Garden gnome liberationists
Garden gnome liberationists are individuals and groups advocating the "freedom" of garden gnomes, small decorative ceramic bearded characters, often stealing them and moving them to new locations. The phenomenon and the liberationists have received substantial media coverage and been featured in films, television and local news stories.
Gnomes and garden gnomes
A gnome is a mythical creature characterized by its small size and subterranean lifestyle. Reports of people claiming to have seen real, living gnomes have surfaced in several countries, with major media outlets carrying stories about purported gnome sightings. Garden gnomes are small ceramic bearded characters (usually male) that are used as decoration in gardens and lawns. The first garden gnomes were made in Gräfenroda, a town known for its ceramics in Thuringia, Germany in the mid-19th century. The garden gnome quickly spread across Germany and into France and England, and wherever gardening was a serious hobby. Currently, there are an estimated 25 million garden gnomes in Germany.
It has been suggested by some scholars that the garden gnome is based on the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, whose statue was often found in ancient gardens. According to folklore, garden gnomes were willing to help in the garden at night. When no one is around, the folklore suggests the garden gnomes awaken from their ceramic state and work on the gardens and lawns in which they reside. In these stories they are said to touch plant life with their magic, causing flowers to bloom, leaves to change color, and streams to saturate the soil surrounding the plants.
Garden gnome liberation
As modern-day garden gnome folklore developed and their popularity increased, the objects became the target of pranks, known collectively as gnoming. Gnoming activity includes the theft of garden gnomes for the alleged purpose of returning the inanimate garden gnomes "to the wild". In 2008, a 53-year-old Frenchman in Brittany was arrested on suspicion of stealing as many as 170 garden gnomes.
The goal of Gnome Liberation is "to help set gnomes back into their natural environment".
The practice of stealing garden gnomes is also sometimes referred to as "gnome hunting". Some "kidnapped" garden gnomes have been sent on trips around the world (the travelling gnome prank). This variation on "gnoming" was popularized by the motion picture Amélie, in which the main character persuaded her father to follow his dream of touring the world by stealing his garden gnome and having an air hostess friend send pictures of it from all over the world. The traveling gnome theme later became the basis for Travelocity's "Where is my Gnome?" advertising campaign. The travelling gnome has also been used as a recurring Easter egg in the 2004 simulation game Sim City 4, in which a gnome sprite reveals itself in the game's buildable landmarks. Also, within the continuing "The Sims" titles, most notably in the third variety, gnomes come in different varieties (such as a vampire, or mummy, according to the main occult of the expansion packs) and move or change position daily, much to the amusement or chagrin of the player. And in the 2007 game Half-Life 2: Episode Two, players receive a special achievement award if they carry a garden gnome throughout most of the game, and place it in a rocket which in turn would launch it into space.
In an extension of the prank, several so-called garden gnome liberation organizations have been formed for the stated purpose of freeing the ceramic creatures from forced labor in gardens. Some of the organizations satirically argue that the inanimate gnomes are captured, sold, and kept as slaves, ripped from their Northern Woodland homes, stripped of their freedoms, and forced to tend to the gardens where they are set. Garden gnome liberation groups claim that they strive to protect the "freedoms" of these silent creatures in various ways, ranging from sending petitions to the owners and the government, to stealing and "liberating" them. Liberationists have often repainted the "freed" garden gnomes to make them unidentifiable, and taken them to wooded areas or sanctuaries where liberationists contend they will be "free from a life of miserable solitude."
Garden gnome liberation organizations
Garden Gnome Liberation Front
The first and most predominant gnome liberating force is the Garden Gnome Liberation Front (also known as the Front for the Liberation of Garden Gnomes—le Front pour la Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ)). The Garden Gnome Liberation Front was introduced to the French public in 1997. Over the course of a year, the Front stole over 150 garden gnomes, contending that garden gnomes deserved the same freedoms with which they were blessed. The leader of that group was charged in absentia with stealing over 150 garden gnomes over a period of several years. The Front's leader was given a suspended prison sentence and fined for the 150 stolen gnomes.
In 1998, there was another strike that has been attributed to the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. This strike was known as the "mass suicide". In Briey, a small city in eastern France, citizens woke up to find 11 garden gnomes hanging from a bridge with nooses around their necks. A nearby note stated, "When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decorations."
For two years following the "mass suicide", the Garden Gnome Liberation Front was relatively silent. No major noteworthy acts were recorded until 2000, when a garden show in Paris displayed 2,000 garden gnomes. In a nighttime raid, the Front "liberated" 20 gnomes from the garden show. The Garden Gnome Liberation Front claimed responsibility, demanding that the Garden Gnomes be released into their natural habitat and not be ridiculed as cheap garden decorations.
The Front gained media attention again in 2006, when 80 gnomes were stolen in the central Limousin region of France.
MALAG and the European Gnome Sanctuary
In Italy, a group has formed, calling themselves Malag (Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime da Giardino). This group is an Italian branch of the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. They have stated as their goal the establishment of a European Gnome Sanctuary in Barga, Italy. The Barga News published an article about Malag's efforts, noting the following:
"For a number of months gnomes have been moving into a small valley in the Province of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy. ... Most have decided to settle in the town of BARGA, where they have found a sympathetic population known as BARGHIGIANI who are not only prepared to tolerate the gnome way of life but are even prepared to protect it! ... We are proud to announce the first European Gnome Sanctuary here in Barga. ... Life here is protected, no more small garden prisons, no more torture (the strimmer [i.e., motorized weedeater] is a thing of the past here in Barga)."
The Barga News has also published photographs of garden gnomes "now living inside the European Gnome Sanctuary", including hundreds found in the city's parks and at the Castle of Barga, as well as others at the town's main council offices and the Teatro di Differenti. 
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