Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr.’s podcast, The People’s Sheriff, begins with a slide-guitar and a boot-stomp beat before segueing into the rich baritone of the sheriff himself. Over the next 40 minutes, Clarke holds forth on the topics of the day: Planned Parenthood is “what I call ‘Planned Genocide.’” Public schools are so dangerous “there should be a body camera on every teacher.” Higher education has become “a racketeering ring.” The Sheriff is also a big fan of presidential candidate Donald Trump: “He gets us. He understands us.”
Clarke, an African American law-enforcement leader who favors cowboy hats and often appears atop a horse, fights crime in Milwaukee, the U.S. city that has been called “the worst place” for African Americans to live. He has become a fixture of conservative media. Glenn Beck presents the sheriff’s podcast on his multimedia juggernaut, The Blaze, and he is a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke is also popular on Twitter, where he recently tweeted to his 127,000 followers that the young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement—he calls it “Black Lies Matter”—will eventually “join forces with ISIS.” He made sure to note, “You heard it first here.”
This story was produced by The Marshall Project in collaboration with The Atlantic.
Lately, Clarke has been focused on what he calls “the myth of mass incarceration,” warning that recent efforts by some of his fellow conservatives to reduce prison sentences and ease punishment for drug offenses are little more than “cuddling up to criminals.” He believes that rehabilitation is “not something for the criminal-justice system to do” and that incarceration should primarily function as a deterrent to breaking the law.
This past March at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Clarke participated in a panel discussion with Pat Nolan, a prominent Washington activist who was once imprisoned, and Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia. Both have been at the forefront of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration through a campaign called Right on Crime. The success of those efforts in traditionally tough states like Texas and Georgia can make change look inevitable.
But, at the conference, Clarke aimed to dispel that notion, telling the audience, “Folks, you’re not being told the truth when it comes to this criminal-justice reform.” Then, as they quibbled over statistics, Clarke said of Nolan: “The gentleman over here says, ‘Figures don’t lie.’ I disagree. I say, ‘Figures lie, and liars figure.’” The audience laughed and cheered. (“He essentially called me a liar, which is stunning,” Nolan told me afterward.)
In closing, Clarke pivoted to an emotional appeal for a more punitive approach to those who sell small amounts of drugs—a crime many conservatives say should not be punished with long prison sentences. “When you live in the ghetto,” Clarke said, “and you’re that single mom, and you’re working your tail off to keep your kid on the straight and narrow … You know you have to send your kid out into that street, and who is the first person he’s going to run into? The dope man. You find relief that we keep these individuals locked up.”
His warm reception at the conservative gathering came after a series of small wins: congressional compromises had watered down efforts both to reduce mandatory minimums and to create more opportunities for early release. Clarke and his allies, like a cadre of senators who defer to the misgivings of prosecutors and FBI officers, are fiercely opposed to any kind of criminal-justice reform. “I think what we’re seeing is sort of The Empire Strikes Back,” says Nolan. “There’s a combination of … people that live off the current system really ferociously fighting back.” Several of Nolan’s Right on Crime associates declined to speak on the record about Clarke: “They probably don’t want to anger someone who is on Fox News all the time.”
The 2016 election season is one reason for the justice-reform backlash, as candidates fortify themselves against attacks that they are soft on crime. Republican front-runner Trump has set a particularly harsh tone, calling lethal injection “too comfortable a way to go.” His former challenger, Senator Ted Cruz, once supported shortening federal drug sentences, but now he opposes the idea.
Michael O’Hear, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who studies Wisconsin polling data, says, “I think this whole presidential campaign has brought out a much broader phenomenon: a divide within the Right between political elites and rank-and-file.” This trend has been reflected in dozens of issues, from immigration to abortion to defense, and now it is hitting criminal justice. “A lot of party elites”—Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, the Koch Brothers—“have taken an increasingly skeptical stance towards tough on-crime policies, but that’s not necessarily shared by ordinary Republican voters.”
Those ordinary Republican voters now have a spokesman in Clarke (who declined to be interviewed for this story). He channels the doubts and fears of many Americans—including many African Americans, who are disproportionately the victims of crime. He is, for some, an uncomfortable reminder that Black Americans by and large supported tough sentencing laws a generation ago. For others, he represents an objection to the idea that all African Americans share the Black Lives Matter view of the police as an occupying force.
Debate over crime and punishment is especially acrimonious in Wisconsin, where Clarke has been in the middle of the fray for years. He fought local leaders when they attempted to reduce incarceration and promote rehabilitation, he supported a push to allow concealed weapons on Wisconsin college campuses, and he served as an informal adviser to Governor Scott Walker, who in his short-lived presidential campaign emerged as a leading voice for a punitive approach to crime. In other words, Clarke comes to the national fight over criminal justice with plenty of battle scars.
“My dad used to tell me, ‘Look son, opportunity does not come knocking,’” Clarke said on a recent podcast. “It’s usually running down the street, and you have to chase it down, you have to tackle it, and then you have to hang on to it.”
Clarke’s father, who was a paratrooper during the Korean War, moved to Milwaukee for a job with the post office. The sheriff has said his two-parent household—which “unfortunately in the Black community is no longer the norm, and it’s had devastating effects”—gave him respect for authority and personal responsibility. When he was 12, the Clarkes moved to a neighborhood where they were one of two African American families; in a largely positive magazine profile published in 2003, Clarke says he weathered racial epithets. He attended a mostly white, all-male Catholic high school.
Clarke’s ability to cross racial and political lines has proved helpful in a city where such lines are sharply drawn. In the 2012 presidential election, President Obama received 67 percent of the vote in Milwaukee County, where the electorate is predominantly African American, but just 32 percent in the surrounding white suburbs. In 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel declared the city “the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation.”
At 21, Clarke joined the city’s police force and spent two decades rising from patrol officer to homicide detective to commander. Eventually he headed the division that ran security for visiting politicians, among them then-Governor Scott McCallum. In 2002, the county sheriff resigned and McCallum appointed Clarke to the post, a move the new sheriff acknowledged would help the Republican governor appeal to Black voters. And yet, Clarke declared himself a Democrat, though he did not join the state party, because “that’s what the family history was,” as he told National Review (Milwaukee is overwhelmingly Democratic, so critics simply see his affiliation as an example of his opportunism). He ran for mayor of Milwaukee in 2004 and lost, but was reelected sheriff four times, most recently in 2014.
Like district attorneys (and unlike police chiefs), sheriffs are directly elected, which positions them to become iconoclastic public personalities. By far the most famous is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Arizona, who doubted the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate and houses some prisoners in tents—even when the temperature rises to 145 degrees. Another is Richard Mack, also of Arizona, who runs the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and supported Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his armed standoff with the government; Mack suggested that Bundy use women and children as human shields for deterrence against any trigger-happy federal agents. In 2013, his group named Clarke “Sheriff of the Year.”
Appearing on local radio shows, Clarke became an early voice of the country’s anti-establishment mood. Clarke “talks like Donald Trump,” says Percy Pitzer, a former prison warden who now runs a nonprofit that works with the children of those behind bars. “He says what’s on his mind, and it makes sense to people.” Numerous Milwaukeeans interviewed for this story echoed the Trump comparison.
Though Clarke’s most vocal opponents are Black leaders, he consistently polls well with Milwaukee’s Black population. In August 2014, Clarke ran a 23 percent lead over his Democratic-primary challenger, a white police lieutenant named Chris Moews, in areas of the city that were at least two-thirds Black, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel analysis. Some local critics chalk up that support to his skin color. But “when you look at older communities of color, there is a little more conservative thought going on there,” state Representative Mandela Barnes said. “In a primary-election electorate, you’re talking about older people,” and Clarke’s tough rhetoric makes them “feel safe.”
Clarke explains his popularity as a sign that African Americans are not nearly as opposed to tough-on-crime policies as is often assumed. For example, in the current Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton has faced criticism—particularly from younger African American activists—for her support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by her husband, which increased mandatory minimum penalties and helped disproportionately fill U.S. prisons with Black men. The lawyer Michelle Alexander has famously called such high levels of incarceration the “new Jim Crow,” though the actual influence of the 1994 bill on this rise has been much debated.
Still, most Black members of Congress at the time voted for the crime bill—as did Senator Bernie Sanders. Another crime bill, the 1986 measure to increase sentences for crack-cocaine possession, received similar black support. Backed by black pastors, mayors, and other community leaders, the bill’s supporters knew “that more Blacks than whites were likely to be incarcerated,” wrote historians Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, but they were driven by “a conviction that it might reduce the havoc on the streets where their constituents lived.”
Bill Clinton recently recounted this history in a bitter exchange with a Black Lives Matter activist. “I talked to a lot of African-American groups,” the former president said, indicating a generational divide. “They thought Black lives matter. They said, ‘Take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs.’”
Beyond just desperation, moral judgment may have played a role in this knotted political history. “I recall hearing ‘That’s what he gets’ every time one of ‘our youngsters’ was arrested,” historian Michael Javen Fortner writes in his book Black Silent Majority. “I remember that from the pews of my Pentecostal church sanctified working- and middle-class African Americans distinguished between saints and sinners.”
Though Clarke cites this history approvingly, his critics, including Fortner, do not see an inheritor of this legacy. They see a shill whose race is being used to validate a backlash against legitimate criticisms of police brutality. “Fox News is always trying to find that Black face that will legitimize their views,” Milwaukee Pastor Darryl Williams says, “and David Clarke just happens to be that person.”
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