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January 19, 2005 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

Deja Vu

To Fight Car Searches, A Florida City Declared Itself a Foreign Nation

By Cynthia Crossen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

You think you've been stuck in some long airport security lines?

Consider the tourists whose cars were backed up 19 miles in April 1982 before they reached a security checkpoint in the Florida Keys. Once they got there, gun-toting law-enforcement officials examined their drivers' licenses and meticulously searched their vehicles, including trunks, glove compartments and even ice chests. Most of the travelers were simply trying to leave the Keys on a sunny Sunday evening.

Today, we take for granted that federal employees will routinely scrutinize our identities and search our baggage without probable cause. But 23 years ago, the decision of the Task Force on South Florida Crime to stop every car heading north on U.S. 1, the only road in and out of the Florida Keys, infuriated the islands' residents and merchants.

"It's insulting," said Bill Martin, president of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, "that the people of Monroe County have to prove their citizenship to get into Dade County."

The roadblock was one of many efforts to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. One law-enforcement official estimated that 70% to 80% of all marijuana and cocaine entering the U.S. came through south Florida, and Key West was considered by some to be the "drug-smuggling capital of America.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Key West was also a flourishing center of rumrunning during Prohibition. Even today, it's not unheard of for bales of marijuana -- nicknamed "square grouper" -- to wash up on Keys beaches. As a writer, Benedict Thielen, put it, Key West is "a place where the unexpected happens with monotonous regularity."

In its long history, Key West has been the home of many legitimate industries, including shrimping, sponging (of all varieties), wrecking (rescuing distressed ships from treacherous reefs in exchange for a percentage of the cargo) and pineapple farming.

But by 1982, the town's primary business was tourism, and tourists didn't fancy ending their vacations waiting in line to be searched. So the town's leaders protested the roadblock to the White House, Florida's governor and U.S. senators, and their local congressmen.

They got nowhere. "You have illegal immigrants and crime on the streets," responded Peter Teeley, press secretary to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. "You want the illegal aliens picked up? There's going to be some inconvenience. I think most people would want a little inconvenience compared to having grocery stores held up and senior citizens mugged in the streets."

But Key West wasn't buying his argument. The city, the mayor and local merchants hired a lawyer, David Horan, to seek an injunction against the roadblock. Mr. Horan argued that it violated the Fourth Amendment restriction against unreasonable search and seizure.

"Unless they see the hand of a Haitian sticking out of the trunk or marijuana wafting out of the car, they don't have probable cause," he said.

Meanwhile, Key West residents came up with another idea. If they were going to be treated like foreign citizens, forced to cross the equivalent of a border to get to their own country, why not become a foreign country?

On April 23, 1982, Key West, sometimes referred to as Bellevue with a liquor license, declared that it was seceding from the nation and renaming itself the "Conch Republic." (Conch -- pronounced konk -- is a nickname for Key West natives.)

"We serve notice on the government," the secession proclamation read, "to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent barrier to a new foreign land. If we are not equal, we'll get out. It's as simple as that." The new republic's official motto: "We seceded where others failed."

Key West already had experience in seceding. At the start of the Civil War, when Florida seceded from the Union with the rest of the South, Key West seceded from Florida. It wasn't just contrarianism, though that would have been entirely in character. Union troops controlled a new fort on the island and decided it would be prudent to remain there. As a result, Key West became the only Union-controlled Southern city during the war.

The 1982 secession was reported by national and international media, which reduced the effectiveness of the roadblock. "What are you going to do, sit in line for hours waiting for the border patrol to check out the illegal aliens and drugs in your trunk," Skeeter Dryer, owner of the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, asked Gregory King, author of "The Conch That Roared," a book about the secession. "That's why the highway was littered with drugs at that time, marijuana and stuff people threw out of their cars before they got to the roadblock."

Two months after its inception, the roadblock was quietly dismantled. But the spirit of secession lives on in the hearts of many Conchs. Every April 23, Key West celebrates the anniversary of the day when, as Dennis Wardlow, mayor of Key West in 1982, put it, "the brave men and women of the Conch Republic gave up their lunch hour to secede from the United States."

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