This Land Is Whose Land?
In which Piscataway seizes the Halper family farm.
Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By MATT LABASH
This past winter, when last we left Logan Darrow Clements in the snows of New Hampshire, he was engaged in a modest, civic-minded enterprise. He was trying to steal the house of Supreme Court justice David Souter. Normally not moved to vigilantism, the L.A.-based former Internet entrepreneur had been inspired by the Supreme Court's June 2005 decision in the case known as Kelo v. New London.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court had essentially allowed cities to invoke the power of eminent domain to seize private property not for roads or schools, as is common practice, but for less noble purposes, such as indulging Biff McFranchiser's discovery that your land is the ideal location from which to sell hamburgers. The cities, which would force you to sell at whatever "fair market" price they demanded on threat of condemnation, would get to keep the toy at the bottom of your Unhappy Meal, in the form of higher tax revenue. Biff, to the cities' thinking, would generate more income for their coffers than you would by, say, having Pictionary parties or sitting on your couch watching TV.
In place of Souter's lifelong homestead, Clements intended to erect the Lost Liberty Hotel, where defiant B&B'ers could celebrate the sanctity of private property while dining on Revenge Soup, served cold at the Just Deserts Café. Instead of Gideon Bibles, the rooms would offer Atlas Shrugged, since the objectivist Clements is a follower of Ayn Rand.
Though Clements's move was an impulsive act ("a late-night idea I threw up on the Internet"), he wasn't slashing Souter's tires or boiling his cats. Rather, he was doing something truly radical: attempting to make a judge live by his own ruling. As a publicity stunt, it was superior, a candy-coated middle finger with a chewy moral center. It gained Clements buckets of ink, including the cover of this magazine. That's considerably more attention than his brand of leave-us-alone libertarianism garnered when he finished 131st out of 135 candidates in the California gubernatorial recall election in 2003.
But despite his talent for generating headlines, Clements couldn't get across the finish line in Souter's hometown of Weare. The candidates for selectman he'd helped recruit went down in a March election, and a ballot initiative he'd co-masterminded was gutted by underhanded parliamentary maneuvering. The Live-Free-Or-Die types in Weare, it turned out, stymied Clements not because they agreed with the Supreme Court's ruling, but because they didn't, believing it wrong to seize private property even if it belonged to one of the justices who'd given others license to steal.
Clements, however, is not easily discouraged. He knows the war against eminent domain abuse will be a long one. Besides, he's making a documentary about it through his fledgling company, Freestar Media. He intends to become an "objectivist Michael Moore," or perhaps "John Stossel on steroids." So I found it impossible to resist his invitation in July to ride shotgun on his next endeavor. It was to go to Piscataway, New Jersey, to film the forcible removal of a family from their property.
It is an image that Clements believes is essential to capture, one that could conceivably turn the tide. It might awaken affluenza-bitten Americans, who are generally sympathetic to his cause, but who are forever balancing the right of private-property ownership against their own inalienable right to have easy access to overpriced pumpkin spice lattes. Sure, Clements and I would feel like a couple of vultures on a telephone wire. So probably did the guy who filmed blacks getting fire-hosed in the streets of Birmingham. Injustice needs its witnesses.
Plus, Clements was turning the eviction into some thing of an event. He put out a call on the Internet for supporters to rally around the family being evicted, to camp on their property, to form a "human constitution" around their house, and to attend a free concert on their behalf. "It'll be like Woodstock without the mud, and Valley Forge without the frostbite," he told me. So I flew to Piscataway slightly ahead of Clements to get acquainted with the carrion.
Piscataway (an Indian term meaning "it is getting dark") was once a charming farm community. But like so much of America, it is now a charmless depot off the Turnpike, a 19-square-mile blur of box stores, strip malls, and high-density housing. In the middle of this, sprawled over 75 acres, sits the Halper farm, one of the last agricultural tracts in Piscataway.