The Conch Republic is a micronation created as a tongue-in-cheek "secession" from the United States by some residents and local government representatives of Key West on 23 April, 1982, and maintained as a tourist promotion ever since.
The original protest event was motivated by a roadblock instituted by the US Border Patrol that was viewed as causing inconvenience to residents and being detrimental to tourism in the area.
Although the Conch Republic is not, and never was, a real secessionist movement, many in Key West continue to identify with the concerns that motivated the original protest against what they view as an "unresponsive" central government taking action without considering all of the implications. At least three related protests have taken place subsequent to the original secession.
Although still active in protests against the U.S. Government on occasion, the Conch Republic has since focused on tourism, due to the significant publicity generated during the original protests. The group celebrates Independence Day every April 23 as part of a week-long festival of activities. The organization is a key tourism booster for the area; the group issues its own souvenir passports and postage stamps (see cinderellas, stamp-like labels).
In 1982, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock and inspection point on U.S. Route 1, which runs north from Key West over a series of causeways and serves as the Keys' only land link with the mainland. Vehicles were stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants. The Key West City Council complained repeatedly about the inconvenience for travellers to and from Key West, claiming that it hurt the Keys' important tourism industry. In fact, Eastern Air Lines, which had a hub at Miami International Airport, saw a window of opportunity when the roadblocks were established; Eastern became the only airline to establish jet service to Key West International Airport, counting on travellers from Key West to Miami preferring to fly rather than to wait for police to search their vehicles.
When the City Council's complaints went unanswered by the Federal Government and attempts to get an injunction against the roadblock failed in court, as a form of protest Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the Council declared the Keys "independence" on April 23, 1982. In the eyes of the Council, since the Federal Government had set up the equivalent of a border station as if the Keys were a foreign nation, the Keys might as well become one. As many of the local citizens were referred to as Conchs, the fledgling nation took the name of the Conch Republic.
As part of the protest, Mayor Wardlow was proclaimed Prime Minister of the Republic, which immediately declared war against the U.S. (symbolically breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a naval uniform), quickly surrendered after one minute (to the man in the uniform), and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid.
These actions generated great publicity for the Keys' plight – the roadblock and inspection station were removed soon afterward. It also resulted in the creation of a new avenue of tourism for the Keys.
The Great Invasions of 1995
On September 20, 1995, it was reported that the 478th Public Affairs battalion of the United States Army Reserve was to conduct a training exercise simulating an invasion of a foreign island. They were to land on Key West and conduct affairs as if the islanders were foreign. However, apparently no one from the 478th notified Key West officials of the exercise.
Seeing another chance at publicity, Wardlow and the forces behind the 1982 Conch Republic secession mobilized the island for a full-scale war (in the Conch Republic, this involves firing water cannons from fireboats and hitting people with stale Cuban bread), and protested the Department of Defense as to arranging this exercise without consulting the City of Key West. The leaders of the 478th issued an apology the next day, and submitted to a surrender ceremony on September 22.
Later that year, during the shutdown of the U.S. Government in December 1995, in another protest the Conch Republic attempted to invade Dry Tortugas National Park in order to reopen it. Inspired by efforts of the Smithsonian Institution to keep its museums open by private donations, local residents had raised private money to keep the park running (a closed park would damage the tourist-dependent local economy), but could find no one to accept the money and reopen the park.
When officials attempted to enter the monument, they were cited. When the citation was contested in court the following year, the resultant case, The United States of America v. Peter Anderson, was quickly dropped.
The Annexation of Seven Mile Bridge
The move was in protest to a recent event regarding Cuban refugees. On the previous January 4, fifteen Cuban refugees had reached the bridge, but had been returned to Cuba by the Border Patrol because of a federal decision under the Wet Feet/Dry Feet Policy that declared the bridge part of the "Wet Feet" policy. The rationale was that, since the span had been damaged in a storm and was no longer connected to land, it was not part of U.S. territory subject to the "Dry Feet" rule, and thus the refugees were not permitted to stay. (The decision was later overturned, but only after the refugees were returned to Cuba.)
Conch Republic Secretary General Peter Anderson (the defendant in the Dry Tortugas case from 1995-1996), seizing upon the apparent disavowal of the abandoned span by the U.S., claimed it for the Republic. He expressed his hope to use the bridge to build affordable, ecologically friendly housing. The United States did not take any action when Conch Republic flags were planted on the structure.
The Flag of the Conch Republic consists of a conch shell in a sunburst on a field of blue, emblazoned with ten stars, the words "Conch Republic" and "We Seceded Where Others Failed" (the latter is a registered trademark) and the date 1982. The flag is commonly seen throughout the city.
The Conch Republic government sells passports on its website, offering citizenship to all comers regardless of residency, as well as (more expensive) passports for diplomats. These are not considered valid travel documents by the United States or any foreign nation; the Conch Republic itself admits they are sold as souvenirs only. That said, some people buy them in the mistaken belief that they can be used as valid travel documents.
- The Conch Republic is a key location in several volumes of the Dallas Barr series of Science Fiction comics, in which it gains true independence in 2075.
- Key West, a short-lived comedy-drama series on FOX that aired in 1992 had an episode depicting a fictionalized version of the incident. (IMDB entry)
- The video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City refers to the incident through a character on public radio calling for Florida to secede from the union.
- Welcome to the Conch Republic
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