About Last Week: Two Particularly Telling Moments From Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke’s RNC Speech

Johnson: And why his quoting of MLK is especially — and grotesquely — ironic.

David Clarke, Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis., salutes after speaking during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

David Clarke, Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis., salutes after speaking during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Last Monday night, Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke took the center stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Clarke has been on a tear of late. A known opponent of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the previous night he battled CNN anchor Don Lemon on what he’s come to see as “rising anti-police rhetoric that I predicted two years ago” in the wake of events like Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson protests. On that night, Clarke was a relentless, rhetorical soldier, and Lemon was forced to not only go to commercial break, but to also try and steer (and calm) Clarke as he rambled across topics like “black on black crime,” police killings and Black Lives Matter while attempting to debunk the current narrative around disproportionate policing happening in black and brown communities. 

Kicking off the RNC Monday last week, though, he was more controlled, even if his message was still muddled and confusing. Taking the stage in full uniform, Clarke stood before the almost exclusively white convention crowd (the camera consistently panned across the audience, many wearing red, white and blue hats and shirts) and bellowed “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear: BLUE LIVES MATTER IN AMERICA!” It was the opening salvo in a series of divisive statements about our current social-political climate, as race and authority in America have become the central issue. Over eight and a half minutes, Clarke launched a litany of messages that galvanized the crowd there, making him the latest example of how white conservatism uses black people as props to justify their values.

The speech was steeped in the familiar retort that the “black lives matter” movement and its supporters often face: “All lives matter.” Clarke unflinchingly painted a now-familiar picture of the movement’s subscribers — that they are, in protest, violating a sacred pact in America based upon agreeing to uphold law enforcement and authority’s judgment and power. It’s a blanketing rhetoric that acts as a form of both oppression and suppression because there’s a calculated, chilling effect of seeing a black man, who’s a sheriff — himself granted one of the highest stations in society — literally and figuratively policing his own. For many white conservatives (in either party, really; it’s often overlooked how many white Democrats hold the same perspectives), Clarke is a bullet-proof example that America has not only progressed, but that those who deny that progress are the ones rooted in hate and laziness, who are the true racists. Those in the crowd who responded to his speech with thunderous applause seem to believe that America has not succeeded because too many of us have violated the implicit, pragmatic code of conduct that Clarke spoke to: Head down, don’t rock the boat for all of us, uphold what’s made this country great, and maybe, just maybe, you can get a slice of it, too.

I watched Clarke’s speech several times the next morning, feeling myself struck by a different tinge of trauma (and nausea) at his resolve in delivering this message. The #Alllivesmatter/#bluelivesmatter crowd got yet another intersectional hero in their family; make room at the table next to Uncle Clarence for Uncle David, too. Clarke’s speech — he painted an America where everyone is fearful of crime; where everyone wants to feel safe; and everyone celebrates at the latest acquittal in the Freddie Gray case; where everyone agrees that BLM and Occupy protestors are “anarchists” — was met with thunderous applause at times because these are the types of impenetrable beliefs that are sweeping embraces that everyone wants a peaceful, unified America. Like most reverse-sentiment, Clarke’s speech was the latest deployment of fear- and race-baiting that has governed the GOP’s party-wide rhetoric for at least eight years now; Clarke and Trump are the natural results of a party and a system that’s perniciously tried to suppress voters and marriage equality, and uphold things like mass incarceration of blacks in this country.

The message of unification though — that all lives matter — seemed to ring hollow that night. While he was, indeed, met with applause when talking about the statistical increase in Americans who fear for their safety, that applause dampened down when Clarke inadvertently bolstered the BLM cause with an equity-based statistic that illuminated disparity in this country: While America (socially writ here as “white people”) was reporting feeling unsafe at a rate of 50 percent, African-Americans were reporting the same concern at 70 percent. Dead silence, and perhaps where we’re all in agreement here is being unclear about what point Clarke was actually trying to make.

But it’s a point that provides a lesson here in one of the rhetorical devices that opponents of “black lives matter” as a sentiment or “Black Lives Matter” as an organization often employ: Statistics and proof can’t tell me anything that I choose not to believe. “All/Blue Lives Matter” rhetoric is a pointed jab at pro-black sentiments because it’s a form of societal policing that’s intended to challenge the pro-black sentiments at the heart of “black lives matter”; validating the movement, anguish, injustice and reform associated with it would violate what Clarke referred to as the “code of conduct” we collectively hold in society. And we can’t have that. We can’t have an acknowledgment that black lives need to matter still because doing so would assert that America hasn’t progressed quite as far as it likes to believe. For many, that moment of progress happened ages ago when America collectively dropped the shackles of slavery — a system we can usually tacitly agree was a bad choice, though we remain divided on how far we’ve come after it. For many in the country, progress has indeed been made; there’s a virtual sneer from the #alllivesmatter crowd that says, “look, we let you get Obama.”

Donald Trump, now the Republican Party nominee, has made a career and a campaign around these feelings; a self-congratulatory, empty id that asserts that I’m not the problem buddy, you’re the problem. I’m not fired, you’re fired. For not holding up your end of the bargain. For violating our implicit code of conduct. For the audacity to say “this isn’t fair.” For being a wimp. Because I’m great — stop holding us all back from being great still.

That’s Clarke, too, both in rhetoric and in representation: We’re obviously better because if he’s made it, we’ve all made it, he seems to be saying.

Which brings us to the other ironic rhetorical device he used that night. Invoking the name and words of Martin Luther King Jr., Clarke employs the popular tactic of out-of-context quoting of an MLK who’s been whitewashed over time. King, like Clarke himself, is a prop used by many to police blacks’ perception of progress, which makes the quote “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” all the more grotesque: It’s excerpted from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after being arrested for non-violent protest.

Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.