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The Granite State Gang

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo The Granite State Gang New Hampshire transplants live free — or die trying By
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2009
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      The Granite State Gang
      New Hampshire transplants live free — or die trying
      August 26, 2009

      Big bucks couldn’t buy the viral awe and ire that the Free State
      Project (FSP) scored on August 11, when New Hampshire resident William
      Kostric arrived outside President Barack Obama’s Portsmouth Town Hall
      meeting with a handgun on his right thigh — “open carrying” is quite
      legal in the Granite State — and a sign declaring IT IS TIME TO WATER
      THE TREE OF LIBERTY! Kostric, an Arizona transplant who lives in
      Manchester, has now become a hero in the FSP movement, which, since
      2004, has attracted 523 activists to the “Live Free or Die” state in
      search of “a society in which the maximum role of government is the
      protection of life, liberty, and property.”

      Free Staters — a loose amalgamation of Libertarian offspring who
      resent drug laws, speed limits, bureaucrats, and taxes — welcome both
      good and bad publicity. To them, there is little difference between the
      flattering July 25 Associated Press piece on the group’s annual
      Porcupine Freedom Festival and Kostric’s legal but arguably distasteful
      demonstration of his First and Second Amendment rights. Those
      developments spurred surges in interest; FSP President Varrin
      Swearingen, of Keene, says the central FSP Web portal,
      freestateproject.org, has seen sizable traffic increases in the past
      month, and nearly 200 new “participants” have pledged to relocate to New
      Hampshire during that time — more than doubling their previous best for
      monthly sign-ups. Kostric, who defended his actions on MSNBC’s Hardball,
      among other venues, even inspired two Facebook fan pages — “William
      Kostric for Congress” and “William Kostric Is My Hero” — which so far
      have more than 650 combined followers.

      While most Free Staters are hardly redneck militiamen (as some
      media coverage has portrayed them), they seem glad and willing to
      recruit from Glenn Beck’s legions of newly perturbed anti-Obama
      reactionaries — even if that means rallying behind an accidental
      spokesman who may have gestured a murder threat at the president. (The
      Thomas Jefferson quote to which Kostric’s sign referred reads in full:
      “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood
      of patriots and tyrants.”) Still, they take exposure wherever they can
      get it. “The sign might have been a poor choice, and I think [Kostric]
      recognizes that,” says Mark Edge, a Quaker FSP member who co-hosts the
      popular online radio show Free Talk Live (and doesn’t carry a gun). “But
      under the circumstances, it’s good that we got so much attention.
      There’s no such thing as perfect activism.”

      Manifest destiny

      The FSP movement was created in abstract in 2001, when its founding
      father, SUNY-Buffalo political-science professor Jason Sorens, published
      an article in the Libertarian Enterprise titled “Announcement: The Free
      State Project.” The declaration inspired frustrated liberty enthusiasts
      across the country to begin selecting a suitable colony for Sorens’s
      vision (with his blessing, though he has yet to relocate), and, in 2003,
      by a wide margin, more than 2500 online voters chose New Hampshire over
      such other legislatively lax runners-up as Wyoming and Alaska. Some were
      already in-state; other individuals and families began to move soon
      after. The FSP now claims 729 members in the Granite State (most of whom
      live in and around the city of Keene), though some paranoid transplants
      — who are weary of formally joining groups — do not show up in counts
      and databases, so there may be more.

      Organizationally, the FSP has a president in Swearingen (a
      California native who defected to Keene in 2004), as well as a
      vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and mascot (the porcupine, which,
      according to one Free Stater, is “a peaceful animal that you wouldn’t
      dare fuck with)”. But that’s the extent of their infrastructural
      formalities. It even has an elected official in its ranks — Republican
      New Hampshire state representative Calvin Pratt, of Goffstown — but the
      group recognizes no rank and file (nor does it collect dues). As I
      discovered on a recent trip to Keene (one week, in fact, before the FSP
      arrived in the national spotlight), trying to ascertain any hierarchy is
      about as productive as challenging the Old Man of the Mountain to a
      nose-picking contest. Some members, however, are better known than others.

      Before Kostric, the FSP boasted such municipal martyrs as Andrew
      Carroll, who was cuffed for displaying a marijuana nugget in Keene’s
      Central Square. There’s also Sam Miller, of Keene, who, after being
      arrested for refusing to reveal his identity to police, went on a prison
      hunger strike. Since the project’s inception, several Free Staters have
      been fined and jailed for disobeying laws and restrictions they consider
      petty, from flag burning to puppet shows and public pedi-care.

      The protests are rarely organized — they’re mostly random
      demonstrations for which fellow Free Staters may or may not have
      expressed mutual enthusiasm. But, as was demonstrated in the wake of the
      Kostric episode, FSP enthusiasts are quick to back each other. “They say
      you can’t fight City Hall,” says Free Stater David Krouse of Keene.
      “Well, we’re fighting City Hall.”

      Politics aside, Keene is a glistening refuge. Save for a Subway
      sandwich franchise here and a Panera Bread there, the five-or-so-block
      strip and cul-de-sac that make up downtown are populated primarily by
      cute independent shops, restaurants, and even an apothecary.
      Culture-wise, the area’s impressive art scene is focused in the
      well-manicured business district. The non–Free Staters who I meet are
      welcoming — even when I tell them why I came. Owners of the local
      trolley diner feed me ham steak and treat me like family; when a bitter,
      over-caffeinated patron tells me that Free Staters should return to
      their origins, my server tells her to keep quiet. For most residents in
      this semi-rural green oasis of roughly 23,000, it seems FSP members are
      either welcome nuisances or harmless novelties.

      My business in Keene is dropping by the unofficial weekly FSP
      meet-up at the bar Vendetta, where about two dozen members there are
      happy to chat over chicken wings and craft beers. There are proud gun
      owners among them (as well as many who do not own firearms), but no one
      wants to lecture me about the Bill of Rights. Instead, they stress their
      collective commitment to nonviolence, and insist that FSP fosters
      intellectual skepticism to question formal power structures.

      “We don’t agree on much,” says Jesse Moloney — an FSP activist and
      Keene City Council candidate who wears a T-shirt with Che Guevara
      sporting Mickey Mouse ears, and who was recently jailed for digging a
      400-square-foot garden in the middle of Keene’s Central Square. “But you
      can probably say that we all agree that government — and society in
      general — is too aggressive.”

      Ultimately, riders in this gang of like-minded curmudgeons share
      some common traits — even if members individually identify as everything
      from anarchists and socialists to independents, libertarians,
      secessionists, voluntaryists, and mutualists. Because it’s easier for,
      say, an unhitched software programmer to uproot than it is for an entire
      family, an estimated 80 percent of Free Staters are self-employed male
      bachelors. With regard to the lack of women, let’s just say that the
      scene at Vendetta could have doubled for a Dungeons & Dragons party
      (with modern weapons, of course).

      In the movement, pushes for a better-established hierarchy have
      always been quickly dismissed. The horizontal ethos can be frustrating
      to new devotees, but veterans like Krouse and Moloney say the importance
      of loose infrastructure becomes understood with time. What’s critical,
      they say, is that Free Staters ultimately support one another, like they
      have at court trials with 50-person choruses of dissention. There are
      minor rifts over tactics (particularly a noted struggle between elusive
      members who wish to work underground and those who are comfortable
      spilling to reporters), but, as has become evident in recent weeks,
      porcupines stand up together.

      “There’s no need for us to take a specific position on [Kostric's]
      action,” says Swearingen, echoing the sentiments of Pratt, who, acting
      as an FSP spokesman, defended Kostric’s behavior on NECN. “What matters
      is that it’s clearly bringing people toward the Free State Project,”
      says Swearingen. “That’s a good first step — if they end up being people
      who advocate violence, racism, or bigotry [on the community message
      boards], then we’ll remove them from the participant database.”

      Me first — the Hell with you

      Not everyone’s a fan. Outside the press, there have been whisper
      campaigns charging that the settlers are violent camouflaged maniacs,
      and a recent Keene Sentinel column (titled “Will the Free Staters Please
      Sit Down?”) marginalized them as a “me first, second, and third and the
      hell with everyone else” alliance. Some rumors even charge that members
      have cannibalistic tendencies (doubtful). As for elective adversaries,
      Keene Mayor Philip Pregent is hardly enthused by persistent FSP
      interruptions at City Council meetings, while Democratic state
      representative Chuck Weed — who has criticized the movement since its
      inception — believes their efforts are misguided.

      “Sure, they’ve attracted a lot of attention,” says Weed, who also
      teaches political science at Keene State College. “But it’s negative —
      it de-legitimizes their issues.”

      Free Staters acknowledge their detractors, and are prepared to
      engage questions about potential problems with the lawlessness that FSP
      allies advocate. How would infrastructure be maintained? Who would pick
      up trash? Who would regulate the food-service industry? Yada, yada,
      yada. Members have some interesting solutions: instead of speed-limit
      signs, they would frighten drivers with billboard tallies of how many
      people have died on particular roads. Instead of preventing presidential
      assassinations by banning weapons . . . well, they haven’t quite figured
      that one out yet.

      “You have to consider that we’ve had a lot of changes in New
      Hampshire,” says Weed. “The majority party now believes that government
      has some important functions for the people. [The FSP's] attempt to take
      over the state is naive — most people here feel there’s a social
      conscience that goes along with tax paying.”

      Positively shocking

      FSP recruitment has been difficult, as Free Staters were largely
      ignored in their first few years — even by the local Sentinel newspaper
      — and only began to grab major headlines a few months before Kostric’s
      gun show. In May, the group was mentioned on a Fox News Freedom Watch
      podcast; that same month, members were profiled in a prominent Boston
      Globe feature. Those spotlights — as well as recent Sentinel reports on
      the arrests of several members — were relatively positive, and the Free
      Staters I spoke with appreciate the coverage, despite occasional
      misrepresentations (the Globe profile, for example, implies there have
      been collective acts of civil disobedience — a major faux pas in the
      eyes of such proud individualists).

      As for Kostric, Free Staters agree on a “no harm, no foul” defense;
      like he told freekeene.com moments after his duel with Chris Matthews,
      there could not have been a better way to advertise his ideology.

      “You need to sometimes present a more extreme viewpoint to pull
      people halfway between where they are and where you’d like them to
      move,” said Kostric. “Hopefully it shocked some people into opening
      their eyes. I would have liked to have seen 100 open carriers standing
      on the front lawn of that church — that would have given the media
      something to really notice. Look at what just one person did.”

      Chris Faraone can be reached at cfaraone@....

      Dan Clore

      My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      (Wait for the new edition: http://hplmythos.com/ )
      Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
      in charge on this island?
      Professor: Why, no one.
      Skipper: No one?
      Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
      -- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"
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