KEENE, N.H.—My first interview with the city's antigovernment activists is happening in an RV that, technically at least, is breaking the law. The RV houses the "Liberty on Tour" project and often parks in Keene, and today, as it's been for many days, it's parked next to the home of Free Keene co-founder Ian Freeman. "The city doesn't allow RVs to park like this," says Freeman. "But they require a complaining party, and no one in the neighborhood is complaining. Now, theoretically, anyone from the city could complain. They know what's going to happen if they do. We're going to make a big deal about it. We're going to go to jail."
That's not boasting. That's what Free Keene does. This city is one of the epicenters of the Free State Project, the decade-old effort to build a libertarian beachhead of 20,000 like-minded souls in New Hampshire. So far, 909 people have fulfilled the pledge and moved to the state, and around 50—Freeman thinks—currently live in Keene. (These people are serious about privacy.)
That number undersells the impact this city and these activists have on their movement. Freeman's FreeKeene.com is a catalog of arrests, protests, and inspiring interviews, most of them in Keene. This is where one activist, Pete Eyre, spent days in jail for wearing a hat in a public hearing, and another activist, Heika Courser, was arrested for displaying her breasts after an artist painted them. The magician/TV star/libertarian celebrity Penn Jillette has mused wistfully about moving to Keene, and it didn't take long for his endorsement to get printed on Free Keene's fliers, below one of the slogans:
"Is liberty dying where you live? Escape to Keene!"
It'd be asking a lot to get 909 libertarians to agree about something. Before I drove to Keene, I asked a few other Free Staters, closer to Manchester, what they thought of the little city out west.
"If you move to Manchester or Concord you're probably interested in politics," said Kirk McNeil, a Free Stater who moved from Michigan in 2009. "If you move to Keene you probably want to do some civil disobedience."
It took a while for the political press to decide what to make of the Free Staters. In 2007, when they were even smaller in number, they started to be looked at as a source of strength for Ron Paul's presidential campaign. In 2009, as the Tea Party movement got under way, reporters discovered that the FSP and its annual PorcFest (the porcupine is the mascot of the project) offered this stuff in its concentrated form. In 2011, people noticed that Free Staters had been elected to the New Hampshire legislature and were introducing bills to decriminalize marijuana and classify TSA groping as sexual assault. They soon received the ultimate honor—being attacked by progressive groups as a "radical right" and Koch-connected plot.
In Keene, the "Koch-connected"* right-wingers are mostly interested in breaking behavior laws and seeing if anyone raises a fuss about it. Freeman does not pay federal taxes and hasn't for years. He pays local property taxes, and water bills, as does the co-host of his radio show, Mark Edge.
"Those revenues," says Edge, "are a lot less likely to be used to buy weapons to kill brown people."
There's some variety in how far people here are willing to take disobedience. Eyre, for example, doesn't have a phone. "My phone was among the property stolen by individuals wearing Manchester PD badges the weekend before last," he wrote in an e-mail. Was he robbed by a bunch of thugs pretending to be police officers? No. They were cops. He just doesn't recognize their authority. Cops are "individuals." Jails are "cages." Arrest is "kidnapping." Eyre refers to the place around Keene as "the Shire," not New Hampshire. He, and a lot of the people in the movement, are not just libertarians, but "voluntaryists," an ideology with a history of its own. (They point out that Ron Paul called himself one in an interview recently.) The lexicon matters.
"To me," explains Ademo Mueller, Eyre's friend and a partner on the Liberty on Tour trips, " 'jail' is driven into peoples' minds as a place you house bad people. To me, it's a cage."
"Theft is theft," says Eyre. "Murder is murder. Doesn't matter if you're wearing a uniform."
"Doesn't matter if people voted for you, either," says Mueller.
He's telling me this in an RV decked out—on the inside—with bumper stickers and slogans like "Evil Men Are In Control. Haven't You Noticed?" and "Do You Own Yourself?" and "1984 Was An Instruction Manual." There are Ron Paul stickers, and a signature from the man himself. Mueller shows me his contribution to the sticker stash: a promotion for CopBlock, the project and website he started, which encourages people to film police officers. Mueller joined the bus tour from Wisconsin, where he had two felony drug convictions, and had nothing to do.
"I spent three months in jail and 100 hours of community service," he says. "I paid my debt to society, and then I learned that it was a life sentence. I mean, I was living in fear of what would happen, because I was getting harassed by the police, just because I was defying them and they didn't like it. After I moved here, I lost my fear."
"I lost my anger," says Freeman.
"I'm a lot more outgoing than I used to be," says J.J. Schlessinger, who manages the Keene Action Center.
The conversation moves inside the center, a well-appointed house where Free Keene friends come to cook food. A calendar near a bar says who's cooking and when; on the other side of the room, a bookshelf has homemade jam and copies of novels by Ayn Rand. There are photos everywhere, taken by activists, of the rural beauty of the area, or commemorating times when Free Keene people defied open-carry laws or laws against smoking marijuana.
Heika Courser rolls up to the house on a blue Honda motorcycle then walks up to the porch. She's a Keene native who met Eyre and Mueller when they had parked their RV in the parking lot of the Starbucks where she worked. The "Free Staters" pissed her employers off, but not her; she struck up a conversation with Eyre and started hanging out with the Free Keene folks. Now she wants to run for city council.
"I don't have almost any of the same friends I used to," she shrugs, "but I get along with the people in the city council. They're getting used to us."
Well, that's complicated. Steven Lindsey, a Democrat who represents Keene in the state legislature, got into politics after years as a reporter and an activist; once, he and some protesters dressed up like ninjas and pulled a stunt to prevent a McDonald's from being built in nearby Peterborough. (It worked, as did some other strategies.) So he understands Free Keene. He likes them. "They call me Government Steve," he says. "It's somewhat affectionate."
Some of what they do still strikes him as "callow." He tried last year to push a medical marijuana bill through the legislature in Concord, and he wanted the city of Keene to endorse it. And then came a Free Keene protest, with marijuana being smoked outdoors, and with cops getting filmed by cameras. There went any chance of a city council endorsement.
Bygones. He's optimistic about Courser getting elected to city government some day. He thinks the movement will mellow. "My theory is that this, too, shall pass, just like the hippies came here, and that passed."
Free Keene's rebellion against the government started under George W. Bush, so it's not just a fractal of the Tea Party. But the Tea Party protester who hates the stimulus and the man who moves here and shreds his tax bill—these guys come out of the same place. They are not just skeptical that the current government can work. They think government can never work. They respond to the pressures of the Great Recession, the drug war, and everything else that bugs them by giving up on the system that made them. They won't be alone.
Clarification, June 27, 2011: This sentence about the connection between the Free Keene movement and the Koch Foundation has been adjusted to make its ironic meaning more clear. There is no formal relationship between the group and the foundation. (Return to the modified sentence.)