Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has spent nearly four decades serving in law enforcement, and the last 14 years as his county's chief law enforcement official. The preservation of law and order was his principal motivation, he said, until larger political currents thrust him into the national spotlight.
"I'm a 38-year career cop," Clarke said in an interview. "That's all I wanted to be. I wanted to focus on public safety, making us a safer community, fighting for the resources to get that done."
Today, Clarke is widely known for his criticism of President Obama and the "urban pathologies" he argues have been fostered by groups like "Black Lives Matter," which he has dubbed an "anarchist movement" that ultimately results in more blacks being killed.
Clarke said it was election as sheriff, and his reading of history, that convinced him he needed to adapt. "I realized that if I didn't engage with and deal with the politics, I wasn't going to do very well," Clarke said. "So I could be naive, and try to ignore that fact, and probably not survive, or I could participate in that discourse."
"I'm a great cop," Clarke added. "Nobody would say otherwise. But I realized I needed to get better at the politics if I was going to survive, because a lot of what we do is political. And as you can see, we've been dragged into this thing."
When rioting broke out in Milwaukee in early August, the result of a young black man wielding a weapon being gunned down by a police officer, Clarke's role as a leader in law enforcement converged with his status as a figure in national media. The president notably remained silent on the incident, something Clarke said was probably better than the alternative.
"I think it was almost a blessing that for whatever reason, he didn't say too much," Clarke said. "He's made these statements that law enforcement officers treat black males differently than white males in their policing, all of these things that are unfounded … You cannot do that as the president, because when you're the president, you have to put your partisan nature aside. You are the president of all people. Not a political party. Not a particular movement. All people."
"But he doesn't have the discipline," Clarke added with a typical aphorism, "because he's a one-trick pony."
Washington Examiner: What's the status of unrest in Milwaukee?
Clarke: The rule of law, law and order, has been restored. When the social order collapses, which is what happened in Baltimore and Ferguson and Milwaukee a few weeks ago, tribal behavior takes over.
When tribal behavior takes over, the law of the jungle replaces the rule of law, and it's utter chaos. So the objective for a public safety executive is to restore law and order as soon as possible. Job one is to preserve life and property. In order to do that, you have to quickly marshal your resources. We did that. We put together a comprehensive plan. It was a joint operation with the Milwaukee Police Department…
So the state of things today, we're monitoring it, we're monitoring social media. The guy who was shot by the Milwaukee police officer, who has a criminal past, doesn't mean he deserved to die, but at the same time, he engaged in behavior that contributed to his own death. I suppose now Jesse Jackson is coming to town. He's got to get in here and get his face time. So there's potential agitation that could still pick up. We're still monitoring the situation. We've got some people deployed. Only time will tell.
The problem that I have, it didn't take 48 hours for the political class here to deflect from the conditions that lead to riots. I've pointed those out. The urban pathologies, they don't cause riots, but that is the volatile mix. The spark comes along, it can be anything, and it sets that volatile mix on fire.
Examiner: What are those urban pathologies?
Clarke: Milwaukee has it, Baltimore has it, Ferguson has it, St. Louis has it, [Los Angeles] has it, any urban area with a ghetto presence has these pathologies. They are inescapable poverty, massive unemployment, especially black unemployment, [and] a failing K-12 school system that is not educating kids, not meeting its core mission.
You have a 59 percent graduation rate in Milwaukee public schools. We spend $1.2 billion in the city to educate kids, and all we're getting for it is a 59 percent graduation rate. It's a predominantly black school district. It's ironic that we've returned to a separate but unequal school system 60 years after Brown v. Board of education. And we have father-absent homes, 70 percent of kids born in Milwaukee are black kids, born with no engaged father.
I'm from Milwaukee, I've watched this city continue to circle the drain. I've pointed this out in my position as sheriff, because now I have a platform to speak. I've pointed this out for the last 14 years.
We have to reverse this urban pathology. This city has been under the control of progressive liberal Democrats forever. It's these failed urban policies that create government dependency. They plant and nurture a welfare dependency that leads to the rise and growth of an underclass.
This is not symbolic of all blacks in Milwaukee. But we have an emerging underclass. We saw those underclass behaviors on display during the riots. Finally I think it caught on: The national media started to ask questions about these urban pathologies in these American ghettos and what's being done about it. They're all under the control of progressive Democrats. Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis, you can go on.
This stuff is simmering right now. It was simmering before the riots. It simmers under the surface until a spark comes along, and the spark turns this volatile mix into a fire. Not less than 48 hours after the riots, we were right back in the mindset that got us here to begin with.
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We had a lot of talk from the political class. Tom Barrett, the mayor, members of the city council [saying], 'We have to redouble our efforts.' We got nothing but platitudes. We have to work together? I don't know what any of that crap means. Because if we continue to work together on what we're working on now, nothing is going to change, nothing is going to change for the better.
I was born and raised in this city. I've never left. This used to be a thriving city. This used to be a city of 750,000 people in the early '70s before the population decline started. That was the middle class voting with their feet, seeing the storm clouds on the horizon, the school scores were falling off, the industrial age ended, we had a lot of jobs leave Milwaukee.
That's what you want your city to be. You want your foundation to be a strong middle class — they left. They were replaced by people who require more government services than who put in effort to pay into this thing.
These progressives seem to be content with the status quo. This is their voting base. This is where they get their political power from. This electorate in Milwaukee. They're not interested, really, in shrinking the size of the underclass, shrinking the size of government.
Because once people become more self-sufficient, more self-sustaining … they probably vote a little more independently. It doesn't mean they don't vote Democrat. But they can figure some of this out themselves. And I think that's what this progressive class fears the most is people opening their eyes and saying, 'Look, we've voted this way for 50, 60, 70 years.'
They're afraid of that. Nothing changes for the better. Things continue to get worse. And if things just level off, the progressive class is okay with it.
Examiner: You're a career law enforcement official. How and when did you become politically interested and engaged?
Clarke: When I became sheriff. Look, I'm an elected official. I'm a 38-year career cop. That's all I wanted to be. I wanted to focus on public safety, making us a safer community, fighting for the resources to get that done.
But if you're an elected official, I don't care what it is… you're thrust into a political environment. I tried as best I could to fend off the political nature of this.
I realized that if I didn't engage with and deal with the politics, I wasn't going to do very well. So I could be naive, and try to ignore that fact, and probably not survive, or I could participate in that discourse.
I'll pat myself on the back. I'm a great cop. Nobody would say otherwise. But I realized I needed to get better at the politics if I was going to survive, because a lot of what we do is political. And as you can see, we've been dragged into this thing post-Ferguson.
But law enforcement has been in this position before. We were in this position in the 1960s, when war had been declared on American police officers and riots took place all over the country. So this is nothing new for us. But the tendency is, for cops, career cops, we kind of live by an unwritten rule to stay out of the political discourse and ... just focus on public safety.
But after what I saw happen in the Ferguson riots, Baltimore, and a lot of the agitation that happened post-Ferguson, I started reading up on this movement, and I knew it was an anarchist movement. The model is the same as it was in the '60s. It was the Students for a Democratic Society that led this thing back then. They were the ones that organized the Black Panthers and other subversive groups.
So I started reading up on the history of this anarchist movement here in the United States. I learned a lot, I saw what was happening today, and it ran parallel with what was happening in the 1960s, and I called it out early on. I said this has nothing to do with black lives. This is an anarchist movement that has masked wrapped around using poor blacks. That's what they did in the '60s.
They put that on as a mask to gain support and sympathy from the unsuspecting public who might be watching this from afar, reading about it in a newspaper or watching it on TV. I started unmasking them.
I found it an untenable position to hold, not engaging in politics. We got dragged into this. My thought at the time was, based on my understanding ... that if I did not engage and defend this profession, this profession was going to become weakened.
Cops are one of the front lines of order and liberty. We defend the rule of law. We're not the end of the rule of law, but we're on the front lines of it. And chaos is what these riots are, this agitation, it's an attempt to create chaos and weaken the rule of law. Once that comes crashing down, it's the law of the jungle. That's every man for himself. It's survival of the fittest mode. It's very crude, very primitive, but that's what happens during a riot.
Examiner: The president usually weighs in on these situations. Do you think it's interesting that he didn't have much to say about Milwaukee?
Clarke: I think his silence was deafening. Anytime there's an incident, you have a national disaster, you have a terror attack, the president needs to take the podium to try to calm the waters and reassure people. The president doesn't have that talent.
He gets up there, he pulls out his political agenda, and he sees what he needs to check off to accomplish his political agenda. He's done it over and over, and he uses it to accomplish a political agenda. Presidents can't do that. Presidents need to calm the water, reassure people that they aren't taking sides, that they understand what's going on here.
Instead he gets in there and takes sides. When presidents speak, they need to choose their words carefully. He knows that. … You don't say things like 'The police acted stupidly,' which is what he said in the Cambridge police incident.
He could've said it's an unfortunate incident, they're investigating, they'll straighten things out, and get out. But he didn't. He said they acted stupidly. And then you look at Trayvon Martin and 'If I had a son.'
He hasn't said that about victims of crimes. Young black men who were honorable people. We've all heard about it in cities across America. Some rising basketball star in high school, he's a good student and whatever, he gets caught in the crossfire of a gang fight, and he gets killed. I've never heard Obama say that could be his son.
I think the reason he didn't say anything about the Milwaukee situation was that there were not a lot of angles he could use. He couldn't turn it into a race issue. You had a black cop shoot a black male. He couldn't use a gun control issue. The suspect had a stolen firearm, so background checks don't apply. He couldn't say this is why we need universal background checks.
I think it was almost a blessing that for whatever reason, he didn't say too much. I think that's what he should do in most of these situations. … He's made these statements that law enforcement officers treat black males differently than white males in their policing, all of these things that are unfounded.
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You can't do that as a president. You can do that as an activist. You can do that in a lot of other positions. You cannot do that as the president, because when you're the president, you have to put your partisan nature aside, because you are the president of all people. Not a political party. Not a particular movement. All people. But he doesn't have the discipline, because he's a one-trick pony.
Examiner: What did you think of Donald Trump's speech in Milwaukee about the problems facing black communities?
Clarke: Nobody saw that coming. Some small moves may not reveal themselves early on in the larger scheme of the chess board. It's a strategy. And some moves are big. You move a bigger piece, it's more powerful, you move the rook, the bishop, the queen. Those have more influence over the board. But from a political strategy standpoint, nobody saw that coming.
He caught the Democrats off guard on that. They thought he was going to ignore the black vote. They just assumed that. Trust me, they're not showing it and they're not saying it, but that caused them great consternation. Now they have to go to back to some of their strongholds where the black vote is and reassure people, keep them on the plantation.
Don't let them off the plantation. Don't let them wander off like I did. Now they've got to spend resources in areas where they didn't think they would have to. Which is why I say it was a brilliant political move.
Examiner: What advice have you given Trump?
I don't give him too much advice. He didn't get to where he is in life by being stupid. Far be it from me to advise and tell him what to do. I have had those conversations about these urban pathologies. We had a conversation about the social order in Milwaukee. You look in Chicago, it's worse.
When he was here in Milwaukee, following the riots, we had a private meeting, and I kind of brought up this thing that leads to these sort of situations. The riots have a condition, it's not about the police, the use of force, the police general, it's not about whether black lives matter. It's about these urban pathologies that have been in place for a long time and these failed progressive policies.
If you really want to solve the issue of police and black community interactions, it's not with some of these warm and fuzzy ideas. Where are the police mainly deployed? High crime areas. Where are those? Predominantly black areas. When police go out, they enforce the law to keep the peace. They're going to come into contact with predominantly black people. They're going to predominantly arrest black people, because in that area, that's who they're coming in contact with to try to keep the peace and enforce the law.
So if we want to reduce the potential of a deadly interaction between a police officer and a young black male, first of all, stop trying to fix the police. Fix the ghetto. You've got all these young black males growing up without fathers in their lives to shape their behaviors. They live life on the street. They have no positive role models. This is the thing that I've been harping on that we have to deal with. Leave the police alone. We have oversight over the police.
There's a process if someone feels mistreated. There's a complaint process. We have to work within the processes in our society. We have institutions, and the rule of law that deals with public order. If you don't like all of the outcomes, you can go to your elected officials. You can change the law.
Here in Milwaukee, with the crime and violence, 455 people murdered this year, mainly black. The suspects are mainly black. That gets kind of ignored. But one white cop shoots one black male and riots erupt. This is typical dysfunctional, cultural, black underclass behavior.
Ignoring the things that really matter, all the murders of black people. Many good black people get caught in gang fights, in the crossfire or whatever, that doesn't seem to matter. Those black lives don't seem to matter.
I ask myself, Why is it that our young black men, not all of them, but too many of them gravitate towards questionable lifestyle choices, gang involvement, drug dealing? Why is it? It's a cultural thing. That's why I call it cultural dysfunction. Why don't they gravitate towards more positive things? Because there's no guidance in the leadership. That's ineffective parenting.
These are the things I have talked to Donald Trump about, among other things. His outreach, nobody saw that coming. They're screwing around right now realizing they're going to have to shore up a demographic they take for granted.
Examiner: What's on your recommended reading list?
Clarke: My Grandfather's Son by Clarence Thomas, about growing up poor and the influence his grandfather had on him and having a decent male figure to shape his behavior. Another one is Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell.