Trump’s favorite sheriff claims another victim

May 9, 2017

Eric Ruder explains why Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has become a lightning rod of resistance in immigrant communities across southeastern Wisconsin.

MILWAUKEE COUNTY Sheriff David Clarke campaigned for Donald Trump and was one of only three Black speakers at the Republican National Convention. He also shares with Trump a penchant for flamboyant headgear--cowboy hats, in Clarke's case.

But Clarke is Trump's favorite sheriff for more substantial reasons.

Like Trump, Clarke has a condescending attitude toward the truth, contempt for anyone who dares speak out about police brutality, and an above-the-law mentality when it comes to punishing enemies and rewarding friends.

Plus there's their shared hostility toward immigrants. Clarke has placed his officers at the service of Trump's crusade to cause terror in immigrant communities.

But in the process, Clarke has spurred a mass outpouring of resistance in southeastern Wisconsin. On two separate occasions since February, tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters have marched to shine a spotlight on Clarke's record of abuse and the deployment of his officers to act as federal immigration agents.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

Clarke enthusiastically enrolled his department in Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) notorious 287(g) program, which turns any local cop into a federal immigration agent with one month's training--and then sets them loose to ask anyone and everyone, but especially people with dark skin and accents, about their immigration status.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz is the executive director of Milwaukee's Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization that has spearheaded a multiyear campaign to expose the Clarke's abusive police methods.

Neumann-Ortiz's organization mobilized as many as 50,000 people for a February 13 "Day Without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees" march--and on May Day, some 30,000 marched again. At the May Day protest, the signs read, "No Gestapo sheriffs!" and "Stop being ICE cold, keep families together."

As Neumann-Ortiz told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Immigrant and refugee communities, and those that stand with them, are not going to be pushed into the shadows. We're not going to let our constitutional rights be stripped away from all of us, nor allow discriminatory laws to be legalized...We're making a strong statement that immigrants and refugees contribute significantly to the well-being of our economy, and that we should be helping them, thanking them and making life easier for them, instead of trying to implement these kinds of policies.

AT ONE time, Clarke was on Trump's short list to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). After that job was filled, he became a leading candidate for serving as DHS liaison with state, local and tribal police departments.

But Clarke's appointment may now be in jeopardy. Last week, an inquest jury recommended charges be brought against two jail supervisors and five officers for the role they played in the death of 38-year-old Terrill Thomas, an African American man who died of dehydration in a solitary confinement cell in the Milwaukee County Jail after the water supply to his cell was shut off for seven days.

When a reporter recently asked Clarke about the case, he feigned not remembering Thomas' name--while simultaneously recalling every detail of what landed Thomas in the jail Clarke oversees.

"I have nearly 1,000 inmates," replied Clarke in a statement. "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? The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about."

What Clarke never acknowledges is that Thomas was mentally ill, and that other inmates at the jail repeatedly alerted guards to the man's deteriorating condition.

It's also not the first time before or since Thomas's execution-by-dehydration that jail personnel have punitively shut down the water supply to an inmate's cell, in clear violation of jail policy.

Thomas isn't Clarke's only victim. Four inmates died in Clarke's jail in a six-month period in 2016, including a newborn infant.

Shade Swayzer was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant when she was transferred from a special-needs unit to a maximum-security unit. When she told guards her water broke, the guard laughed at her, according to Swayzer. Guards didn't check on her again until six hours after she gave birth. The baby lived long enough to breast feed briefly.

This record of neglect should be sufficient to land Clarke in one of those cells in the maximum-security wing. But Clarke's callous disregard for the people confined in his jail is just the beginning.

There are also his rants about Black Lives Matter, which he calls "Black Lies Matter" and claims is getting ready to "join forces with ISIS." There's his description of participants in the January 21 Women's March as a "freak show." He calls Planned Parenthood "Planned Genocide."

Especially troubling for a law enforcement officer, there's his bullying and threats of violence against anyone who disagrees with him. Or even shakes their head at him.

Clarke had a half dozen of his deputies harass Dan Black back in January. Black's crime? Shaking his head at Clarke on an airplane for wearing Dallas Cowboys fan gear on a day that the Green Bay Packers were facing them. As Black told the audience at this year's May Day march:

Two hours later, when we landed in Milwaukee, I was met with six sheriff's deputies. I was arrested and interrogated. I was scared. I filed a complaint with the county. How did Sheriff Clarke respond? He posted a death threat on Facebook for me. If this is how he acts for this, how are we supposed to trust him with 287g? We can't. There can't be 287g. Sanctuaries cities now.

CLARKE'S TIGHT embrace of the Trump agenda has turned him into a lightning rod for resistance among immigrant communities in southeastern Wisconsin. But the sheriff's affinity for Trump goes beyond peddling the same myths about a wave of crime committed by the undocumented.

Clarke's dismissive attitude toward facts extends to whether police brutality even exists, as he made clear on Fox & Friends in 2015:

First off, there is no police brutality in America. We ended that back in the '60s. There's a new Harvard study out that shows that there is no racism in the hearts of police officers. They go about their daily duty, if you will, to keep communities safe.

There are only two problems with this tidy little story. First are the broadcasts of countless cell phone videos over the course of years showing police shooting, Tasering, body-slamming and choking to death people under their control.

Second, there is no Harvard University study about the hearts of police officers.

Such disdain for the truth no doubt impresses Trump--but more than that, as an African American police officer, Clarke is the perfect messenger for Trump's authoritarian brand of law-and-order politics.

Clarke has called the consent decrees imposed by Barack Obama's Justice Department on abusive local police departments in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Chicago the "infusion of race politics into local policing."

But it's Clarke, a Democrat in a heavily Democratic city, who used "race politics" to win re-election three times since he was appointed sheriff in 2003. Now, the growing scrutiny of his bullying and negligent treatment of prisoners has made another election win in 2018 almost impossible.

But it should be remembered that it wasn't the Democratic Party establishment that challenged Clarke. It was repeated mobilizations of Milwaukee's immigrant communities and their supporters--in addition to Clarke's record of abuse--that undermined his popularity.

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