KEY WEST, Fla. -- The Florida Keys' secession from the union over a Border Patrol roadblock, followed in one swift motion by a declaration of war, a surrender and a demand for $1 billion in aid, dissolved into nightlong parties.
But in its own weird way, the 'Conch Republic' may have achieved something. The Border Patrol said Friday night it was making only sporadic checks of northbound motorists at its Florida City roadblock, which backed up traffic for 19 miles last weekend when it went up.
Mayor Denns Wardlow, who proclaimed himself prime minister of the Conch Republic, led a mock secession ceremony in Old Town Square Friday to protest the Border Patrol's checkpoint at the northern end of the Florida Keys. Some people in the crowd of 750 that attended the flag-raising began celebrating by sipping rum and tonic in the square.
The biggest 'secession party' was at a Key West club called The Monster. Manager Ricky Regretto said he expected 1,000 people to pack the lounge for the festivities.
'We've been packed all day and we'll be packed all night,' he said. 'The locals are out. They'll use any excuse to party.'
The ceremony was planned to get publicity for Key West and its protests over the roadblock, which city fathers say is hurting the town's main business -- tourism.
The ragtag crowd of folks dressed in three-piece suits and cutoff shorts roared their approval when the Conch Republic flag, a blue banner with a pink conch shell and a yellow sun, was raised.
'We've raised our flag, given our notice and named our new government,' Wardlow told the crowd. 'We serve notice on the government in Washington to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land.'
After declaring war, Wardlow said his nation was ready to surrender and asked for $1 billion in foreign aid.
Other protesters set up their own checkpoint in the parking lot of the Last Chance Bar, across U.S. 1 from the federal roadblock. Regular bar patrons wearing Nazi helmets and carrying machetes and clubs stood at the roadside. They sold green cards to southbound tourists and drew icy stares from Border Patrol officers.
'If Key West is going to be treated like a foreign nation, we're willing to get into the damn act,' said bar owner Dale 'Skeeter' Dryer. 'It's all a gag, of course, but there's an underlying feeling of rage.'
Some people apparently took the action seriously. Managing Editor Sheila Mainous of the Key West Citizen, which put out an extra, said a number of people had called the newspaper 'worried about their food stamps and whether they will be able to cash their Social Security checks.'
'We have succeeded in turning something negative into something positive with this secession,' Wardlow said in one of his few serious moments. 'We have been flooded with phone calls from people all over the country who now want to come down here.'