The scene is Keene, New Hampshire, and our intrepid hero is one Mr. Andrew Carroll. Amid a gathering of friends and onlookers, this brave soul held aloft a piece of plant matter. His black trench coat and shock of red hair in stark contrast to the snow-covered square, Andrew dared to openly possess this innocuous natural substance: marijuana. Having advertised this event in advance to ensure a spectacle, the throng numbered a few dozen. A short speech was made, select lines from Nietzsche were read, and Mr. Carroll then offered to pass around the bud, allowing others to participate in this act of civil disobedience.
And lo, in the distance, the king’s men approached. Andrew scrambled to find the person holding the bud so that he could complete the act as intended. Two officers from the Keene Police Department made their way to our hero and engaged him in conversation.
Greetings were exchanged and Mr. Carroll held out his open hand with this small green item visible in his palm. When asked by the lieutenant if it was marijuana, Andrew snapped back, “Yes it is.” The arrest was made, the trial was conducted, and Carroll, not wanting to pay the $420 fine–really!–and give revenue to the state, spent nine days at the local house of corrections.
Dozens of New Hampshire activists are working to create more liberty by challenging and bringing attention to absurd and outlandish laws. Some have moved here with the Free State Project, an effort to recruit 20,000 liberty-loving people to relocate in a single area. Others are natives, or have come for such reasons as employment or schooling. Unless otherwise stated, everyone named resides in the Keene area.
These are individuals who have chosen to commit their blood, treasure, and sacred honor for liberty. Make no mistake: This is not just a couple of random dudes smoking and joking; there is a robust support network in place, and a community that can be rallied to support a person with very little notice. Andrew Carroll went to jail as mentioned above–but he did so by marching there from the place of his arrest, nearly thirteen miles, with a group of fifteen activists, holding signs and bringing more attention to the absurdity of imprisonment over a plant. That was almost a year ago, and the number of activists has swelled as more people move to New Hampshire, drawn by the movement that is just getting started.
It’s a Celebration!
Keene is a quaint little New England town, surrounded by forested hills and mountainsides, with an old-fashioned town center. It was September 12, 2009, and a political rally was being held at the Central Square; Rich Paul, Noah Wood, and several friends visited the rally and decided to smoke a joint. They had no idea of the fate that awaited them and the future of civil liberties in Keene.
The next day, Rich and Noah returned to the square at 4:20 P.M., and lit up again. This continued for several days–just the two of them and anyone who cared to join in, peacefully smoking a small amount of marijuana. No property damage occurred and no one was hurt. Our socio-economic system did not collapse due to the utter disregard for laws meant to protect us from ourselves.
Soon, Rich and Noah made mention of this daily ritual in their social circles. Over the next few days, more people began showing up, often bringing friends. Each time, marijuana was smoked and merriment ensued.
As destiny made inevitable, a reporter from a Manchester newspaper was in the area and decided to investigate the gathering. By this time, the smokers numbered around thirty, and, though ostensibly a private get-together, bystanders were invited. An article appeared in the Manchester Union Leader the next day, and, as though a switch had been pulled, the 420 gatherings turned from an under-the-radar revel to an open act of defiance against unjust and immoral laws.
Ian Freeman, host of the locally produced and nationally syndicated Free Talk Live radio show, leveraged his media resources, including the website FreeKeene.com, to drum up support for the next celebration, and the number of people in attendance began to soar. Activists from other parts of the state were alerted, and a rush of plans were made to head to Keene and take part in this activity. Many came through, and at 4:20 the next afternoon, the gathering boasted around seventy-five people, not counting the numerous onlookers across the street.
Reporters from other newspapers also made a showing, and the Keene Police Department arrived to observe the spectacle. The officers parked their cruisers and stood outside of them while not actually setting foot in the square itself. Many smokers could be seen passing joints or pipes, and selling brownies. The event went smoothly and peacefully, with no arrests.
Emboldened by the success of this first public event, the rallying cry sounded throughout the area. It was well-heeded: 130 people filled the square the next day. Once again, cannabinolic conviviality was conduced, and once again the police did not interfere with the smokers. They did, however, arrest one person on an unrelated warrant.
Watch videos from Keene 420 celebrations:
September 26, 2009, turned out to be the sort of sunshiney Saturday made for good fun in the park with friends, a Frisbee, and a dog that will fetch errant throws. After two days of public smoking with police looking on, the activist spirit is fully charged and individuals are becoming more daring. Rich Paul and Noah Wood were being given credit in the media for starting and promoting the 420 at 4:20 smoke-out, and though they had run with the idea and done a great deal to promote it, it needs to be noted that there was no actual leader. Nevertheless, this day would prove to be a turning point for Keene.
Early arrivers were greeted by officers from the Keene Police Department, hovering around the fountain by the gazebo. Chuckles were had and quiet whispers were made as more and more participants crossed the street and entered the square. Conversation was attempted with the officers, but they were not there to exchange pleasantries.
With five minutes to spare before the fateful time, the officers left the square, much to the happiness of participants. When 4:20 struck, Rich Paul made a short announcement, and with a spark, the aroma of cannabis filled the air. Speckled with dots of daylight shining through the canopy of shade the trees provide, good friends filled the square with laughter and lively conversation. This day demonstrated that existence itself deserves celebration.
Fear and Doubt
The happy mood suddenly changed as two police officers crossed the street and entered the square. Several activists immediately trained cameras on them. Notice was given that they were being audio- and video-recorded as they started milling through the crowd, seeming to be searching for criminal activity. There was a tension in the air as participants wondered what would happen next. Some chose to wait for the right opportunity to smoke in secret. Others just watched and waited.
Rich Paul was standing in the center area by the fountain and had put a hand-rolled marijuana cigarette in his mouth as the officers walked away. He asked loudly for a light, and one man in blue started to head for Rich. Rich lit the joint and took a puff as the officer walked past him in close proximity to smell the exhaled smoke. The officer grabbed hold of the joint and placed Rich under arrest as the other policeman came over to provide back-up.
The crowd was incensed and began to ask questions and shout at the officers. Several activists worked to keep things peaceful and as calm as they can be when watching a friend get arrested. This is perhaps the key to the success of the protests. A peaceful society can only be built with peace. Violence will only shift public opinion against you and provide excuses for the police to use violence.
The officers took Rich to a waiting cruiser as participants peppered them with questions. Many resumed smoking now that the square was empty of police. A march to the jail was suggested. In a matter of minutes, more than half the crowd grabbed signs and paraded down the busy Main Street sidewalk for the roughly two-mile walk to the station. The city could not help but see this display and take notice.
Police Station Party
Once at the police station, an inquiry was made into the status of Rich’s arrest, and no information was available other than that he was being processed. The police station has a section of the parking lot that leads back behind the building where the cruisers are parked, as well as the civilian cars of the officers. This area is guarded by a sign proclaiming “NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS,” with a line painted on the pavement.
Several protesters crossed this line, sat down, and formed a smoking circle where joints were passed. The large group that had come to the station was divided, as most of them had seen the warning and were cautious about disobeying. As time went on, more and more people became comfortable with violating the posted order, and crossed the line, making the smoke circle larger. The police did not come out and bother the smokers, and those in the cruisers that came and went appeared oblivious to the possible “crimes” being committed.
Rich Paul was released on a “personal recognizance” bond and greeted the waiting throng with surprise. Keene Police Lieutenant Shane Maxfield had come out and was answering questions posed by protesters and the reporters who were on hand. In all fairness, the Keene Police Department has shown a good deal of patience and discretion with the activists. They are not perfect, and have had a few scandalous incidents, but though we are opponents in the legal world, we are not enemies. I must commend these officers on not being nearly as bad as those in some police departments around the country and world.
Watch video of Rich Paul’s arrest and jail smoke-out (2 parts):
The Scene Is Set as the Plot Thickens
Sunday is always a big activism day in Keene, as there is a weekly social event that draws visiting liberty-lovers from across the state and country. Many in attendance, having seen the day before what happens when an arrest is made, found their natural fear diminished. Inevitably, there was some minor apprehension, but spirits were high.
The turnout this quintessentially summer day was again around 150, and events proceeded in typical fashion, with a rallying cry at 4:20 and the familiar fragrance of festivity. Police were on hand again; round two sounds the bell. In the area where Rich had been arrested the day before, Evan Pierce was trying to light a hand-rolled cigarette of unknown contents. An officer stopped directly in front of him and watched as Evan attempted to get the cherry started. Evan nervously fidgeted with the lighter as a large huddle of bystanders directed their attention at him. The officer eventually grabbed the butt and smelled it. After a few whiffs, he decided to arrest Evan.
Once again the crowd made known their displeasure, and once again a march was made to the Keene Police Department, an even larger group than yesterday’s, numbering around eighty. Many stood outside the lobby of the station, chatting and smoking, until a short announcement was made, and most of them hurried inside.
At one point, some particularly bold individuals decided to smoke a joint in the lobby itself. The lobby is sectioned off from the rest of the station with locked doors and plate-glass windows. In the center of the room is a pair of benches sitting back to back. It was on these benches that a none-too-surreptitious joint was lit and passed to all who would partake. News cameras were on hand from a Manchester TV station and the Obscured Truth Network, the latter run by liberty activists Sam Dodson and Smeg McLain, to record this hot-boxing of the cop shop.
The Keene police ignored the smoke, the group, and the cameras. Evan was released shortly thereafter. It turned out he’d been trying to light a chocolate mint cigarette, not marijuana. There were no charges against Evan, and the police were left with a black eye. The group marched back to Central Square and resumed the festivities.
With the one exception noted below, this would be the last time the Keene Police Department interfered with the 420 celebrations as of this writing. Certainly this victory cannot be under-appreciated. Central Square became a police-free zone at 4:20 and those who were there lived as free people.
Festival of Gourds
Pumpkin Fest is an annual event in Keene that brings in more than 50,000 tourists from New England and beyond. The extraordinary number of carved and lit pumpkins on display has earned eight world records in the festival’s nineteen-year history. The plan of those who wanted to participate was to go ahead with the celebration at the normal time, and use this as a platform to spread their message to the masses attending. As Central Square was home to rows of pumpkin shelves and a band on the gazebo, the location was moved across the street, directly in front of City Hall.
It had been twenty days since the false arrest of Evan, and at the start of the festival, signs indicated that that streak might be about to end. There was a very heavy police presence in the area of City Hall, with units on duty from several neighboring towns, as well as sheriffs. Included were the obligatory battle-gear cops and K9s. Whether they know it or not, such militaristic accoutrements are only intimidating to those who plan on being violent. Peaceful activists are not going to fight, so all that that gear manages to accomplish is to make those officers uncomfortable and sweaty.
At this point the activists had a network of two-way radios that made coordinating efforts much easier in such a densely packed crowd. The news of the police presence was spread by early arrivers, and this may ultimately have helped garner more of a turnout. A group of around forty activists gathered in front of City Hall with clusters of police looking on. Rich Paul had received a good deal of practice using the megaphone, and being a man of many words, he set out to demonstrate just that to all within earshot.
He spoke of the Drug War and how it is a war on people, not plants or chemicals. He spoke of peaceful people being imprisoned, having committed no real crime, having damaged no property and created no victim.
“We do this in remembrance of lost liberties, and for hope of the day when people don’t fear their government, because the government fears the people,” Rich shouted through the megaphone. “Smoke ‘em if you got ’em!”
He then reached in his pocket and produced a pipe and a bag. He packed a bowl and took a toke–and was promptly arrested.
Noah Wood and Evan Pierce also lit up and were arrested. The three were moved into the City Hall building to await transport. Later, three other activists tried to enter the public building and were also arrested. A crowd waited for them at the police station, and each retold his story numerous times. Evan and two others arrested that day went to the correctional facility where Andrew Carroll had served out his time. This place has been the location of many parties, including a few barbecues, as activists go in and come out of jail.
Evan and the other two were released in short time.
Evan has just recently had his trial relating to the arrest. He represented himself and conducted a very respectable defense against the state, invoking several constitutional arguments while citing the New Hampshire State Constitution, perhaps one of the best ever written as far as the amount of liberty it protects. He was found guilty, he announced his intent to appeal, and requested a stay of sentencing, which he was granted.
Rich Paul is going to have one of his possession trials in a short time. It is unknown what Noah Wood plans to do about his trial. The 420 events continued without any problems after Pumpkin Fest. There was a break when the New England winter hit full force, but they have since resumed without much to speak of … at least in Keene.
Video of Pumpkin Fest arrests:
The Liberty Forum is an annual event put on by the Free State Project to entice people to move to New Hampshire, as well as to provide a place for liberty-minded folk to network and party. The forum is held in Nashua, New Hampshire, at a fancy hotel, and draws several hundred people. Naturally it is a great opportunity to practice some peaceful civil disobedience with activists from other parts of the country.
Saturday, March 20, 2010, was unseasonably warm, perfect for some outdoor activities. Like Keene, Nashua has a central square equipped with monument and cannons. At 4:20, fifty or so activists traveled out there from the Forum and engaged in a smoke-out. For a while, it was very peaceful. Then a bit of commotion started amidst a group of local teens. Soon it became clear that two undercover police officers were arresting a young man. The activists, cameras in hand, descended on the police and began asking questions.
The sad truth of the situation is that with all of these mostly white activists openly smoking marijuana, the undercover cops chose to go after a young black male who had allegedly been arrested before for possession. It cannot be proven that the police specifically targeted that young man, but the situation seemed pretty shady.
The young man was put into the unmarked car, and some protesters upset by this gross injustice decided to be bold. David Krouse of Keene is a very quiet and peaceful man, not one to yell at people or become even the least bit violent. In silent protest, he has, in the past, stood in the way of police vehicles holding arrested friends, ultimately moving aside when the threat of arrest was levied against him. This day he did not move.
After standing in front of the car and refusing to move, David was placed under arrest. He decided to lock his hands and sit down, making a statement by inhibiting the procedure in a peaceful manner. The officer tried to wrench David’s hands apart to cuff them behind his back, but was unsuccessful, and decided to call for back-up. The officer resumed his efforts to cuff David, and his partner came to help. The two of them picked up David by his arms and carried him around to the back of the car.
The Cavalry Arrives
In a furious blur, about a dozen squad cars pulled up to the park, including a very emotional K9 officer who brought out his dog. He started pointing at various protesters and shouting, “He’s got a gun,” inciting his dog to bark. The scene was on the precipice of danger, but some cool talking by veteran activists were able to calm the officers down.
Catherine Bleish, of St. Louis, Missouri, a video journalist, was arrested while asking questions of the police and the young man in the back of the unmarked car.
Most of the event was captured by the Obscured Truth Network, which has put together an outstanding video of the entire event that really captures the mood and atmosphere, both positive and negative.
Most of the participants, about forty in all, headed to the police station as per usual and awaited the release of the captives. The mother of the young man who was arrested showed up, as his sister was there to see him get taken into custody. His mother was very upset because she couldn’t afford the $40 fee for the bail bondsman. A collection was taken up by the activists and she was given $120. Several individuals talked to her and offered what help they could give as far as challenging the case in court.
Richard Onley of Keene is rather adept at crafting liberty lyrics. He approached some singers outside the police station and passed out an easy call-and-repeat song, suggesting that they all go into the lobby and sing it. Some headed in, and others followed to observe what was going on.
Inside the lobby, the singing of this simple song began as a quiet side note. As more people chimed in, Richard passed out more lyrics sheets and soon the lobby was a choir. Remaining positive in even the most dire times can only help; it is also easier to be peaceful when you are in a positive mind. The song ended, and much applause was given. Spirits were high.
The three arrested were released later that evening and a return was planned for the next day.
The warm weather had withdrawn slightly, and Sunday turned out to be a chilly but sunny day. The 420 celebration was also a goodbye for many of the out-of-state participants. The police did not interfere, though they did drive by several times and reportedly waved at activists. The young man arrested the day before was in attendance with his mother and sister, and fully supportive of the protesters. No arrests happened, no misuse of tax dollars, no harm, no foul. Yet the peaceful people in the square did nothing different from the day before.
The Saga Is Ongoing
At the most recent event this last week in Nashua, Sovereign Curtis passed an unlit marijuana cigarette to an undercover police officer and was arrested. He was charged with a Class B felony, Distribution, and is working on his legal defense.
This movement is an ongoing, organic idea that we can have a better life if we are free to decide what that life is. Pot is just one aspect, and it is not even the plant so much as the idea that my body is mine, not the State’s, not the Government’s. At the same time, I also must accept that if I damage this body, the responsibility to fix it is mine, not the State‘s, not the Government‘s.
What is happening in New Hampshire is a last-ditch effort to fix a broken system by peaceful means. There is so much more than pot protests and the accompanying arrests; there are people challenging unjust laws of many types. The arrests also present opportunities to challenge the law directly, even though the court system is weighted heavily in favor of the State.
The simple fact is that some individuals have drawn a line in the quicksand of our lost liberties. Defiant and bold, they have said “No more.” The establishment has quaked and balked at the sheer audacity, but more so over the distinct lack of fear for the consequences that befall a law-breaking activist.
Some would cry out, “Come, then, and arrest us. We shall clog your already overburdened court systems and use your prisons as recruitment camps.”
With an open mind and a pocketful of peace, they are working to change the world in their own way.
James B Schlessinger Jr., 31, resides in Keene, New Hampshire, and is the editor of, and a reporter for The Free Keene Press, a blogger at FreeKeene.com, and an all-around cool dude. He works in the high-tech manufacturing field as a precision mechanic. He has attended all but the last event described in this story. Information is based on first-hand witnessing, and in some cases, tasting. Visit freekeene.com for videos of the described events.