Key West and the Conch Republic: “We Seceded Where Others Failed!”

There is no place in the country quite like Key West, Florida. The “Conchs”, as they are known, are irreverent tie-dye-clad liberals who make Berkeley look like Republicans. And the most masterful act of Key West political satire was their declaration of independence from the US in 1982.

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Flag of the Conch Republic, painted on a wall at the Key West Airport.

In April 1982, the US Government declared war on the Florida Keys. Or, at least, that is the view taken by the Conch Republic.

In the early 1980’s Ronald Reagan was President, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was raging, Communist Cuba was just 90 miles away, the War on Drugs was heating up as South American cocaine was flooding into the US through Florida, and America was beginning to panic at the number of brown-skinned people illegally entering the US (many of them through Florida) to escape the deadly civil wars and economic chaos in Latin America.

On April 18, 1982, as part of its anti-drug and anti-immigrant programs, armed agents of the US Border Patrol set up a roadblock and customs checkpoint at the confluence of County Road 905A and US Highway 1 on the Florida mainland, the only way in or out of the Florida Keys. It was the first time the US Government had set up a border checkpoint that was within the territory of the US itself and not actually at any border. Customs agents began checking ID’s and systematically searching every vehicle leaving the Keys, looking for drugs and/or illegal immigrants. Within hours, the stopped cars had produced a traffic jam 19 miles long, and tourists and residents alike waited in the Florida sun for hours before being allowed to continue on. Over the next few days, as word spread across the country about the massive delays and road jams, tourists began cancelling their Key West vacations, delivery trucks from the mainland stopped going to the Keys, and the islands, which were utterly dependent on outside tourists and supplies, were completely paralyzed.

It so happened that Skeeter Davis, the owner of The Last Chance Saloon–in front of which the Border Patrol had set up its roadblock–was a friend of Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow, and was on the phone to him within days asking if he could do anything about the situation. The Key West City Council met and decided to ask for a court injunction to force the Border Patrol to lift the roadblock, and Mayor Wardlow and a few other officials flew to the Federal Court in Miami to make their case. On April 22, the court ruled against them, and refused to issue an injunction. As they were leaving the courthouse, reporters asked him what the city would do next, and City Council member Edwin Smith whispered to the Mayor, “Tell them we are gonna secede from the US.” Mayor Wardlow announced to the reporters, “We are going to go home and secede. Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!”

The story flew around the country, and when the Key West city government gathered at Clinton Square, in front of the old customs building, at noon on April 23 to formally announce their secession, they were surrounded by reporters from across the US. They were also surrounded by Federal agents wearing earphones and blue suits, who stood out like sore thumbs amongst the sandal-clad locals. Mayor Wardlow stood on the back of a flatbed truck and announced that, since the US Government had already decided to treat the Keys as a foreign country and had already declared that “border” to be the Last Chance Saloon, Key West might as well BE a foreign country. Now granted the title of “Prime Minister”, Wardlow unfurled the Conch flag–a blue field with stars and a horse conch on a tropical sun–and read from a prepared declaration of independence: “I declare that Key West shall now be known as the Conch Republic . . . We serve notice on the Government in Washington to remove the roadblock, or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats. We’re not going to beg, to beseech the nation of the United States for help. We’re not going to ask for something we should naturally have as citizens–simple equality. If we are not equal, we’ll get out. It’s as simple as that.”

With all due solemnity, the Prime Minister then formally declared war on the United States of America, and for one full minute, the citizens of the new Conch Republic “attacked” the US Navy and Coast Guard officials who were present (and some of the Federal agents too) by pelting them with stale Cuban bread. At the end of one minute, Prime Minister Wardlow formally surrendered to a nearby US Navy officer, then announced that the Conch Republic would seek one billion dollars in foreign aid and war damages from the US.

The political theater was carried by every major newspaper in the country, and had its desired effect. Within days, the Border patrol lifted its roadblock, and the free flow of traffic into and out of the Keys was resumed.

The Conchs had also discovered an enormously effective tourist draw. April 23 was declared “Independence Day” and became an annual celebration. The “Conch Republic” began issuing novelty passports and visas, referred to the United States as “The Northern Territories”, and adopted the official motto “We seceded where others failed.”

In 1995, though, another incident occurred in which the Conch Republic got to live up to its other unofficial motto–“Always in humor, sometimes in anger.” On September 20, 1995, radio station WPIK announced that the US Army’s 478th Civil Affairs Battalion was about to conduct a military training exercise in which US Army and Navy forces would practice the invasion and occupation of an island by landing on Key West and acting as if the local citizens were foreigners. For some reason, though, no one had bothered to tell Key West about the planned exercise. Outraged by the disruption and the lack of consultation, the “Conch Republic” once again went into action: a message was immediately dispatched to President Clinton condemning the exercise, and vowing to find an appropriately funny method of protesting it. The call went out to “defend the nation”, and soon the “Conch Republic Armed Forces”, consisting of locals armed with stale bread, and a “Conch Navy” of fireboats and local sailing craft, were mobilized to defeat the invasion. Letters were sent to both the US Army and the US Navy that their attempted invasion would be opposed. On September 21, US Navy and Coast Guard ships in Key West’s harbor were “attacked” by bread-tossing defenders with fire hoses, and US troops attempting to cross the bridges into the city were met and stopped by 200 Conch citizens who demanded they ask formal permission before entering the territory of the Conch Republic. After a short time, the local Navy commander surrendered his ships, ordered all US forces to lay down their arms, and was then invited ashore to the victory celebration to take place the next day. Since then, the Conch Navy’s victory is re-enacted every year in Key West Harbor.

But 1995 wasn’t over just yet . . . .

In November 1995, when the Federal government was shut down over the budget impasse, the Conch Republic, seeing the opportunity for a little publicity, sent press releases all over the country declaring that it was still open and still issuing passports: “The Conch Republic, ‘America’s Own Little Country’, is pleased to announced that it is unaffected by the U.S. Government’s partial shutdown; and that anyone needing a passport can apply for a Conch Republic Passport (overnight service available) through the Office of the Secretary General. . . .We realize that the shutdown in Washington may further delay processing of the foreign aid we requested from Washington in 1982, but since we have been waiting for fourteen years, a few more days or weeks won’t matter.”

But as the shutdown dragged on, it began to impact the tourist industry, costing Key West some $30,000 a day in lost tourist revenues, and the “humor” again turned to “anger”. Of particular importance was the shutdown of Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas National Park, a primary tourist destination. In response, the tourist industry in Key West collected donations so it could pay the $1600 per day that it took to keep the park open. But when the city tried to offer the money, it was stumped to find that there was nobody in Washington who could take it and nobody who could reopen the park. As a result, the Conch Republic decided to go into action once again, and sent a seaplane from the Conch Air Force to invade and occupy the Tortuga Island and re-open Fort Jefferson themselves. (This was actually a legal strategy–the city wanted to sue the Federal government in court and obtain a court order for the Feds to take the donation and reopen the park, but they needed someone to be arrested for entering the park so they would have standing to sue.) The small group, consisting of city officials, a reporter, and some intrepid citizens, landed on Tortuga Island and were promptly issued a citation for “trespassing at a Federal facility”. When the Federal Government reopened shortly later, the case was dropped.

Today, the Conch Republic still lives, issuing passports, flying flags, and making up what its supporters refer to as “a State of mind”.

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