Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Conch Republic

Imagine it's 1982. The era of Culture Club and Duran Duran, of Cheers and T.J. Hooker.

Then imagine that, as part of President Reagan's phony "War on Drugs", the United States Border Patrol set up a permanent roadblock and inspection point on Key West in order to stop and search tourists' vehicles for narcotics and illegal immigrants. As you might further imagine, this put quite a damper on everyone's fun, especially for the Last Chance Saloon who had the unfortunate luck to have these armed government thugs harassing citizens right in front of their place of business. The police presence became so intolerable that hordes of tourists suddenly began taking planes to points beyond the roadblock, rather than driving and thus submitting themselves to having their car searched by border cops.

The federal government ignored the Key West City Council's complaints, and attempts to pursue an injunction in court failed. As this was the days before the national spine had been weakened to its present-day state, Mayor Dennis Wardlow decided to take responsibility for the matter into his own hands and take massive action.

On April 23, 1982, he declared Key West's independence from the United States.

Their legal position for seceding from the nation was simple: since the federal government had set up a border station as if Key West were some sort of foreign nation, then a foreign nation they would damn well become and they called it The Conch Republic. In a brilliant bit of guerilla theatre that Abbie Hoffman would have applauded, the Mayor was proclaimed Prime Minister of Key West, and declared war against the United States by symbolically smashing a loaf of stale cuban bread over a man in a naval uniform. The war was extremely short, however: the Mayor surrendered one minute after declaring war, and then applied to the U.S. government for one billion dollars in foreign aid.

The press lapped it up, and the comedic stunt galvanized the public against federal meddling in the lives of private citizens. The roadblock and inspection station were soon removed, and Key West subsequently experienced a tourism boom they are still riding high on today.

But the Conch Republic refused to end there. Diehard loyalists to the postulated micronation still considered themselves citizens of the Conch Republic and continued displaying the flag.

T-shirts, hats and bikinis were manufactured. Then rum was imbibed, and coins were minted; passports were issued. To this day, the Key West Airport still welcomes tourists to the Conch Republic (with, the astute reader may note, a duplicate of the "Southernmost Point" buoy.) The Conch Republic now has an actual Navy with actual boats, and the Conch Republic Air Force boasts more than a dozen aircraft ready to serve the micronation. (Its flagship, however, is an antique 1942 Waco biplane.)

On September 20, 1995, the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion of the United States Army Reserve planned to conduct a training exercise on Key West, simulating an invasion of a foreign island. Part of the simulation involved landing onshore and conducting affairs as if the Key West citizens were foreigners.

Miffed that no one had actually asked Key West's permission for staging this mock invasion, Mayor Wardlow once again mobilized the island for a mock war in response, and again the arsenal of stale Cuban bread was martialed. Even in the Clinton era, the government and the military still had a sense of humor, and the 478th Batallion issued an apology the next day: "We in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic". With great satirical pomp, they even took part in an official "surrender ceremony" on September 22.

I'd like to think things like this can still happen today. I'm not sure they can. Wishing fervently to be proved wrong.

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