"We were the point of least resistance, or so they thought!" former Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow guffaws to me over the phone. "They didn't anticipate the publicity—or what was going to happen."
In all fairness, neither had he. America's most famous food fight was a perfectly planned PR stunt with both national and international buzz—except it wasn't planned and there were no PR consultants. Wardlow had opened his mouth and the words had leapt out: The Florida Keys would secede from the United States as an act of protest against the government.
It was 1982, and the US Border Patrol had set up an indefinite checkpoint between Dade and Monroe counties on US Route 1, the only exit road out of the Florida Keys. The international border-style roadblock thoroughly searched every single car for drugs and illegal aliens, creating a 23-mile-long traffic jam and a lot of pissed-off tourists. Delayed and infringed upon, they spread the word, causing would-be visitors to the Keys to cancel their trips. It was a gut punch to the Keys' economy.
Mayor Wardlow first heard about the checkpoint on Sunday, April 18. His father, an avid ham radio listener, called to ask what all the fuss on Route 1 was about. "I don't know," Wardlow remembers telling his father that morning. "I haven't heard anything." As he would soon find out, neither had Key West's Chief of Police, the Sheriff, or Florida's State Representative. Even Congressman Dante Fascell up in Washington couldn't give him a reason for the sudden gridlock, at least not right away.
"I love the Border Patrol," Wardlow says. "But no one could ever figure why [they'd set up the checkpoint]."
With the help of attorney David Horan, Mayor Wardlow filed a federal injunction to remove the roadblock, and that's how he found himself—along with Virginia Panico, the then-President of the Hotel and Motel Association, and Edwin Swift, the then-President of the Chamber of Commerce—outside of a Miami courtroom just four days later. Freshly denied an injunction (the judge didn't have the power) and encircled by a swarm of reporters hungry to know the mayor's next move, Wardlow says the words just came out: "Tomorrow at noon, we're going to secede and we're going to become a foreign country."
It was a bold, split-second blurt, but its message was simple: Nobody fucks with the Florida Keys. If the Border Patrol were going to treat them like a foreign country, then by God they would become a foreign country.
By the time their tiny plane landed back in Key West, the news had hit the wire and spread all over the world. Surprisingly, several Conchs—the nickname for Keys locals—were on board. But not everyone was happy, and no one knew what to expect. Phones in the mayor's office rang off the hook with worried calls about things like the validity of US currency and social security; the mayor's family received death threats; he was told it was career suicide; the city commissioner and representatives from Monroe County warned him to leave them out of it.
He was flying by the seat of his pants, cobbling together a plan to announce the Conch Republic as they went along.
Though he happily admits the Conch Republic is now painted with a broad stroke of levity and exists as a tongue-in-cheek response to political issues, Mayor Wardlow confides that the events on Friday, April 23, 1982 were "very serious, very scary at the time."
In the hours leading up to his Proclamation of Secession speech, Wardlow received a phone call from a fired-up Conch named Tony who had offered to fly his biplane over the ships off Mallory Square and "bomb" them with his homemade conch fritters. Wardlow also spoke with the admiral of Key West's naval base, whom he said rang up, begging Wardlow not to bomb his ships. The admiral asserted they were filled with Secret Service, FBI, and federal agents who, at this point, didn't know whether or not to arrest the mayor. Turns out, The Miami Herald had incorrectly reported the Conch Republic's plans, stating their intention to attack offshore naval ships and lower the American flag to and replace it with their own.
The past 35 years have cooked up several versions of this legendary day, but Wardlow is adamant that, despite their secession, Conchs are and were good Americans, and that there hadn't even been an American flag present.
Lowering the American flag may have been out, but it seemed thwapping people over the head with a loaf of stale Cuban bread and dropping conch fritters from the sky hadn't been entirely off the table.
At noon that Friday, Key West Mayor Wardlow stood behind his podium, set up on a flatbed truck parked outside the Chamber building in Mallory Square, and rattled off the Conch Republic's Proclamation of Secession to a divided crowd of cheers and sneers, including two dressed-to-the-nines Naval officers he swore were just waiting to take him down. Protest signs, ranging from silly to slightly slanderous, pumped up and down, and emotions ran high as the Conch Republic flag made its way up the pole and the newly-minted Prime Minister declared "war" on the establishment of the United States of America.
As if on cue, Tony's biplane buzzed overhead and Commissioner Joe Balbontin beelined for one of the Naval officers, whacking him on top of the head with a stale loaf of bread. The weapon broke and crumbs went flying. Oh my god, thought Wardlow. The Cuban bread was not part of his plan.
"The people just went crazy," he says. They erupted into screams, cheers, and Conch Republic chants. Fearful for what might happen next, Prime Minister Wardlow immediately surrendered to the United States, though the spontaneous and quirky spirit of the Conch Republic never died; days later they requested $1 billion in foreign aid from the federal government and, for two weeks, Prime Minister Wardlow sanctioned Skeeter Davis of the Last Chance Saloon to shoot canon blanks at the checkpoint until the Border Patrol started phasing out its presence and it was gone.
To this day, members of the micronation—which has its own passports and "conch-sulates" in four cities worldwide—celebrate humorous ways to address political issues and defend the Florida Keys. But how real is it exactly? The mayor's voice grins as he says, "The Conch Republic is real as a State of Mind. The feel is still we are an independent nation, and we did it the way it should be [done]."
Though successful, it had the potential to go wrong—way wrong. So, does the Prime Minister think such a brazen feat could be pulled off in America today, in our current climate, without serious consequences and with our current, paranoid, trigger-happy administration—an administration Wardlow himself surprisingly supports? "Sometimes I sit down and I think about it," he admits toward the end of our call. "What would I do today?"
He admits the government may be a bit sensitive now, but drops hints that people today are going to have to do more than just protest in the streets if they want their message to get across. "You have to have a cause and do it right," he says. "We didn't burn flags, we didn't turn cars over. We handled it peacefully and yet forcefully to get our message out."
To all the people who have come to him over the years looking for advice on how to secede, what to do, and how to start (California and Texas take note!), he simply says, "First thing you gotta do is be a little crazy."
The Florida Keys will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Conch Republic's independence on Sunday, April 23 and with its annual ten-day festival, from April 21 through April 30.