ROAD WARRIORS: Free Staters conclude their “Walk for Liberty” at the New Hampshire/Vermont border near Chesterfield.
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."
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."