Ross Ulbricht Speaks Truth to Power

For the first time since being caged, Ross Ulbricht — no stranger to readers of — candidly, and powerfully spoke out. In this 25-minute audio recording he:

  • details his motivation for creating the Silk Road and his subsequent character assassination and caging
  • implores his captors to act not with contempt but compassion
  • shares his excitement about the liberating impact of decentralized cryptocurrency for individuals & humanity

On the use of the phrase “Speak truth to power”, let’s turn for a moment to a passage from Ben Stone’s Sedition Subversion and Sabotage Field Manual No. 1, where he notes:

“Speak truth to power” is an old Quaker phrase that has been co-opted by several groups for different purposes. Although it didn’t make it into print until the twentieth century, its origin is commonly believed to be a nineteenth century description of an event in 1655 when Quaker activist George Fox was captured and brought before Oliver Cromwell. Facing the threat of death by flames or worse, Fox proclaimed without fear or respect of person, the truth as he knew it to be. Cromwell, a Puritan and a sworn enemy of the Quakers, was so impressed by this man of faith that he let Fox go free. Twice. Subsequently the story has become perverted to purvey the idea that Fox spoke “truth to power” to influence government to do his bidding. Balderdash! Fox had exactly ZERO influence on the Cromwell government.

George Fox almost certainly believed himself to be a dead-man-talking as he rebuked, condemned, and reviled the murderer, Cromwell. The fact that Cromwell’s conscience struck him and caused him to act in mercy towards Fox speaks to Cromwell’s Christian upbringing and parentage and not to the absurd idea that facing death, Fox tried to use the government that he so reviled. The witness of George Fox’s life proclaims that any words he spoke to Cromwell were spoken with a full knowledge that he was speaking to the ages, not to some usurper on a man-made throne of blood and gore! Thus we have the key. We must boldly speak truth in the face of power. Not to influence power, but to state truth for posterity’s sake.

However, Ross not only stated truth for posterity’s sake, he made a direct appeal to those responsible for his caging. To each individual’s conscious. He retains hope, because he has seen more than one friend overcome a life sentence — something he likened to a “miracle”, and thusly called for “more miracles.” I think this is worthwhile, because individuals can and do modify their ideas. If thought otherwise, what’s the point of doing outreach at all?

Further — and this speaks volumes about his peace of mind — Ross explicitly stated that he:

…forgave all the people involved in putting me in prison. I had to. The anger I felt wasn’t hurting them but it was hurting me. So for the sake of my sanity I had to let it go.

Overall, this was a very powerful commentary. I’m so glad Ross finally spoke out. More than once, I was in tears. And I was happy to be able to communicate my appreciation to his mother last week when at PorcFest.

Edward Snowden once said, “There are no heroes. There are only heroic decisions.” If that’s the case, then Ross Ulbricht has been making heroic decisions for years. I — and many others — look forward to the day when we can tell him face-to-face, and uncaged, that his actions were not in vain.

Ross called on listeners to “set your sights on the hardest problems.” Let’s do it. Let’s lift ourselves and each other up.


Hello, this is Ross Ulbricht.

I’m calling you today from prison. From a maximum security federal penitentiary. We don’t have much time together today and I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to talk to you like this. I’ll say as much as I can but when it’s time to go I’ll have to hang up and go back to my cell.

I have lost my freedom. That’s what I want to talk to you about today.

I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.

But first let’s talk about bitcoin. I was there during bitcoin’s early days. Back then bitcoin made me feel like anything was possible. Bitcoin was open to everyone, right. That’s what I loved so much about it, like it leveled the playing field.

When the idea of bitcoin really clicked for me, I got so excited I thought with bitcoin I can try to do something that actually makes a difference. And by the way, before I was put in prison, we didn’t have all these different cryptocurrencies and tokens and everything. I missed all that. So to me it’s all one thing, the forks, the new blockchains, all of it. So when I say bitcoin, I’m not making those distinctions. To me, it may sound kind of corny, but, to me we’re all one big family.

So I was excited back then but I was also very impatient. I saw what bitcoin could do for freedom and equality but I didn’t take the time to really understand it. I didn’t fully appreciate the principles it’s based on. Things like immutability and consensus and of course decentralization. I had so many big dreams for bitcoin and what’s so beautiful is, slowly those dreams are coming true. That’s because of you, you are making those dreams a reality. You are doing what I didn’t have the patience for. These last eight years now in prison, over and over I’ve been so impressed with how far we’ve come. But back then I was impatient. I rushed ahead with my first idea, which was Silk Road.

Silk Road was a website I made when I was 26 years old, more than a decade ago now. It used Tor and bitcoin to protect people’s privacy. I called it an anonymous market. At the time I thought, if bitcoin makes payments anonymous and private then, what are we waiting for? Why are we sitting around talking about it, let’s put it into action. That’s impulsive. That’s a 26 year old who thinks he has to save the world before someone beats him to it. I had no idea if Silk Road would work, but now we all know it caught on. It was used to sell drugs and now I’m in prison. I was given two life sentences without parole plus 40 years.

I’m a non-violent first-time offender but if nothing changes I’ll spend the next few decades in this cage. Then sometime later this century I’ll grow old and die. I’ll finally leave prison but I’ll be in a body bag.

I got a letter the other day. It was from someone I hadn’t met before. He was thanking me, he was grateful I had put Silk Road online all those years ago. He believed that bitcoin wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for Silk Road. I’m not sure. For better or worse, Silk Road is part of bitcoin’s history now, but I worry that by putting Silk Road online I made things harder for us. There’s no way to know how things would have turned out differently but I just want to say to the extent that I made things harder for us, I’m sorry. The extent that my actions led to drug abuse and addiction, I’m sorry. I was trying to do something good, I was trying to help us move toward a freer and more equitable world. But we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions right, and now here I am. I’m in hell.

I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.

Let me start by telling you about the hole. It goes by many names: the shoe, segregation, the box. But for me it’s the hole. The hole is the prison within the prison. I once spent four months straight in the hole. Not easy for me to talk about but I will. The hole can make you or break you and there was a time when it broke me. It started with my mind racing out of control. I felt like the walls were crushing in on me like I just had to get out of that cell. This lasted days. Then I started beating the walls and kicking the heavy metal door. Something, something deep inside me cried out for freedom. I couldn’t accept where I was or what had happened to me. But eventually I realised I had to get a grip. The stress was destroying me.

It may sound strange but what saved me was gratitude. But what could I be grateful for in that little cell? Well, I had to start small. I had air, right? Maybe it was stale and foul but I had air. I had water that didn’t make me sick. Food came through the slot in the door every day.

I knew I wasn’t forgotten. My family, I knew someday it would be over and my family would still be there. I forgave all the people involved in putting me in prison. I had to. The anger I felt wasn’t hurting them but it was hurting me. So for the sake of my sanity I had to let it go.

I had a dream when I was in the hole and in the dream I was free. I was in a park and I felt this huge relief. I wasn’t in prison anymore and then I got worried. Am I out on bail or something? Or are they gonna put me back in? Are they after me right now? And I started trying to get away and the anxiety, it just woke me up. And there I was again. In the hole. And it was like everything that had happened to me over all these years, it all came slamming down on me at once like life without parole, maximum security. I’ve been in the hole for months and there’s no end in sight.

I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.

My mother, this was after I was sentenced, my mother was invited to give a speaking tour in Europe. She was raising awareness about what had happened to me and was looking for help. At a talk in Poland she started to feel a bit sick and had to fly home early. So the next morning I called my sister from the prison and the first thing she said was: “Has anyone told you about mom yet?” I said: “What about her?” and, she said to me in this voice, she said: “Oh Ross, Ross, Ross.” and I knew our mom had been feeling sick and in that moment I just knew my sister was gonna tell me our mom was dead. But she said: “Mom’s in the hospital.” and I was like: “Oh thank God she’s not dead.” but I was like: “Wait, the hospital? That’s not good either.”

Technically our mother had died. Her heart stopped at the breakfast table that morning. My uncle kept it going with CPR and she was rushed to the hospital. She was unconscious in the ICU when I called. It was a long time before I was able to talk to her. I didn’t know if she would live. We didn’t know if there would be brain damage. No one would say it but I knew it was my fault. She had been redlining for two years since the day I was arrested. Pushing, pushing, pushing, every moment of every day for my freedom. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy. I call it broken heart syndrome. I broke my mother’s heart and it nearly killed her.

The pain I’ve caused my family. I didn’t think of them, not as much as I should have when I was taking those risks when I was risking my freedom. My mom made a full recovery, thank God. Eight years later she still pushes for me every day but the whole ordeal, my imprisonment, has been devastating for her. And not just her: my fiance, my father, my sister, everyone. They’re all hurting.

I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.

There’s more to losing your freedom, It’s more than being locked in a cage and the devastation that brings to your family. Locking someone in a cage until they die, it’s such a horrific thing to do to a person. To lock someone in a cage until they die, the public, you, you have to be convinced that person is evil. That they are somehow less than human.

After I was arrested another prisoner came up to me, a young man. He had a magazine and he said, he said: “Ross, they wrote an article about you.”. So I flipped the article and I’ll never forget what I saw. It was an illustration of me and what was so strange was the face had my features and proportions but the skin had a putrid color. The eyes were bloodshot. I was, I was hunched over like some kind of ghoul. I pushed the magazine away, I just couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t face what I was seeing. It felt like, I could feel physical pain in my chest like claws were tearing through me. The young man, he said: “At least read what they’re saying about you.” and, and I said: “Why? Why listen to someone badmouth you and lie about you, if you can’t say anything back?”. It got quiet.

Later that day he told me they had done the same thing to him. Not on national news but in his local paper. “They do it to all of us.” After I said I didn’t want to read it he tore out the article and shredded it, right into the trash and he said: “I don’t want to read it either.”. That meant so much to me, “I don’t want to read it either.”. See, he gave me hope that you wouldn’t look at me like I’m some sort of monster.

The caricature they created was a violent drug lord. That is not who I am. That is a lie. It’s a lie that was carefully crafted to justify keeping me in this cage until I die. It’s a lie designed to turn you against me. To turn your heart off.

They lied, it’s on the record. They cheated, that’s on the record. They stole. Two of them went to prison over the stealing. They hid evidence, that’s on the record. They destroyed evidence, that’s on the record. They planted evidence, that’s on the record.

At one point they were looking into how they could give me the death penalty. They wanted to inject chemicals into my veins that would stop my heart. I had this dream where one of them was pointing a syringe at the soft spot on my neck just under my chin. He kept getting closer and closer and I backed away but my back was against the wall, every muscle in my body was tensed as I strained to get away. I was practically climbing the wall as the tip of the syringe came right next to my skin. I woke up in that exact same position, I was hyperventilating, my heart was pounding, I could still feel the needle coming toward me.

Are you starting to understand what it means to lose your freedom?

It means living in constant fear. Why has it taken me all these years to finally talk to you? I’ve been afraid. Even now I was strongly warned against talking to you. You’ll only anger the authorities even more or you’ll ruin what little chance you have left in the courts. Well, it’s not my intention to anger anyone and yes, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of retaliation. I’m afraid that because of what I’m saying to you today I’ll be thrown in the hole or worse.

But I’ve learned that listening to your fears can be just as dangerous as ignoring them. Somehow eight years have slipped by. It’s been easier to ignore the lies and everything else to just focus on getting through each day and trying to be strong for my family. But today, right now I have a message for those that have been lying about me and those that have been thoughtlessly repeating those lies. Please stop. You are hurting me. Please stop. You know what you’re saying isn’t true. You’re hurting me and you’re hurting my family. Please stop.

I want you to understand what it means to lose your freedom.

The irony is that I made Silk Road in the first place because I thought I was furthering the things I cared about. Freedom. Privacy. Equality. But by making Silk Road I wound up in a place where those things don’t exist. I am not alone. These prisons are full of people who don’t deserve this. We are mothers and fathers, we are sisters and brothers, but we’ve been made into monsters in your eyes. We’ve been made less than human.

And then next to all that there’s bitcoin. Bitcoin has been transforming our world since that very first block in the blockchain. And let me tell you something. We are just getting started. Wherever bitcoin has been embraced, anywhere in the world, freedom and equality follow. Bitcoin is the embodiment of freedom. So now look what we have, on one side we have loss of freedom, we have despair and darkness. And on the other side we have bitcoin. We have freedom, equality, and hope. The two can’t sit side by side so the darkness has to be kept out of sight. It has to be ignored and forgotten. But listen, here I am, I’m crying out from that very same darkness. This is a cry for help. My mother can’t do this by herself and I’m crying out not just for me but for all of us. We need your help. We need you to care. We need you to look at the stark contrast between the freedom of bitcoin on the one hand and what it means to be locked in a cage until you die. We have a choice, today, right now, do we ignore what’s happening? The loss of freedom, the dehumanization, or do we wake up? Listen, bitcoin is strong, bitcoin is powerful, we are powerful and our work is not over. It’s time to wake up, it’s time to take the next step.

I’ve spent the last eight years watching bitcoin grow up from in here. I’ve seen incredible innovation. I’ve seen inspiring courage. We didn’t know how things would turn out for bitcoin back in the beginning but over the years I’ve been continually impressed what you’ve accomplished. I am proud of you and I have no doubt we can do anything we set our minds to.

We are transforming the global economy. We have brought a taste of freedom and equality to far corners of the world. I know we can transform criminal justice too.

And now, today, I challenge you to set your sights on the hardest problems. I challenge you to shine bitcoin’s light into the darkest places. I challenge you to set us free. I’ve seen several of my friends go home after years, even decades in prison. More than one overcame a life sentence. Each time it happens I weep for joy. Seeing a person regain their freedom, seeing them reunite with their family, there’s nothing like it. It’s so beautiful it hurts, it feels like a miracle. We need more miracles.

I have to go soon. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go back to that cell. I want to be there with you. This call. You’ve done so much for me today. Talking with you today is the most freedom I’ve felt in a long, long time. Thank you. Thank you for giving me your attention. I will never forget this day. The memory of this day, this can never be taken from us.

I’m gonna go now.

Thank you.


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