News reports this week indicate that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, Jr., may be named an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.
Clarke, known for highly critical and controversial comments on subjects ranging from Barack Obama to Black Lives Matter (he has, for example, referred to Black Lives Matter as “black slime”), was a vocal supporter of Trump during the presidential election.
The appointment of Clarke to a senior position at DHS should be a matter of serious concern. Clarke has well-documented, recent ties to extremist groups, even accepting awards from them. The groups with which Clarke has ties are two anti-government groups well known for trying to recruit law enforcement officers into the anti-government extremist movement: The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) and the Oath Keepers.
Both of those groups are connected to a former Arizona sheriff, Richard Mack, who has become a prominent anti-government extremist over the past 20 years. He is both the head of CSPOA and one of the earliest board members of the Oath Keepers.
Mack is a former law enforcement officer whose career culminated with a stint as sheriff of Graham County, Arizona. In the early 1990s, Mack garnered considerable attention by launching one of the first legal challenges against the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a challenged that resulted in a 1997 Supreme Court decision that partially invalidated it.
With the publicity given to him because of the Brady Law challenge, Mack began a more than 20-year career of speaking to conservative and far right groups and radio/Internet programs around the country, from local Republican and Tea Party groups to a wide variety of right-wing extremist groups, including the John Birch Society, militia and so-called “patriot” groups, sovereign citizen and tax protest groups, anti-immigration extremist groups, conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones, and even a couple of white supremacist groups and radio shows.
Mack was a long-time devotee of W. Cleon Skousen, a prominent Cold War era right-winger whose political philosophy was a mix of anti-government attitudes, conspiracy theories and conservative Mormon beliefs. Skousenism remains popular in many far right circles in the western United States even today.
Skousen was noteworthy in that he was able to straddle the line between mainstream and extreme. Richard Mack followed in that tradition, though by the 2000s he had become more clearly a part of the extreme right than the mainstream. In 2009, Mack became a board member of the Oath Keepers, an extremist group that is part of the militia movement and seeks to recruit current and former military personnel, police officers and first responders into the anti-government extremist movement. Since its founding, a number of people associated with the Oath Keepers have been involved in criminal incidents.
Though maintaining his ties to the Oath Keepers, Mack soon decided to create a similar group with himself at the top; thus was born the CSPOA in 2011. The CSPOA is an anti-government extremist group that, like the Oath Keepers, seeks to promote far right-wing beliefs within law enforcement.
In particular, the CSPOA has tried to recruit county sheriffs as members and has actually achieved some success, typically among sheriffs from western states counties that have had historical conflicts with the federal government, as well as some sheriffs from eastern states in which the legal role of the sheriff has been greatly reduced.
The CSPOA describes its sympathetic sheriffs as “constitutional sheriffs.” Mack has even claimed—borrowing a page from the 1970s-era anti-government extremist group Posse Comitatus, the grandfather of today’s sovereign citizen movement—that sheriffs are the ultimate law enforcement authority in their counties and can override any actions of the federal government. In early 2016, one CSPOA member, Sheriff Glenn Palmer of Grant County, Oregon, came out as a strong supporter of the anti-government extremists who engaged in the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Harney County, calling them “patriots.”
The CSPOA also continued Mack’s long antipathy towards federal gun laws and regulations; it is in this context that Mack first discovered Sheriff David Clarke, Jr. After Clarke aired a controversial radio “public service announcement” in early 2013 urging Milwaukee County residents to arm themselves, Mack added Clarke to a list of sheriffs and others who allegedly had “vowed to uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama’s unlawful gun control measures.”
At the time, Clarke had no connection to the CSPA and, according to a spokesperson, had been unaware of its existence. That would not last long. Later in 2013, Clarke accepted the CSPOA’s “Constitutional Sheriff of the Year” award, attending the awards ceremony and declaring in his acceptance speech that the government was the “common enemy.” Clarke even issued a press release announcing the award and added it to his official bio. Clarke allegedly became a member of CSPOA around this time as well.
Clarke also appeared on the show of anti-government extremist conspiracy theorist and 9-11 “truther” Alex Jones. In 2014, when anti-government extremists led by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy staged an armed standoff with the federal government, Clarke tweeted that the Bureau of Land Management should “get out” and “leave the rancher alone.” In sharp contrast, in 2015, after the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Clarke called for a “revolution” with “pitchforks and torches.”
In 2016, Clarke expanded his ties with anti-government extremist groups by accepting a “Leadership Award” from the New York chapter of the Oath Keepers—again speaking at the ceremony and adding the award to his official biography. He also publicly defended Ammon Bundy (son of Cliven) and others who had engaged in the armed takeover of the Malheur refuge earlier that year, calling them a “small band of patriots” who had stood against tyranny.