Lyn Ulbricht is the mother of Ross Ulbricht, who created the Silk Road, a deregulated online market built around Bitcoin. She is currently the head of Free Ross, an organization that seeks to reduce or end Ross’s sentence by encouraging the president to grant him clemency. She agreed to this interview with 71 Republic’s Ryan Lau to discuss the American justice system, its mistreatment of Ross, parallels to other figures such as Cody Wilson, and what courses of action supporters of Ross should take to make the world a better place for him and for all.
71R: Throughout most things I’ve read, Ross describes himself as a libertarian. Some sources go so far as to call him a crypto-anarchist. What do those labels mean to him, and what do they mean to you?
Ulbricht: You know, somebody asked him that when they were visiting him in prison; he said he doesn’t really feel comfortable with labels. So, he didn’t really specify, and I don’t really feel I can say what it means to him. I know that he is still committed to the principles of liberty, autonomy, and choice, as am I, as were our founders. In general, Ross is someone who is grounded in the principles of liberty and privacy. Because Silk Road was created to protect individual users, not to be a drug website.
71R: Of course.
Ulbricht: It became, not completely, but predominantly a drug website, mostly small, user amounts of marijuana. You wouldn’t know that from the media or the government, but that’s accurate. There were lots of other things on there. The point was privacy, and that goes hand in hand with freedom. How can we be free if we live in a surveillance state?
71R: Do you think that there is a compatibility of liberty and privacy with a state, or do you think that those two entirely oppose each other?
Ulbricht: I would have to think about that. I think that a lot of things the government is doing now are in direct opposition to the Constitution, to our Bill of Rights, and the principles that this country was founded on. Whether or not we need any government at all is something I am not completely sure of, but I’m not speaking for Ross. I think there are arguments on both sides, but we’ve gone so far away from what it was intended to be, that I think we’re in a lot of trouble.
71R: I would agree. Would you suggest, then, that we should adopt a model that moves away from the strong, centralized government of today and shrinks it as far as is practical?
Ulbricht: Yes. We can start by abiding by the Constitution. For example, take the drug war. There is nothing in the Constitution that says that the government has the authority to throw people in cages for using drugs. The fact is, when they prohibited alcohol, they had to amend the Constitution, and then when they realized it was only creating violence and more problems, they had to amend it again to repeal prohibition. Now with the drug war, they didn’t even bother with an amendment. They just gave themselves the authority and are doing this on a federal level, and a state level, in many states. This is not in the Constitution. That is just one example of the overreach that government is propagating now.
71R: Is the Constitution, then, an acceptable means of limiting government growth, when it hasn’t really done so in the past? Or should we look for a different model?
Ulbricht: Again, that’s a debate that I don’t know if I am prepared to speak about. A lot of people I really respect are not fans of the Constitution. However, a really good step would be to abide by the Constitution, which is what the government is supposedly legally obligated to do. Let’s see how that goes. It’s a tough question, but it seems like that would be a good start.
71R: For sure. Shifting gears a little bit, the actions of Free Ross surely occur, in part, out of your own love as a mother, as well as a desire for individual liberty, as you’ve said. Before this mistreatment occurred, did you have the same philosophy regarding rights and privacy? Essentially, how has Ross’s trial shaped your view on government and society as a whole?
Ulbricht: I would say I leaned libertarian. I took a test on where you fall on the political spectrum, and I fell pretty close to libertarian. My husband and I are entrepreneurs, we just like to be left alone for the most part, to live our lives and make our own choices. So, that’s always been my outlook. However, with what I’ve gone through with Ross, I’ve seen up close how the government operates now. I’m very alarmed – it’s hard to believe, until you actually see it. I went into this thinking, well of course, trials are fair, and everybody acts with integrity, and keeps their oath of integrity, and this will all be fine. And, that is not true.
Ulbricht: Much of what’s going on now is so un-American, immoral, and counter to our values, that it’s shocked me. Once you’ve lived through something yourself, you can’t deny it, so yes, I see things differently.
71R: That’s completely understandable. So, you were saying that there was not a lot of integrity in the trial. Given the existence of the current legal system, what do you believe would have been the best action for the judge and the jury to make?
Ulbricht: Well, it would have been nice if the judge had allowed all of the evidence to be known to the jury, for a start. There were two corrupt agents who used their access to the Silk Road to steal over a million dollars. With their high level admin access, they also were able to act as different aliases, including Dread Pirate Roberts, who they led the jury to believe was solely Ross. They could act as Dread Pirate Roberts, they could change chats, pin numbers, passwords; they had keys, they had complete run of that site. And they could plant evidence, delete evidence, etc. And this was not permitted to be known to the jury. That’s outrageous to me! I didn’t know this at first. Nobody knew until two months after the trial, when it went public. But then it was too late.
71R: Of course, at that point.
Ulbricht: There were other things. The government’s narrative was very carefully crafted, and that’s what the jury was spoon-fed. And the defense was shot down, again and again, when they tried to challenge it. To me, it just seemed very unfair. I couldn’t believe it, actually. It was shocking. How about we get to hear all of the evidence? That would be a good start.
71R: Do you have any suspicions as to why the trial was done this way, why the evidence was denied and removed?
Ulbricht: No, I have nothing to say about any accusations of corruption or anything like that. I do think there was bias, though, on the part of the judge, Katherine Forrest. Chuck Schumer was behind this case. He recommended Forrest to her position on the bench. The lead prosecutor, Preet Bharara, was Chuck Schumer’s special counsel for years and owed his job to Schumer. Ross was brought from California, where he lived and was arrested, to Schumer’s state (New York). So there appears to be a political bias here. I think the prosecutors were dishonest, too. The trial prosecutor, Serrin Turner, didn’t even let the judge or the defense know about one of the corrupt agents until after the trial. He didn’t disclose that.
71R: And he did have knowledge of the agent’s corruption?
71R: The Free Ross website also mentions that there was a clear double standard, as most of the other higher-ups within the Silk Road were given lesser sentences than Ross, if any at all. Do you think that Ross’s case was more of a rule or an exception?
Ulbricht: It was an exception. He was the only defendant in the case that got this unbelievably barbaric sentence. Even Blake Benthall, who ran Silk Road 2.0, which the government called identical and actually said sold more drugs in a month and had more listings, was in custody for 13 days and then was released. He never went to trial, and now nobody knows where he is. I’m not saying I want him in jail, I’m saying that this is not equitable. We’re supposed to be treated equally under the law.
Ulbricht: Ross is not actually in prison for dealing drugs. He’s in prison for running a website. The guy who was convicted for being the biggest drug seller on the Silk Road got ten years. He has the same offense level as Ross, but he got ten years. The government said to Ross, we’re making you an example. And the judge also said, you’re the first, so you need to be the example. You need to be the one who is sacrificed. This is not what you’re supposed to do in the justice system of the United States, just because you’re the first. It’s not even the law, they just said it.
I became convinced it was political, and about Bitcoin, not drugs, when I saw all of these other sentences. I thought, wait a second. This is so inequitable. What is this really about? And I believe it was about Bitcoin. Chuck Schumer was a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, and the banking committee, and I think that they were alarmed about this currency that they couldn’t control, that they couldn’t tax. It was suddenly becoming kind of big, and I think they had to stop it.
71R: What does that say to you about the current state of the American justice system, if they have to resort to those means?
Ulbricht: It says to me that we are in very great peril of losing our freedoms, and that more and more of us are in danger of being thrown in a cage. There’s a book called Three Felonies A Day that talks about how a person breaks laws every day and doesn’t even know it, because there are so many on the books. Nobody even knows how many. Between the government’s conspiracy laws, which is all of what Ross was convicted on, except for their kingpin charge, which is pretty absurd.
You can be in a conspiracy with very little connection to what was going on, and be given the same punishment as a person committing a crime. Conspiracy laws expand the criminal umbrella tremendously, and there are also things like the Three Strikes Law, which is absolutely evil. Thank you, Bill Clinton. So many people are languishing in prison for decades and decades because of that law.
There’s a guy named Jose that Ross knows in prison, and one of his strikes was residue on a dollar bill. Well, I can have residue on a dollar bill, if I get change at a 7/11, right?
71R: Sure thing.
Ulbricht: It’s absurd.
71R: And he was sentenced for that?
Ulbricht: Yes, it was one of his strikes in his life sentence. He’s a friend of Ross in there. Ross says he’s a totally peaceful, nice guy. He is one of the nonviolent drug offenders in there with him.
71R: They are in a picture together on his Twitter, right? Eight or so men lined up, all sentenced for non-violent crimes?
Ulbricht: Yes. And there’s another, also in the picture, named Tony, who is serving life for selling marijuana.
71R: Serving life for it?
Ulbricht: Yes, he’s already been in there for thirteen years, and the prison is in Colorado! So what it says to me, is that the criminal justice system is not about justice. The correctional system is not about correcting anything, in fact, it’s a criminal training ground. And, it’s about, as far as I can see, a tool for power and money. That’s what I think the drug war is, and mass incarceration. They’re making money and extending their power through human beings, and to me, that’s human trafficking.
71R: I would have to agree with you on that. Very much like Ross, Cody Wilson is also a firm believer in individual liberty and privacy. He currently stands uncharged, despite the fact that the state continues to hinder his progress. Do you believe that there is a parallel between the men, in goal, or outcome? In what ways are their actions similar?
Ulbricht: It reminds me of the people who fought the American Revolution. They were mostly the age of Cody, and Ross, and others. They were in their 20s, they were young, most of them. Some were even in their teens. And they were idealistic, and willing to take risks. I think that is at the core of Cody and Ross. They’re idealistic and care about big principles. You could argue about both of them, and how they chose to do those things. But at the core, I believe that that is who they are, and what they’re really about.
71R: If much of Ross’s sentencing, as you were saying, was to set an example and show control, do you believe Cody has reason to worry the state will treat him in a similar manner, for the same reasons?
Ulbricht: Sure he does. I am concerned for Cody, although hopefully that won’t happen. Hopefully he will be safe from that. But yes, he is very defiant, and is stepping up and challenging them. My experience is they don’t like that.
71R: Right. I have to say I have a very similar concern. The only thing left is something to charge him with.
Ulbricht: Right. I do think he’s very aware of it as well, so hopefully he’s being careful. Cody has this reputation as the most dangerous man in the world. I know Cody personally, and he’s a wonderful person. He’s a stellar person and I regard him very highly, and he’s not a dangerous person at all. And he cares about humanity. Just to say, Cody’s image in the media, which I think he somewhat promotes, is not really who he is, just like Ross’s image. The media portrays Ross as a kingpin, thug, all that, but he’s really one of the most laid back, sweet, peaceful guys you’d ever want to meet.
71R: Do you believe that Ross’s new presence on social media will help change the public’s view on him?
Ulbricht: I hope so. It was completely his idea, and I’m not really involved with it at all. At first I was nervous about it, because I’m always worried the government’s going to use something against him, because that’s pretty much how it is. Mainly, he said, look, I want people to know who I am. I’ve had to be silent all these years and let everybody else say who I am. He just wants to be like a regular person on Twitter. I don’t expect him to get political, or anything like that. I think it’s more about just communicating who he is as a human being, and a regular guy.
When it comes down to it, we are all individuals, we’re all who we are. And so, I think that he felt so cut off, and now he is really enjoying having the interaction. Now, he’s not on the internet. This is through someone else, who is posting, and the comments are mailed to him. I hope it does help people understand him better. Ross’s whole philosophy is peaceful, use no force, voluntary interaction. I don’t think there are many kingpins who have that philosophy! It’s pretty much about force and violence for them. I hope it helps, because it’s been very damaging. A lot of the media just cares about sensationalism and clickbait and then it gets to be how people think it really is.
71R: To wrap up, what is the best course of action, if there is one, for someone trying to promote privacy rights and individual liberty? Is electoral politics a legitimate route? Or should they take more voluntary action through a social movement or create some sort of program like Ross or Cody?
Ulbricht: I’m no expert on this, but I think it’s a blend. I’m trying to do this now, for Ross. We’re out of the judicial realm now, and into the public arena more. At the end of the day, it is the politics that’s going to determine law, and have the force behind it. At the same time, public opinion influences politics. So, the two really go hand in hand.
I would, though, urge anyone who is thinking about this kind of thing to please stay within the bounds of the law. Do not break the law. You need to do your work, for your principles, within the law. I think it’s a dual approach, at least what I’m trying to do. I think one influences the other. Public opinion influences politics, which then influences the law. It is up to Congress to change the law, and they respond to public pressure.
Also, our petition to grant Ross clemency is a key part of blending the social and the political movements. We want to influence the president and convince him that commuting Ross’s sentence is a worthy thing to do. If we have half a million people signing it, I think it would have impact. Our goal is to say that this sentence is wrong, and to please commute Ross’s sentence. If people would please share it and sign it, that would be great. We would really appreciate it. That’s a very important focus right now. Clemency is one of Ross’s last chances, and we need to get the president’s attention.
71R: You believe that it can be done, with enough signatures?
Ulbricht: I think it would certainly help.
71R: Thank you very much for all of your time!
Ulbricht: Thank you for doing this, for caring about getting the truth out there. I really appreciate it.
Please sign the petition to grant Ross Ulbricht clemency, which you can find here.
More information on the fight to free Ross Ulbricht is available here.
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