Seeing Black & Blue: Why David Clarke Jr. Is Problematic
Plagiarism scandals, pranks from the likes of Eric Andre and Stephen Colbert and Donald Trump officially becoming the GOP nominee (and using the music of Earth, Wind & Fire and Queen without permission) — the Republican National Convention is currently underway in Cleveland, Ohio, and not surprisingly the spectacle has drawn the nation’s full attention. But as we head into the final day of the madness, some of the train wrecks have overshadowed a more serious moment that occurred on Day 1, that deserves more attention than it’s received: David Clarke Jr.‘s speech.
Clarke is a black man. He’s also a police officer, a sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, which is predominantly Democratic. Although he’s registered as a Democrat Clarke is regarded as a conservative, which is why his presence at this year’s RNC is so important.
“Ladies and gentlemen I would like to make something very clear,” Clarke said to begin his RNC speech. “Blue Lives Matter!” The declaration received unanimous applause and cheers from the predominantly white crowd. Clarke continued his speech by acknowledging the deaths of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas, as well as the acquittal of Lt. Brian Rice in the death of Freddie Gray, but never once mentions the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The rhetoric reflects the thoughts of conservatives and, most importantly, it’s spoken by a man who’s both black and a law enforcement official.
In a report on Clarke, The Washington Post spoke with Juliet Hooker, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, who offered the following:
“The appeal of a black conservative like Clarke is that their views disrupt what I call racialized solidarity…(i.e. that blacks and whites tend to have different views of the same events, as has been largely true of Black Lives Matter even with all the videos showing police escalation, culpability, etc.).
This allows the critique of BLM [Black Lives Matter] to become an issue that Republicans can say is about ideology, not racism. Clarke himself does this when he talks about liberals not being willing to call them a hate group, etc.
This narrative also fits in with the Republican base’s feeling that racism against whites is a problem that is not being acknowledged and that is stronger than anti-black racism.”
Clarke is Trump’s trump card. A black man who embodies the ideology of conservatives, is an anomaly in the United States where so many people of color can speak to identity politics and are unavoidably aware of the ways in which life is different for them based on their race. Through Clarke, conservative claims aren’t biased anymore because they come from a man who occupies two very important spaces right now — black and blue — and they will certainly be more quoted.
The logic at work here is not only ignorant but offensive, and it’s unfortunate that Clarke fails to realize this. By pitting black and blue lives against one another, the officer isn’t only generalizing the problem of race relations in America, but he’s allowing himself to be a scapegoat.
Prior to his speech at the RNC, Clarke wrote an opinion piece calling Black Lives Matter a “domestic hate group” and “one of the most destructive groups to the well-being and justice for black Americans that exist today.” Although multiple Black Lives Matter activists have publicly condemned the police murders in Baton Rouge and Dallas, many people continue to believe that the organization is responsible for these incidents. Now, they can use this policeman’s statements as a cover defense which boils down to: “Well, Black Lives Matter must be bad, even Clarke thinks so and he’s black.”
Prior to Clarke taking center stage at the RNC, a similar incident occurred in El Paso, Texas. Greg Allen, the city’s current police chief, referred to Black Lives Matter as a “radical hate group.” Allen, like Clarke, is a black man and is the city’s first black chief. Although Allen offered a follow up statement where he explained his remarks were made “during an emotional time,” he doesn’t retract what was said about Black Lives Matter. Instead, he justifies his response by referencing anti-cop rhetoric allegedly chanted at Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
There’s a lot to unpack in Allen’s follow up statement, but what was most alarming was this: “I am a police officer first and foremost and it truly pains me any time an officer is killed.” The latter is understandable — he’s accountable both for himself and the lives of thousands of police officers. But to say that you’re a “police officer first and foremost” undermines Allen’s real reality: he is a black man first and foremost. The uniform may take precedence over this when worn but at some point it’s taken off, and Allen ends his day just how he began it — as a black man.
Now, I’m specifically calling out Greg Allen for good reason: he serves my hometown. But just as much as I can commend him for keeping El Paso one of the safest cities in the country, I can also hold him accountable for continuing to exhibit problematic rhetoric that endangers black people. I’m not the only one who thinks this; a black El Paso mother took Allen to task recently over his comments, referencing the death of Tamir Rice to highlight the disparity between black and white people in America.
“If a [black] 12-year-old can’t play ‘Cops & Robbers’ like a white boy can, you can’t tell me All Lives Matter,” the mother said.
In a time where racial tensions are high, Clarke and Allen are human shields being used to deflect necessary critiques of our country’s law enforcement infrastructure. To address problems of implicit bias and the mistreatment of minorities by police officers equates to not acknowledging and appreciating the services they provide to us. By generalizing the issue like this, people put cops into a position where accountability is seen as persecution, a logic which doesn’t hold water. When Clarke or Allen refer to isolated incidents in which Black Lives Matter protestors allegedly chanted anti-cop rhetoric, they fail to see their own hypocrisy in refusing to acknowledge recurring incidents of unnecessary police violence against black men.
This is a burden that black cops unfortunately have to deal with: this double consciousness of being black and blue and how they tread that line on a day-to-day basis. Prior to his untimely passing Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson wrote a letter on his Facebook account that spoke to this. Maybe he knew there would be repercussions for saying what he said; maybe he didn’t. Still, he was honest in a way that most police officers don’t seem to want to be, being honest with himself as both a black man and a black cop, and promoting the type of dialogue that creates positive change.
That’s what we need more of.