In southern New Hampshire, about an hour west of Manchester, lies the unassuming city of Keene. With a population of around 23,000 people, it has around a third of the residents of Cheshire County. On the surface, Keene looks to be a well-to-do community, with median income is well above the nation’s as a whole, but a significant portion of the population — nearly 17 percent — live below the poverty line. The population is also extremely white, with fewer than five percent of its residents belonging to minority groups.
Much of the economy in the city is driven by small business — nearly two-thirds of all businesses in Keene have fewer than 10 employees. Other major industries include a medical campus, two college campuses, and a wide variety of service and retail jobs.
Politically, Keene has historically been, like much of New Hampshire, centrist with a tinge of conservatism. But over the last 25 years, the state as a whole, including Keene, have moved decidedly leftward, becoming a swing state in presidential elections.
Still the most conservative state in the most liberal region of the nation, a strain of libertarianism has always run deep in the Granite State, reflected in its motto of “Live Free or Die.” It’s this libertarian streak that led to the creation of the “Free State Project,” with Keene becoming one of the key battlegrounds.
The Free State Project is a movement created by a group of libertarian minded individuals hoping to influence local elections. Historically, libertarianism has had a difficult time influencing elections on a broad basis thanks to the largely diffuse nature of the movement. With this in mind, they hoped to move 20,000 or more individuals to a low population state in order to get a foothold in local and state offices as a springboard to widening the movement.
After debating the merits of individual states and locales, New Hampshire was the state selected by a vote of members of the movement. While accurate numbers as to how many have actually fulfilled their pledge to move to New Hampshire, the political fallout has been indisputable.
Dozens of elections have already been won by self-identified members of the movement, from both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. Additionally, other elected officials have changed party affiliation to Libertarian and expressed affinity for Free Staters. But the success of the movement has been at the expense of many residents of New Hampshire — with Keene as one of the major battlegrounds.
Keene has been regarded as the “Northern Capital of Libertarianism” by the Mises Institute, and has quickly become a battleground between pro-liberty and pro-government forces. Much of the rancor has come about due to typical policy differences, primarily on taxation, but the tactics of the group have also come under scrutiny by those in power.
Keene’s Representative Cynthia Chase was one such naysayer to the group, even going so far as to describe them as single biggest threat to the state and vowing to restrict the freedom of residents in the state in an attempt to discourage Free Staters from coming in. While her rhetoric may seem a bit over-the-top to the outside observer, the friction between long-time residents and newcomers is palpable.
While most of the Free Staters are content to work within the system to affect change, others have been known to harass government officials. Some have taken to following parking meter workers, drawing the attention of the national media and garnering a segment on Stephen Colbert’s show mocking them.
Other incidents include using marijuana in public places, daring officials to stop them, as an act of civil disobedience against the nation’s failed drug war, and others have taken to smaller acts, such as feeding meters. But in 2014, during the town’s annual Pumpkin Festival, riots broke out, and Free Staters were targeted as instigators.
Libertarians as a whole are generally quick to criticize police abuse and brutality, but the Pumpkin Festival riots were discovered to have been mostly college students, fueled by anger about the Ferguson, Missouri protests and alcohol. This led to widespread protests which later turned violent as the police turned up to escalate the situation.
Free Staters, chagrined both by what they felt was unfair blame as well as an overzealous police force reinforcing the narrative of police abuse, have been extremely vocal since the incidents, criticizing the local cops as well as joining the national conversation. In the aftermath of the riots, the festival moved across the state to Laconia, ending a popular event for the community.
For the moment, an uneasy truce exists between Free Staters and their neighbors. But for the near future, the libertarians and their opposition will likely dominate the conversation in this small corner of New Hampshire. And while longtime residents attempt to adjust to the new reality of being an unwitting battleground for the freedom vs. government growth debate being held nationwide, Free Staters hope to build on past electoral success in Keene and New Hampshire, eventually bringing their philosophy to the nation as a whole.