Opinion: To free a town, Robin Hooders take on meter readers

• A philosophical battle over government is playing out around the parking meters of a town in New Hampshire

By Dan Barry / New York Times News Service

KEENE, N.H. — In most places, the parking enforcement officer reflects the municipal compact. Armed only with a gadget that can spit out a ticket at the forgotten drop of a dime, the officer quietly serves civic and commercial life by ensuring that meters are fed.

In most places, yes. But not here in charming Keene, where parking officers figure in a philosophical tug of war between a small band of activists who live by the motto “Free Keene,” and the great majority of residents who were unaware that their city was in bondage.

Keene’s two parking officers, both women, are often videotaped by young adults known as “Robin Hooders.” They track the whereabouts of the officers by two-way radio, feed expired meters before $5 tickets can be written, and leave a business card saying that “we saved you from the king’s tariff.”

Welcome to Sherwood Forest, N.H., where these acts of charity have led to some donations and gratitude, but also to sidewalk tensions, harassment allegations and litigation. They are part of a broader effort by about two-dozen activists, most of them from someplace else, to unshackle Keene from the “violent monopoly” of government and its enforcers, including these parking officers who work in weather fair and foul.

The mundane matter of parking has become so contentious that a third parking officer, an ex-soldier who served in Iraq, quit last year because, he says, he could no longer take the close-up videotaping and the taunts that “I had condoned the droning of brown babies.” So contentious that the mayor, the city manager, and the city attorney all declined even to say hello to me.

But some local residents are speaking out in their stead by challenging the activists through a Facebook page with the unwieldy name of “Stop Free Keene!!!” One of its organizers, Andrea Parkhurst Whitcomb, is asking the relative newcomers a fundamental question:

“Who asked you to come free us?”

‘Live free or die’

The activists selected this New England-cute city of 24,000 for liberation mostly because it lies within that flinty bastion of Yankee individualism known as New Hampshire, where “Live Free or Die” is carved into the collective granite.

Back in 2003, a libertarian-leaning group called the Free State Project decided that this small state could be a liberty lover’s paradise if enough like-minded people settled here. (The movement, by the way, tends to attract white males, according to Carla Gericke, the group’s president, a white South African who has lived for many years in this country. “I’m the token African-American,” she joked.)

A dozen years in, the Free State Project is about three-quarters of the way toward achieving its goal of having 20,000 people commit to relocating to the state, after which it will “trigger the move.” The project has already influenced the statewide conversation at times — partly because of “early movers” like Ian Freeman, a Floridian who bought an old white duplex on Leverett Street several years ago and quickly set out to push local buttons.

There have been marijuana gatherings in the central square. Make-believe drinking of alcohol at City Council meetings. Leafleting outside public schools. And many video-recorded encounters in which the activists are the earnest heroes of their own narratives, holding accountable the employees of a government they do not generally recognize.

In one notorious instance, a grandmotherly crossing guard smacked at their camera with her stop-sign placard.

Consensual interaction

The gangly Freeman, born Ian Bernard, drives an auctioned-off police car with Wisconsin plates, hasn’t paid federal taxes for a decade, and has donated his house to the recently established Shire Free Church, which is now seeking tax-exempt status. From this “parsonage,” he broadcasts his nationwide “Free Talk Live” radio show several nights a week.

Freeman, 33, has been repeatedly arrested, and once served 58 days in jail for disorderly conduct after standing in front of a police car to protest a woman’s arrest because she had an open can of beer. He is guided, he says, by his “voluntarist” belief that “all human interaction should be consensual,” which might surprise the human parking officers who do not consent to being followed or videotaped.

This shadowing of parking enforcement officers has received the most publicity by far. Videotapes show the officers being dogged by activists who sometimes goad with pleasantries like: “How do you live with yourself?”

After the officers complained about skyrocketing stress last year, the situation became even more surreal, with Keene hiring a private investigator to follow and videotape the activists following and videotaping the parking enforcers. The city then filed a legal complaint against several activists, including Freeman, accusing them of harassment and seeking a buffer zone between activist and parking officer.

“They would try to make comments to bait me about my faith, about my military status,” Alan Givetz, the ex-soldier, recalled recently. He said he tried being nice, then oblivious, then angry, but to no avail.

Finally, Givetz, who served 22 months in Iraq as a military police officer, quit his job handing out parking tickets. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I didn’t see an end in sight.”

Freeman denied that he and his colleagues have harassed anyone. But he noted that enduring verbal and mental abuse is part of the officers’ job description. “If it’s too stressful,” he said, “maybe it’s not the right job for you.”

‘Freedom is messy’

James Cleaveland, an accountant who helped to popularize Robin Hooding in Keene, sounded like a dental surgeon when he said that as he videotapes the officers, “I try to make it as comfortable as I can.” Still, he said, “My ultimate mission is to prevent the state from getting involved in other people’s lives.”

But there are reasons “the state” uses parking meters, tickets and even tow trucks, according to Gary Lamoureux, Keene’s project manager for parking and the only city official to comment. “It’s to have turnover for the business owners in the downtown area,” he said. In other words, to support the marketplace.

In December, a Cheshire County Superior Court judge cited free-speech protections in dismissing the city’s complaint, as well as its request to be reimbursed for costs that included therapy sessions for the officers. The activists celebrated a victory in the courts they disdain; the city appealed.

Freeman said some in the larger Free State Project disapproved of his tactics, believing that they might alienate New Hampshire residents before the group has made clear its purpose. But he has no remorse, he said. “We’ve brought millions of dollars of press coverage.”

Gericke, the project’s president, said that “we want to be good, productive neighbors” who “don’t want to poison the well.” But she added that Robin Hooding in Keene is evolving, and has become a great means of outreach.

“Freedom is messy,” she said.

Rising tension

Freeman’s movement has inspired many to take up activism — against him. The Stop Free Keene!!! Facebook page has seen a recent spike in membership, to more than 850, and its organizers have begun handing out anti-Free Keene leaflets that accuse the “anti-government” activists of “attempting to infiltrate OUR beautiful community.”

Whitcomb and others, including Givetz, the former parking enforcement officer, gathered last month at McCue’s billiards and sports lounge, where the Free Keeners also socialize, to vent about the divisiveness.

“It’s not comfortable anymore,” Tammy Adams, a registered nurse and beekeeper, said. “Everyone’s on edge.”

But the imperfect municipal compact of Keene has been around since 1753. Things have a way of sorting themselves out.

Recently Freeman publicly “demoted” a Robin Hooder for being a bit too belligerent. A local man is facing charges that he chased and threatened a couple of Robin Hooders. And city officials are exploring a plan to raise the cost of parking in the Shire of Keene, to 50 cents an hour.