Keenevention discussion

Panelists on the media panel during Keenevention 2014 at the Best Western hotel Saturday are, from left, Free Keene blogger Garret Ean, Stephanie Murphy of "Let's Talk Bitcoin" and Brett Veinotte of the "School Sucks Project."

In a dimly lit event hall at the Best Western hotel in Keene Sunday morning, people were talking about secession.

Specifically, a proposal that New Hampshire secede from the United States was the topic of the morning’s panel at Keenevention — the second annual event in Keene for “liberty-minded” activists.

The concept was once central to the Free State Project, Jason Sorens’ 2001 idea as a Yale University Ph.D. student to convince 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire and create a utopia of limited government.

But as panelists discussed the terms of a New Hampshire secession, it wasn’t that simple.

Over more than an hour, the conversation jumped from the intricacies of the recent failed vote for Scottish independence to a proposal that each person on Earth be considered an independent nation — that’s over 7 billion countries — to Sorens’ claim that the people of New Hampshire aren’t ready for secession and need to be wooed with simpler ideas.

“You can talk to people about self-government,” Sorens warned. “Not secession.”

Potential participants may be put off by the idea if they think it’s too extreme, he said.

The panel’s speakers went on to compare the U.S. government to the Mafia, then to an abusive spouse, before opening the floor to questions.

Over a weekend of panels and speeches, an estimated 100 people at Keenevention discussed and debated the minutiae of what it means to live a libertarian lifestyle.

For a movement whose Keene members have generated more anger than inspiration among average Keene residents, the event at the Winchester Street hotel had a giddy feel. Ideas flowed freely, though conclusions were hard to find.

At the entrance to the event hall Saturday, Keene libertarian activist and radio talk show host Ian Freeman, who organized the weekend’s conference, handed out name tags and pointed people toward an array of pamphlets bearing pictures of green New Hampshire landscapes.

Each attendee had paid $60 in advance or $75 at the door to attend the full weekend schedule.

Freeman said attendance was smaller than last year’s convention by about 20 people, but ticket sales almost completely covered the cost of renting out the hotel ballroom.

He would pay for any shortfalls with the revenue he gets from hosting “Free Talk Live,” the daily satellite radio show he founded and runs with a cast of other liberty-minded personalities.

At the sign-in table, a woman attempted to feed a stack of $20 dollar bills into a tabletop Bitcoin ATM that, in theory, would convert her U.S. currency into the crypto-currency favored by libertarians and accessed through online “wallets” on a smartphone or computer.

The machine spit out the woman’s money like a broken vending machine.

She rubbed a bill against the edge of the table before trying again, this time with success.

Some convention-goers said they consider themselves anarchists. Not all consider themselves members of the Libertarian political party, but most consider themselves “small-l” libertarians.

One speaker, Lauren Rumpler, makes YouTube videos under the user name “Objectivist Girl,” in which she praises the theories of Ayn Rand. In one video she sets fire to a handful of $1 bills to make a point about Bitcoin.

On Saturday, Rumpler picked raffle tickets from a jar to determine who had won the day’s prize: a date with her.

When her first selection declined — he’s gay, a bystander explained — the second winner pumped his fists and ran to the stage wearing a hat, orange-tinted sunglasses and a Hawaiian-print shirt, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. No one seemed sure who he was.

A few people carried handguns that stuck out conspicuously from holsters on their belts. At least five smoked vaporized nicotine from e-cigarettes as they sat in the audience. Some did not wear shoes.

For the most part, they could agree on two things: that the government should have less power, and that more people should move to New Hampshire to make that happen here.

The answer to the inevitable question about how to achieve those objectives, it seemed, depended on who you asked.

Despite the extensive media coverage they receive, most said stunts in Keene such as “Robin Hooding” — feeding expired parking meters before parking officers can issue tickets — and smoking marijuana in Central Square aren’t what attract them to the movement.

Brian Henchey, who moved to Merrimack from Massachusetts as a Free State Project member, has focused his energies on the voting booth.

Moving to New Hampshire, he said, was a way to vote for alternative or third-party candidates who have more chance of winning than in the perennially Democratic Bay State.

The desire for “freedom from an overarching government” is one of the reasons he got involved with the movement.

He isn’t sure relocating to the Granite State has achieved that goal, though.

“I’m not feeling as free as I could,” he said.

Henchey hopes the project will do away with rules that prohibit behaviors such as smoking in public places.

He said he feels the same way about laws enforcing seat belt use for adults — until Freeman, standing nearby, reminded him that New Hampshire has no such laws.

Zach Harvey said his struggle to run a business around the bureaucracy in Tel Aviv, Israel, drove him to relocate his guitar store to Manchester in 2012.

But ask anyone what they think the movement’s about, he said, and they’ll give you their own response.

“No one knows what the answer is,” he said. “Because it’s an idea ... it’s an evolution over time.”

Many speakers described running up against wary banks, police and pesky government regulations — even in New Hampshire — as they attempt to run “free” businesses or charities.

That’s OK, people said many times over the weekend — the evolution of New Hampshire will be a slow one. Most at the conference conceded that the Free State Project’s original goal — get 20,000 liberty lovers to eventually move to New Hampshire — is unlikely to pan out.

Almost 14 years after Sorens published that idea, the Free State Project claims more than 16,000 people have signed up to move.

Just over 1,500 people have actually made the trip, and the movement has started to trickle into the state’s elections: more than 20 people aligned with the project have been elected to the N.H. House, and many more serve in municipal government positions.

For most people mingling under the hotel’s chandeliers, the project is not a means to an end, but rather a community to share common ideas with. The conference was a sort of mini-version of the annual Porcupine Freedom Festival, the Free State Project’s annual summer gathering in Lancaster.

Jennifer Aberman traveled to Keene from Montreal, Quebec, for the weekend. She said she heard the event advertised on “Free Talk Live,” and had come to stay in the hotel and learn more about the “liberty-minded” lifestyle. As a nanny, that means telling the parents she works for that she won’t punish their children.

“It’s really in tune with my philosophy,” she said. “I try to incorporate it into my daily life.”

She has not tried the parking-meter activism that has created so much media attention for Keene’s libertarians.

Aberman likes the idea, though.

“It’s a beautiful thing that they’re doing,” she said.

James Cleaveland, a Free State Project participant who moved to Keene from Georgia in 2012, gave one of the weekend’s keynote addresses to the half-full room on Saturday evening.

His speech was an appeal to libertarian activists to learn from criticism and “just do something.”

That criticism has been sharp in Keene. He and other libertarian activists are currently involved in two lawsuits with the city of Keene. Many bloggers with Freeman’s Free Keene blog have been arrested, some repeatedly.

A Facebook group called Stop Free Keene!!! has now attracted more than 1,300 area residents who protest the libertarians’ activities and post photos and personal information about them.

Cleaveland is one of six people accused in the lawsuit by the city of Keene of harassing and intimidating city parking enforcement officers as they filled the meters with coins. The case reached the Supreme Court in oral arguments last month.

Cleaveland laughed it off in his speech.

“If you’re important enough to have fans, you’re going to have haters,” he said.

Speaking with a slight Southern drawl, he detailed his decision to come to Keene.

Like several others in the audience, his story had something to do with Ron Paul. Few people there had a story of how they found the movement without at least one mention of the former Republican congressman and 1988 Libertarian Party presidential nominee.

But, like many of the Free Staters at the conference, Cleaveland’s move was also an attempt to find a community of people who understood him.

“Moving here, being with people here — it’s like I’m no longer afraid,” he said.

Cleaveland peppered his talk with references to a list of people he said were initially misunderstood but became influential.

Christopher Columbus made the list. So did Jesus Christ, Henry Ford, Galileo, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pablo Picasso and Oprah Winfrey.

The final line in Cleaveland’s speech earned him a standing ovation, and illustrated the attitude of many there.

“I care about liberty, damn it, and I’m not going to apologize for that,” he said.

Martha Shanahan can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1434, or mshanahan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MShanahanKS.