Joining Clarke on the CSPOA stage that year was Stewart Rhodes, whose Oath Keepers organization has a long record as a fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group. As Media Matters notes, among others attending CSPOA that year were Larry Pratt, head of the far-right Gun Owners of America; Michael Peroutka, an active member of Neo-Confederate hate group League of the South, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's "chief birther" Mike Zullo.
An excerpt from Clarke’s CSPOA speech:
I want to thank you folks. You’re the true patriots. Every successful movement in the history of mankind started at the grassroots level, with true believers. ….
You folks are the modern founders, because you want to return where I want to return, and it’s back to the promise that this document made to the people of the United States of America. …
What’s happening today is what was happening then. And a courageous group of grassroots individuals – that’s what the Founding Fathers were, they were grassroots people – said, ‘Enough,’ and started to push back. And that’s what I started to do, and that’s why I started to become more outspoken.
I didn’t just wake up one day and have an epiphany start believing this stuff. But I said it’s not enough to just keep it in here. I know I have to join this movement. You folks. I’m just a footsoldier in this. You folks got it started.
To be successful, this movement’s going to have to have two things: You have to have a common enemy, and you have to have a common language. And I’m not here to tell you what to do, or this group what to do, because as I said, I’m a Johnny-come-lately. But I know about movements. And in this movement, the common enemy – and let’s not make this mistake, because I think sometimes you do – this is not about Democrats and Republicans, this is not about liberals and conservatives. Because the ruling class in Washington, D.C., sees us as nothing more than subjects. We’re not citizens anymore, in their minds.
So don’t get caught up with liberals, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and even people. Obama – Obama will be gone in a couple years. But guess what will still be there, and this is the common enemy: It’s government.
That’s the common enemy. It’s not Nancy Pelosi, it’s not Barack Obama, it’s not the faces and the names. These people come and go. The government remains. That’s what’s becoming oppressive, that’s what’s starting to become intrusive, more and more intrusive, and that’s what’s encroaching on our liberties.
His interview with Alex Jones earlier that year rung a number of similar notes from antigovernment conspiracy theorists:
JONES: What about this issue? Many sheriffs have said, Sheriff Clarke, that if the executive orders come down banning semi-autos, or whatever … Seriously, if they try to take physically take semi-autos, I know a lot of veterans and people that have had enough, and I would not want to be the police or sheriff’s department ordered by the Feds to try to go get guns. What is your take on the fact that, from a lot of analysts that I talk to, think that the Obama Marxist types want to start a civil war in this county. Ah, they gotta know what’s gonna happen when they try to confiscate guns.
CLARKE: Well, first of all, to me, that would be an act of terror. So, the people of Milwaukee County do not have to worry about me enforcing some sort of order that goes out and collects everybody’s handgun or rifles or any kind of firearm and makes them turn them in. And the reason is, I don’t want to get shot. Because I believe that if somebody tried to enforce something of that magnitude, you would see the second coming of an American Revolution, the likes of which would make the first Revolution pale by comparison. So the people of Milwaukee County don’t have to worry about me engaging in that sort of tyranny.
In the interview, Clarke also brought up the case of the horrifying massacre of six Sikhs at a temple near Milwaukee, an act perpetrated by a longtime white supremacist. Clarke questioned the coverage of the case, saying: “This isn’t about reducing violence. This is about attacking the Second Amendment. This is going after the wrong crowd.”
Jones replied: “Exactly. Let me ask you this question: Why does the government class, the socialist class, why do they want our guns so bad right now? What are they worried about in the future?”
Clarke replied: “Well, I don’t want to get way out there and try to guess to what they’re getting at, but you know, government control cannot go on as long as people have some sort of ability to say, ‘Hey, wait just a doggone minute.’ And as long as that exists, the government, they – that’s what the government is, they don’t really scare the criminal, they support the criminal, after they’ve been arrested.
“But what they fear is a law-abiding person who’s gonna load up – I mean, read the Declaration of Independence. It’s right there. We’re a law-abiding people saying enough is enough, you are exerting too much influence in our lives, this is tyrannical, and it’s going to stop. That’s what we’re worried about.”
A year later, he appeared on Fox News to discuss that “second American Revolution" with Judge Jeanine Pirro:
CLARKE: It was talking about the feds coming in and going into homes, forcing their way into homes and removing firearms. And you know, the thought is preposterous.
PIRRO: You know what, the thought of it is preposterous. And people are very concerned about it. I mean, this whole idea of identifying gun owners in newspapers and chipping away at these gun rights. And getting a registry. This guy’s a chief, this guy McCarthy, the chief of the third-largest police department in the nation, who works for Rahm Emanuel, who’s so connected to the White House, who’s saying, ‘You know what, we should be able to put a chip in your gun.’ Are you crazy?
CLARKE: You know, that’s why the American people bristle at the thought of a national gun registry. And if the United States – the White House or anybody – would turn over the names of gun owners in the United States to a foreign nation, that would be an act of betrayal on the American people.
By early 2014, Fox began having Clarke appear on-air to discuss the contentious issue of police brutality when handling African Americans, which spurred the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. In his Dec. 12, 2014, appearance on Fox News with Megyn Kelly, Clarke blamed President Obama for creating the problem.
“He built this racial divide,” Clarke said. “It was a wound that had been healing for a number of years, a number of decades […] and he reopened it with his divisive politics. … Who would have thought that after the election of the first black president in the history of the United States that we would need a period of reconstruction to try to put this country back together?”
We have to begin to ask when white society is going to be through paying for the sins of slavery. We’re now punishing people for sins they didn’t commit. I’ve forgiven and I’ve moved on. I’ve stamped that bill marked for the wrongs of slavery paid in full. This country is now open for opportunities for all people. Instances of discrimination, racism had to go underground. OK, it’s been uprooted, the president of the United States said a couple of days ago that they were deep rooted, and that’s simply not true.
So we have to have that discussion as to when we’re really gonna be ready to move on and forgive people, especially people today who have no connection to what’s being talked about.
Clarke also has indicated his alignment with the CSPOA belief that the county sheriff has the authority to ignore other civic authorities, while discussing the riots in Baltimore this spring with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly:
O’REILLY: If the county commissioner – it’s a speculative question, it certainly could happen – gave you an order to stand down while people rioted and looted in the county, you’d have to obey that order, correct?
CLARKE: No. No. No, that’s not going to happen. I’m going to have to defy that order, obviously. I report to the people, that’s who elected me sheriff.
O’REILLY: So if you had been in Baltimore and you had received the order from the mayor to stand down, as we have credible reporting that she gave, you would have defied the order?
CLARKE: Defied the order, sent my officers out there, made sure they had the proper resources, and made sure that they know that they have the authority to use a reasonable amount of force to accomplish their mission.
Clarke’s rhetoric is frequently laden with racially incendiary vitriol. His recent remark on Fox that Hillary Clinton is willing to “prostitute herself to secure the black vote” is only the most recent example. He also blamed Sandra Bland, a black Texas woman who died while in custody, for her own demise, saying he would “have been embarrassed” if Bland was his own daughter.
Clarke also regularly indulges in conspiracism, claiming that President Obama is trying to “emasculate” police in order to impose dictatorial control. He has even weighed in on LGBT rights, calling for “pitchforks and torches” in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Nor has he slowed down on the references to armed revolt, telling a World Net Daily interviewer that it might take a “Lexington moment” to stop gay rights and the “socialist agenda.”
On the Oct. 11 broadcast of Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News show, he attacked Obama for flying out to Oregon to meet with townspeople in Roseburg after a mass shooting on the community college campus there, suggesting the president reduce his security instead:
You know, [President Obama] never misses an opportunity to politicize something. Any time there’s a tragedy that happens in the United States, he goes into his political bag of tricks to see what he can accomplish on his agenda and it’s sad that he exploits these people and I’m glad they saw through it. When he takes advantage and uses them to achieve a political agenda, I’m glad to see that they slapped back. This is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ president and he speaks as he is surrounded by this protective bubble, which he should have. If he wants to disarm people, he should start with his security staff.
However, he went completely off the rails, veering into eliminationist rhetoric advocating the “eradication” of other citizens, when he went on Fox News with Pirro on August 29, 2015, to discuss the recent murder of a law enforcement officer in Texas that, according to local law enforcement officials, had been inspired by the anti-police rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement. (It shortly emerged that, in fact, there was nothing linking the murder to the black activists at all.)
Clarke was in a full rage. “Jeanine, I am too pissed off tonight to be diplomatic about what’s going on, and I’m not going to stick my head in the sand about [this],” he answered when Pirro asked if it was “open season” on cops out there. “I said last December that war had been declared on the American police officer, led by some high profile people — one of them coming out of the White House, one of them coming out of the Department of Justice.”
He continued: “It’s open season right now, no doubt about it. … I’m tired of hearing people call [Black Lives Matter] black activists. They’re black slime, and it needs to be eradicated from American society and American culture. I need every law-abiding person in the United States of America to stand up and start pushing back against this slime, this filth disparaging the American law enforcement officers within these communities.”
Clarke continued in a similar vein after hearing remarks from the sheriff in Texas suggesting that “all lives matter”:
We need to hear more of that from everybody. This whole movement — 'Black Lies' I've renamed it — because it's based on a lie, the 'Hands up, don't shoot.' That's why I said this slime need to be eradicated from American society and American culture.
Rather than back down, Clarke has since doubled down on such talk. On Oct. 25, 2015, he appeared on Fox & Friends and proceeded to describe the Black Lives Matter activists as "garbage" and "subhuman creeps."
That kind of rhetoric is fairly common among the militiamen and hatemongers of the extremist right. It’s fairly uncommon – and downright disturbing – coming from an elected officer of the law, especially one with a taste for TV appearances and an audience eager to lap up what he says.