On Saturday, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr., a frequent Fox News contributor and outspoken conservative, tweeted what appeared at first glance to be an incitement for his followers to riot:
While calls for violence and rioting have become more prevalent among Donald Trump supporters, Clarke became one of just a few police officers to be the ones calling for lawlessness.
He’s part of a movement called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a group of county-level law enforcement officers who believe they hold the highest authority in their particular county, above that of both the state and federal government.
Considered by some to be "a growing threat in the U.S.," the CSPOA was founded by Richard Mack, a gun rights activist who threatened to use women as human shields during the Bundy Ranch standoff, and Joe Arpaio, the embattled Arizona sheriff currently facing federal contempt charges for his aggressive racial profiling program.
Other than Arpaio, Clarke is one of the group’s most visible members – and one prone to violent, aggressive, and racially-charged rhetoric. Clarke has shrugged off concerns about police brutality, blamed Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown for their own deaths, called President Obama a “heartless, soulless bastard” for defending black men killed by police, and claimed citizens should refuse to call 911, but rather handle crime themselves.
He’s even used the “pitchfork and torches” rhetoric before when discussing times the federal government should be overthrown. In 2015, he declared that the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was a “pitchfork and torches” moment, and used it again a few months later when discussing the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
But Clarke’s harshest criticism is reserved for the Black Lives Matter movement.
He’s been unsparing in his vitriol, with Right Wing Watch pointing out that Clarke has:
called the Black Lives Matter movement “black slime” that “needs to be eradicated from the American society and the American culture,” “garbage” and a “subversive movement” that seeks to overthrow the government, and said that the movement is driven by “an ideology of victimhood with a list of grievances that do not exist.” He has dismissed concerns about police brutality by saying that “black criminal abuse, black criminal brutality” is “the real brutality going on in the United States.” The real problem in “the American ghetto,” he has said, is “modern liberalism.”
Indeed, Clarke has been vocal in his view that Black Lives Matter is attempting to usurp federal authority – which is what makes it so ironic that he’s expressed the very same desire. In his constant use of the “pitchfork and torches” meme, Clarke appears to be advocating for an armed mob to take to the streets and cleanse the government of corrupt and morally bankrupt troublemakers.
Naturally, this is exactly how he views Black Lives Matter.
While liberals on social media condemned Clarke’s rhetoric, The Guardian quoted several legal scholars who said the remarks are just that – rhetoric, not incitement to violence. U.S. law has a high standard for what it considers illegal encouragement to commit violent acts, and it’s likely a tweet doesn’t meet this high bar. Indeed, with Clarke using the phrase "pitchforks and torches" so often, it could easily be written off as a catch phrase with no meaning beyond hyperbole.
With little recourse to remove him from his position, it will be up to the people of Milwaukee County to hold Clarke accountable. A registered Democrat who runs under that party’s umbrella, Clarke will be up for re-election in 2018 and has only narrowly won his primary elections. A well-funded candidate could push him out of power for good, and strike a blow against the Constitutional Sheriff movement.