It’s not every day that state employees are caught on video threatening, lying to, and blatantly stealing from innocent citizens—but that’s exactly what happened on March 25 in a quiet neighborhood in Claymont, Delaware.
With the help of the Delaware State Police, a horde of Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) workers rumbled through two subdivisions early Friday morning, uprooting street-side basketball hoops with a front-end loader and roughly piling them into a dump truck. Operation March Sadness, as it has been nicknamed by outraged locals, was the state’s response to the complaints of a neighborhood grouch, who felt that games of street ball were hazardous to children and drivers alike.
Melissa McCafferty, who lives in a peaceful cul-de-sac, scrambled up her kids’ basketball pole to protest its removal. After unsuccessfully trying to persuade her to come down, and, she claims, threatening to tear the pole down with her on it, the crew moved on. But as her husband, John, was being interviewed by a reporter for the News Journal, the posse returned. The video of the resulting confrontation, posted on YouTube.com, immediately went viral.
The family’s vehicles were parked under the pole to prevent its removal. In the video, John and Melissa are threatened with arrest if they do not cooperate. After being told that he could keep the pole—“They’ll lay it in your driveway”—John begins yelling when the pole is knocked down and loaded into a truck. “You just told me I can keep it. You lied!” he exclaims, incredulous. “I did not,” is the cold reply. McCafferty is ordered to go into his home and stop taunting the workers. Admirably, he refuses, citing his First Amendment rights, and stands in the front yard with Melissa as state employees steal a basketball hoop that had been in place for sixty years, with the indirect assistance of state cops sauntering around like the jack-booted thugs of some third-world dictator’s private security force.
A state law passed in 2005 empowers DelDOT to remove objects within seven feet of the pavement in subdivisions, so Operation March Sadness might have been legal. But does the law require officials—including officers of the Delaware State Police—to behave like arrogant bullies? Does it encourage them to lie to law-abiding citizens? And where, exactly, does one draw the line between “removal” and theft?
Of course, a law is a complex thing. There are good laws that ought to be obeyed, bad laws that ought to be repealed, and very bad laws that ought to be disregarded. As a society, we recognize the importance of nonviolent civil disobedience, which is often the citizen’s only option when government crosses the line. McCafferty wanted to file an injunction in Chancery Court, but was not given time. His choice: To yield before police-enforced injustice, or to be arrested?
As for the details of the law in question, seven feet of a homeowner’s yard is quite a bit of ground, particularly in a subdivision. Is there such a thing as property rights in the modern United States, or are we truly the subjects of a government that owns everything? Assuming that property rights cannot legitimately be stripped away or infringed upon by state legislators, this law might not be deserving of Delawareans’ compliance.
As for the state employees who were involved in Operation March Sadness, they should, at the very least, be required to publicly apologize to the victims of their bullying. Considering which party controls the First State, they’re more likely to receive a pay raise.