Grassy Key, FloridaThe Conch Republic celebrates Independence Day every April 23 as part of a week-long festival of activities involving numerous businesses in Key West. The organization — a "Sovereign State of Mind", seeks only to bring more "Humor, Warmth and Respect" to a world in sore need of all three.
You can usually find conch in grassy sea beds in warm tropical waters. A Cayman Islander taught me to cook them chemically by soaking them overnight in lemon juice. Conch fritters and conch chowder are widely available in Key West as is Key lime pie. In case you wondered "what's a conch fritter?" please see my blog.
In 1982, the US Border Patrol set up a checkpoint at the choke point on the north end of the Keys and began to randomly search motorists’ cars for drugs and illegal aliens. This is not an unusual tactic for the border patrol. If you drive in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona today you will be stopped and interrogated somewhere on a road north of the Mexican border and subjected to similar scrutiny.
Once, coming out of Laredo, Texas at night, I was directed off the interstate and stopped in front of a blinding searchlight. The uniformed officers questioned me about smuggling parrots and waved me on. As I pulled past the searchlight, I saw several officers with assault rifles pointed at me and I was very glad that for once I had no parrots.
When the Border Patrol tried the same tactic in the Keys in 1982, the citizens resented both the inconvenience to themselves and the impact on tourism. After their protests went unheeded, the mayor of Key West decided that if Key West was to be treated as a foreign country, then it might as well be one.
The city announced its independence from the United States of America on April 23, 1982 and declared itself to be the Conch Republic. The Mayor visited the Admiral in charge of the Key West Naval Air Station and broke a loaf of stale Cuban bread over his head. After that, Key West immediately ceased hostilities and applied for a billion dollars in foreign aid from its giant neighbor to the north.
The Conch Republic still sells passports to tourists. The 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta, bought a set of these online in early 2001, demonstrating both an abysmal lack of understanding of the American culture and a missing sense of humor.
The Republic later annexed the old abandoned “seven-mile bridge” after a boatload of Cubans landed on it a few years later. The Coast Guard sent them back to Cuba after stating that since the bridge was severed on both ends, the refugees had to be returned under the "wet feet/dry feet" policy. Under that policy, refugees who make it to dry land can stay. Those intercepted at sea are returned to their country of origin. The courts overturned that theory but the Cubans were already back in Cuba.
In a place where invasive species like iguanas abound, the most common of all, the chicken, draws a lot of ire. They crow at all hours of the day and night and they strut the streets like they own it. While they don’t get any special protections in the Keys, residents cannot shoot them, and cruelty laws are enforced. In case anyone is wondering—these are wild, feral chickens and don’t make a good dinner. The chickens don’t have many natural predators..they do eat anything you drop on the restaurant floor.