By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: April 19, 2009
If the marijuana protest and guerilla gardening in downtown Keene failed to raise many eyebrows, the sight of a handful of handcuffed Free Staters being taken out of the city’s District Court earlier this week surely had plenty of residents scratching their heads.
The reader comments piled up under online coverage of Monday’s protest at the District Court on The Sentinel’s Web site, where some people ridiculed and criticized the Free Staters for wasting taxpayer dollars and the time of city police officers.
“Time and again, the Free Staters come off as insolent children who stomp their feet and hold their breath until their faces turn blue because they don’t like being told what to do,” commenter Arch wrote.
The Free Staters hit back, outnumbering the opposition with post after post, saying that District Court Judge Edward J. Burke had blatantly stomped on their personal freedoms when he banned the use of video cameras in the District Court lobby.
“What many commenters here are showing is how slavery is enforced. Slavery was enforced by the slaves themselves. It isn’t the government that keeps people down — it is the people,” wrote commenter Frake.
The District Court blowup unfolded during the arraignment of Manchester videographer Dave Ridley, who was arrested in March because he refused to turn off his video camera in the court lobby. Ridley and others showed up to cover the arraignment of Free Stater and marijuana activist Andrew Carroll.
Carroll was arrested in January when he stood in Keene’s Railroad Square carrying a small amount of marijuana while surrounded by Free Staters and curious onlookers.
Though state law allows media representatives to record public court proceedings in most cases, lobbies and hallways are gray areas. Police officials say there is a fear that rape victims and juveniles could be captured on film while in these areas, which are generally off-limits for videotaping and photography, according to state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura A. Kiernan.
“We’ve talked about this at length and the Free Staters know that,” Kiernan said in a previous interview. She did not return a phone message seeking additional clarification on the law.
Free State movement still on recruiting trail
The Free State Project, the brainchild of Dr. Jason Sorens in 2001, a Yale-educated assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo in New York, aims to convince 20,000 activists to uproot their lives and move to the “Live Free or Die” state.
So far, about 700 have relocated to the state and more than 9,200 have committed to making the move, according to the project’s Web site. Sorens said he’ll make the move when he gets 20,000 signatures from people willing to do the same.
“If I can get an academic job in or near New Hampshire before then, that would be great,” he said.
Ian “Freeman” Bernard, an outspoken Free Stater and the host of “Free Talk Live,” a nationally syndicated radio talk show based in Keene, described the group as decentralized, with members pursuing their own agendas.
“There are more people coming here all the time,” he said. “These are self-starters. These are people seeing a gap where something needs to be done.”
Pam K. Martens, a Westmoreland writer who spent 21 years covering free market capitalism on Wall Street, recently set her sights on the Free Staters. Most project members support a free market without government intervention.
Martens penned an unflattering article on the group, which compared them to an invading army that can only be stopped with stricter zoning laws to prevent them from moving into small towns, buying up property and trying to infiltrate the local government.
“I felt it was more appropriate, and actually overdue to study them,” Martens said. “Why should we sit here being studied by this group and do nothing about it?”
In her article — Free Staters say it is inaccurate and slanderous — Martens focuses on a group that organized the Free Town Project in an attempt to take over the small New Hampshire town of Grafton, in the Lake Sunapee area, population of about 1,100. The project failed, and the group tried again in the desolate Texas county of Loving, where they were also ousted.
The Free Town Project’s Web site advocates the legalization of victimless crimes, such as “dueling, gambling, incest, price-gouging, cannibalism and drug handling.”
One of the group’s founders, Lawrence E. Pendarvis, also known as “Zack Bass,” was banned from the Free State Project because of his views and “outlandish statements,” Sorens said. He described Pendarvis as “an Internet crank who advocated extreme positions and claimed to want to implement them in New Hampshire.”
Any person who promotes violence, racial hatred or bigotry can be banished from the project, Sorens said. Fewer than 10 people have been booted since the project’s inception, he said.
The project has a six-member board of directors — Sorens is chairman — along with a president, vice president, treasurer, advertising director, media spokesman, bookkeeper and many other officials.
Internet spreads news of Free State Project
Most Free Staters joined the project after learning about it on the Internet, where YouTube videos of members’ acts of civil disobedience, including the District Court arrests, attract thousands of viewers.
Patrick Shields left his home in Shawnee, Kan., in February and moved to Keene after learning about the Free State Project online. He was among the five people who were arrested at District Court. Two others were given summonses.
Shields volunteers at the Keene Community Kitchen and is considering a run for city council in November, along with a handful of other Free Staters. He said he wants to change the perception that Free Staters do nothing but protest.
“From my experience, people make it seem like Free Staters are gnats annoying people but not doing anything meaningful,” he said.
When asked what meaningful changes Free Staters have brought to Keene, Shields said he had no answer.
“I’m not sure of any right now,” he said. “It’s slowly building momentum.”
Nick Ryder, a Keene native who identifies with the Free Staters, is also gearing up for a run for city council. Ryder said he has a 5 percent chance of being elected.
“People say the first time you run is all about name recognition,” he said. “I guess this (election) is going to be a gauge of how our views our perceived by this community. I think we do have a lot of silent supporters out there.”
Ryder was given a summons during the District Court protest, because he cooperated with the police by providing identification. He said he needed to get back to work — he works as a wedding videographer.
Some Free Staters refuse to carry drivers’ licenses or register their vehicles with the state because they believe the government should not have a say over how they use their property, though others, such as Ryder, choose to do the opposite.
“I have a license and I’m about to re-up my registration,” Ryder said. “I do wedding videos, and if I were pulled over on the way to a wedding, my business would be taken away forever.”
As for legalizing cannibalism, as some fringe Free Staters openly advocate, Ryder said he believes people should be able to eat human flesh if they want and have sole possession of the body they’re consuming.
“If you’ve killed someone and eaten them, then you are guilty of murder,” he said. “If there is no family member or other person who has higher claim to a dead body than you, I guess you can do whatever you want with that. I can’t say that I agree with it, but I can’t say I would throw you in jail if you did it,” Ryder said.
Arrest in Keene court adds fuel to group’s fire
The Free Stater who made the biggest splash during the District Court protest remains at the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland because he has refused to provide identification for the booking process.
Samuel Dodson, who moved from Texas earlier this year, reportedly went on a hunger strike after he arrived at jail. The Free Staters are holding a candlelight vigil for Dodson tonight in Keene’s Central Square.
Dodson’s screams could be heard through a closed door Monday while he was being arrested in a room adjoining the District Court lobby. Only Dodson and the police know what happened in that room.
Keene police Sgt. Eliezer Rivera said Dodson screamed every time he was touched. Some of the Free Staters who heard his screams thought he was being brutalized by the police. An audio file of his screams has been posted on one of the Free State Web sites.
“My personal opinion is that he was not hurt as bad as he was sounding, but any time you are carried like that (Dodson and other protestors went limp when the police tried to arrest them) it’s going to be uncomfortable,” Ryder said. “Maybe he did it to draw attention, but maybe it was because he did not want to become an unfree person at that time.”
Regardless of whether Dodson was acting or really injured, his actions and the District Court protest has undoubtedly added fuel to the Free Staters’ fire. Postings on the group’s online message boards indicate that people who have viewed video footage from the incident are already making plans to join the Free Staters and move to Keene.
“Keene has already had a burst of movers because of the recent crackdown activity,” Bernard, the Free Stater and radio talk show host said. “It seems the more they crack down, the more people want to come here.”