The appeal of 'Live free or die': Antigovernment activists putting down roots in N.H.
Title: The appeal of 'Live free or die': Antigovernment activists putting down roots in N.H.
Author: Sarah Schweitzer
Publication: Boston Globe
KEENE, N.H. - From a jail cell in this rural corner of New Hampshire, Sam A. Miller waged a philosophical battle, one milk carton at a time.
The soft-spoken electrical engineer declined food for nearly a month, save for swigs of milk. To eat, he said, would be caving to the tyrannical government powers that placed him here for illegally filming in a courthouse and refusing to reveal his legal name to jail officials. (He says it's private; jail officials obtained it from a fingerprint trace.)
His resistance has made him a folk hero among antigovernment types who have been making their way to New Hampshire from points across the country since their leaders put out a clarion call six years ago.
The Free Staters, as they are known, hope to lure thousands of like-minded souls to the state, with the goal of paring government to a bare minimum by eliminating things like taxes, speed limits, and zoning laws.
Thus far, just 427 Free Staters have relocated. Yet, here in Keene and in pockets across New Hampshire, Free Staters are making their case in increasingly provocative ways.
"Like Ghandi, like Martin Luther King, we need to educate and enlighten the public," said Miller, who joined the Free State movement after breaking up with his fiancée.
The actions have ranged from the odd, such as when Free Staters filed another person's fingernails without a manicurist's license on a public sidewalk or held an unlicensed puppet show, to the irksome, as when they tried to dig a garden in a downtown Keene park, to the instigative, such as the day they stood on a street corner with a marijuana bud held aloft. Sometimes, they simply veer toward obstinate, wearing hats in a courtroom after being asked to take them off or refusing to remove a couch from a lawn.
When arrests have followed, Free Staters have sought to film the criminal proceedings from beginning to end, including scenes from courthouse lobbies, where filming is not allowed in some cases, such as in Keene District Court. The lobby filming has yielded more arrests (often, with Free Staters going limp as officers approach) and more footage that Free Staters post on websites such as FreeKeene.com, which has proved an effective recruiting tool.
The so-called liberty actions have been met with some bemusement by residents of this gently tolerant city, population 22,800, home to Keene State College, near the border of Vermont. But some say the tactics have taken on a menacing hue, such as when Free Staters have gathered on the streets of downtown Keene with holstered guns on their waists, visible on their waists.
"When they first came to town, there was a welcoming spirit. A lot of people were like, 'OK,' " said Richard Van Wickler, a Keene resident and superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections. "But unfortunately what happens is that when [Free Staters] take the radical approach, that invites people to get angry."
More fundamentally unnerving, some say, is the Free Staters' efforts to secure government positions, with the goal of whittling down or eliminating them. The Free State Project's president, Varrin Swearingen, said in a telephone interview there are four state representatives with ties to the project and a "double-digit number" on local boards and commissions. He declined to release their names, saying to do so would violate their privacy, though he said some have "outed" themselves.
The officials already are wielding influence, he said. For example, a Free Stater elected to a planning board in a town near Keene, which he would not identify, swayed the board to vote against a zoning ordinance restricting new big box stores, a measure the Free State member said unfairly restricted property rights.
The Free State Project is the brainchild of Jason Sorens, a State University of New York-Buffalo political science professor who published an article in 2001 in the online magazine Libertarian Enterprise outlining the idea. "Government should be there to protect people's rights but otherwise allow for the maximum amount of freedom," Sorens said in a telephone interview. "It goes back to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson."
The article made a splash in libertarian circles, and in 2003, some 2,500 followers of Sorens voted to make New Hampshire their laboratory, believing that the state's flinty individualism would jibe with its view of small government, limited to "protecting life, liberty, and property." Then former governor Craig Benson endorsed the group's plan, and would-be revolutionaries began trickling into the state.
Unlike militia groups in the West, Free Staters are not loners who seek to live solitary existences undisturbed by government intrusion. "You tend to find people [in the Free State Project] who are happy to live in cities and towns and who want to persuade people that freedom is better than tyranny," Swearingen said in an interview.
There was no concerted plan to make Keene a focal point. But when high-profile activists, such as Ian "Freeman" Bernard, host of "Free Talk Live," a nationally syndicated radio program, and Lauren Canario, a veteran civil disobedience activist, found their way here, others followed. Today, Keene counts several dozen outspoken Free Staters and more who operate less flamboyantly. The Keene Free Staters tend toward the far end of the Free State Project spectrum, believing that government should not just be limited, but eradicated.
On a recent day, six Free Staters gathered at a Panera's in Keene to talk about the Project. The members hailed from across the country - Oklahoma, Florida, California, Nevada. Many are single men; the majority are computer programmers. They tend to speak in precise diction and with overarching politeness. But at the mention of government, they betray a brimming anger and declare zealous dedication to the Free State Project.
"Short of death - no limits," said Canario, the lone woman at the gathering, who spent over a month in jail when she refused to provide identification or speak to a police officer who pulled her over for speeding.
The Free Staters said they have no plans to temper their acts of civil disobedience, and if anything, will ramp up their attacks on the court system for not permitting them to film in the lobby. (Court officials say the ban is necessary to prevent the filming of children or domestic violence victims who may be present in the lobby.)
But Free Staters, keenly aware of their image, have undertaken a public relations campaign. Hoping to end the use of parking meters, Free Staters have fanned out across Keene on recent afternoons to place nickels in expired meters, leaving notes on windshields signed "Robin of Keene."
For inspiration, they say they need look no further than to Miller's jailing and hunger strike, which he ended Sunday. The 30-something son of a Dallas police officer faces one misdemeanor count of resisting arrest, said Miller and Ivy Walker, his acting legal counsel.
During an interview in the airless visitors room of Cheshire County Jail, Miller said he has scratched "FreeKeene" into a wall with his thumb and befriended other inmates, who gave him their milk. Still, he said, jail has only reinforced his abiding conviction that government, as constituted, is an enslaver.
"I see Free Staters as the modern-day abolitionists," he said.