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The 'Terrible Man Theory' of David Clarke

Sep. 5, 2017
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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The “Great Man Theory of History” has long been disputed. In order for a single person to be celebrated for changing history, skeptics note, that individual, no matter how gifted, needs support from enormous numbers of unsung activists in the same time and place. On the other hand, the “Terrible Man Theory of History” (which I just made up) is alive and well. Obvious examples are the current president of the United States and David Clarke, the suddenly departed sheriff of Milwaukee County.

The gist of the “Terrible Man Theory” is that, although it’s very difficult for a single individual to spread positive change on his own, it is far too easy for the wrong person in a powerful position to do enormous damage to the lives of others. That’s why no matter what Clarke does next, the most important fact about his resignation is that he’ll no longer have legal authority to abuse and endanger the already troubled lives of individuals incarcerated in the Milwaukee County Jail.

Even though most of those jailed were awaiting trial without any final determination of guilt or innocence, Clarke treated all of them as subhuman, creating a culture of contempt, permitting his jailers to inflict inhumane, torturous punishment, sometimes fatally.

When Gov. Scott McCallum appointed Clarke sheriff in 2002, the young African American was a blank slate. Despite his Republican appointment, Clarke immediately announced he would run as a Democrat. Not because he was one, mind you: Clarke refused to join the party and attacked Democrats relentlessly—especially African American Democrats. That made Clarke the sweetheart of right-wing radio and suburban Republicans.

Running as a fake Democrat was a political dirty trick. Clarke could win the Democratic nomination in the low-turnout primary by attracting white Republican votes and conservative black votes. Then, he only had to defeat a weaker Republican in the much higher turnout general election.

I can’t prove Clarke hasn’t always been the vicious, right-wing extremist everyone sees today, but when I first met him shortly before his appointment, he came off as a decent guy. I was one of those hopeful about his political future. But very quickly you could almost see him changing before your eyes. I’ve always thought the change was driven by two ugly, destructive forces that became entwined in modern America: Republican politics and right-wing talk radio.

Being on right-wing radio helped Clarke politically. But it also pushed him to become more and more outrageous. If you want to attract attention, claim Black Lives Matter is secretly in league with ISIS to destroy America. If your primary audience is white racists, pander to racial prejudice and say African Americans sell drugs not because so many are shut out of the legitimate economy, but “because they’re uneducated, they’re lazy, and they’re morally bankrupt.”

There’s always been a lucrative speaking circuit before white supremacists and other right-wing extremists for “good blacks” willing to feed racial hatred. Soon, Clarke was more than doubling his public salary and basking in the adulation of some very twisted white folks. But it was Clarke’s public job that took the most toxic turn as he sought national recognition as racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s natural successor.

It starts with feeding inmates a repulsive, inedible mixture of food scraps as punishment for misbehavior. In any American jail, misbehavior is often a direct consequence of the large number of mentally ill inmates warehoused there. Once you begin punishing mental illness rather than treating it and feeding the mentally ill dog food, it’s a short leap to withholding drinking water entirely. That will teach them to stop acting so crazy.

Terrill Thomas’ dehydration death last year after his cell’s water was shut off wasn’t the first. In 2011, Antonio Cowser, another mentally ill inmate who’d been jailed for a traffic violation, died in Clarke’s jail under nearly identical circumstances.

Cruel male indifference toward women in Clarke’s jail required women giving birth while incarcerated to do so in shackles. Did his staff really fear women would try to escape in the midst of childbirth? Perhaps that cruelty was preferable to the death of a newborn after a woman gave birth last year—alone in her cell and ignored by jailers as she screamed for help. Or the woman awarded $6.7 million by a jury in January who testified she’d been repeatedly raped by jail guards.

At this writing, Clarke hasn’t revealed what he plans to do next. I’m betting on right-wing media; he’s always been better at stirring public controversy with outrageous attacks than anything else. Media blowhards feeding racial hatred can still be destructive, but they mostly exist within an ugly, little closed circle talking to people like themselves. Nobody dies. Nobody gets tortured, abused or repeatedly raped. 

Here’s hoping this is the last column anyone ever writes about Clarke inflicting damage on the lives of others.

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