BURLINGTON - Vermont became the 14th state on March 4, 1791 - a date that will live in infamy, according to the secessionist think tank Second Vermont Republic.
Two years ago, SVR commemorated the occasion by staging a mock funeral for Vermont's independence at the Langdon Street Café in Montpelier. More than two dozen "mourners" and a pack of reporters gathered there. After a few speeches, performers from Bread and Puppet led them in a merry march to the Statehouse, to the tune of "When the Saints Come Marching In."
The mood was more somber last Sunday, when seven SVR supporters - including founder Thomas Naylor, his son, and Jim Hogue, dressed in period garb as Ethan Allen - huddled in the snow around Allen's gravesite in Burlington for a second mock funeral. Naylor opened the short ceremony by playing a recording of Chopin's death march.
Turns out the deceased may as well have been SVR itself. The drop in attendance and change in tone is the result of a recent controversy; as reported here last week, in early February, Vermont bloggers began questioning SVR's ties to white supremacist groups such as the League of the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies LOS as a hate group.
An anonymous scribe blogging as former Green Mountain Boy "Thomas Rowley" criticized SVR for its connection to LOS at Vermont Secession - vermontsecession.blogspot.com. Liberal blogger John Odum, founder of Green Mountain Daily - www.greenmountaindaily.com - repeated and amplified Rowley's charges. "Some very ugly tendrils have infiltrated themselves into the progressive community right under our noses," Odum wrote on February 9, "and Rowley should be given a medal for bringing it out into the sunlight before it spreads any further."
In a February 26 press release responding to their allegations, Naylor defended SVR's connection to other secessionists, and claimed to be the victim of a "techno-facist cyber-smear campaign," orchestrated by Rowley and Odum. Naylor branded the SPLC a "McCarthy-like group of mercenaries." He also implied that Odum's employer, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, was behind the allegations, though Odum denies that VNRC has ever had any connection to his blog.
Odum has since quit writing for GMD, citing the personal nature of Naylor's attack, and implying that he was forced to choose between his job and his blog. VNRC executive director Elizabeth Courtney did not return a phone call for this story. Odum's departure has prompted more posts unfavorable to SVR on several Vermont blogs.
Naylor characterizes the brouhaha as "fundamentally much ado about nothing," but it's clearly having a negative affect on SVR. This year's funeral was supposed to take place at Langdon Street Café, but Naylor switched the location to the Burlington cemetery a few days before the event.
Naylor says he was told the collective that runs the Montpelier café was "skittish" about hosting his event, so he decided to relocate rather than feel unwelcome.
Langdon Street collective member Wes Hamilton offers a slightly different spin - "My interpretation was that they didn't feel comfortable with possibly being confronted," he says.
Hamilton confirms that people who frequent the café, many of them supporters of secession, have been "scratching their heads" over the allegations and SVR's response.
"There's a pretty broad consensus among the people that I talk to that they handled this situation really poorly," he says.
One of SVR's leaders has also just announced he's leaving. On Monday, March 5, a statement appeared on the SVR website (though it has since been removed) saying that co-chair Rob Williams has stepped down from his post to concentrate on editing Vermont Commons, a quarterly promoting Vermont independence. (The newspaper has had a distribution arrangement with Seven Days.)
According to the website, Williams resigned in a private letter to Naylor on February 24. Williams has declined to comment further on his reasons for leaving SVR.
Naylor, at least, seems unfazed by the turmoil. "Secession is a tough sell," he admits. "Whoever said trying to organize a secession movement in Vermont would be easy?"