Houston 101: Hail, Freedonia (Except For The Part About The Killings)
When you think alternative societies, you may imagine the New Mexican or Californian semi-wilderness in the late '60s, NYC squats in 1990s or the Montana backcountry, um, probably now.
Try this one: The Galleria area, 1992.
That's when then-high schooler John Kyle and friends began a "new nation project" called the Principality of Freedonia, a micronation founded on libertarian ideals. We'll let a verse and the chorus of the Freedonian national anthem let you know what they were about.
People less fortunate than we,
Sadly to their governments kneel,
While our nation shines great and free,
A land of solace, land of zeal.
Oh, Freedonia, Freedonia the land that saves,
Freedonians never shall be slaves.
Despite our uncontrollable desire to sing along, no one wrote music to go with these lyrics, so we're stuck wracking our brains for tunes that would fit the words. Five minutes in and all we know is "Bohemian Rhapsody" is not in the running.
(And Freedonia obviously didn't have a Marxist bent, as the lyrics to Groucho's Freedonia anthem don't match up.)
But back to the politics. Freedonia was, according to a Lonely Planet travel book about micronations and a Boston Phoenix article, founded with a constitution and was run as a sort of oligarchy. That changed in 1997 when 18-year-old Kyle -- through charisma or strong-armed tactics or some super-sexy Rasputinian mix of both, we don't know -- switched the format to constitutional monarchy and crowned himself Prince John I.
Most of Freedonia's supreme document remained a reworking of the U.S. constitution and the Bill of Rights, now with the notable exception of the whole monarchy thing. (And the sehr European notion of reaching the age of majority, and presumably being able to drink, at 15. Very cool, provided you're between the ages of 15 and 20.)
The Freedonian prince served for life, and according to the Freedonian constitution, "...represents the best of Freedonian society, and is the proponent of freedom." Heady stuff. We bet Prince John I was up to the task when he ruled over almost 300 citizens (people from all over the world -- including six women!), but we're not so sure his successors, as commanders-in-chief of the armed forces, regulators of money and overseers of law enforcement, wouldn't have been tempted to abuse their power.
But there were no successors, as the experiment ended around 2004.
One of the biggest issues facing the Freedonians was their lack of actual territory on which to be free. (Lonely Planet's Micronations lists the contact address as 5102 Academy #4, 77005, but freedonia.org has it as 5337 Val Verde, 77056. Which, when you enter it on Google street view, gets you 5338 Val Verde, but you can twist it around and explore the Freedonia neighborhood.)
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Freedonians tossed around the idea of creating artificial islands, but probably given the fact that you need Dubai levels of money to pull that off right, they turned their attention to Awdal, a region in the African country of Somaliland. At the time, there was a strong independence movement in Adwal, but Somaliland's federal government still collected taxes there.
Here's where things went terribly wrong. Since it lacked the funds to send representatives to check out Awdal, the Freedonian government enlisted the help of Jim Davidson and Michael Van Notten, two fellow libertarians who were headed to region to explore a road-building project unaffiliated with the micronation. Davidson and Van Notten would simply provide Freedonia a general overview of the political and cultural climate in Awdal.
But through a somewhat convoluted series of events -- this is all detailed by Prince John; read his account here -- Somaliland's government came under the mistaken belief, or at least pretended to believe, that Davidson and Van Notten were in the region to seize land for Freedonia. The two men were eventually deported, and shortly thereafter, a group of locals, incensed that the feds had driven out the investors, gathered to protest when the vice president of Somaliland's motorcade traveled through the area. A rock was allegedly thrown, the army allegedly opened fire and somewhere between one and four locals were allegedly killed.
Nothing like being inadvertently involved with an army firing on civilians to kill a micronation's buzz.
It seems no one checks the contact e-mail address listed at freedonia.org. We tried to get in touch with Kyle to find out why the dream died, but we're not sure if he or his parents still live at the Val Verde address. We left a message at the phone number there, but no luck yet. Social-network sleuthing failed to yield info on the erstwhile monarch.
It started in Houston, and it could have changed the world. It wasn't meant to be, but wherever you guys are now, we hope you're still livin' free.