Defending Bitcoiners from government:  lessons from the Free State Project

Defending Bitcoiners from government: lessons from the Free State Project

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The libertarian experiment in rugged New Hampshire has provided lessons that may be of value in defending Bitcoiners. Shot from a drone in Colebrook, NH.

For those of you freedom-folk who have been hiding under a mining rig for the last half-decade, there is one other thing happening in the liberty movement which rivals Bitcoin in effectiveness. It’s the Free State Project. Bitcoin’s focus is monetary; that of the the “free staters” is geographical. Their experiences – especially their mistakes – provide a unique lesson in what happens when a libertarian endeavor becomes prominent and established… as the crypto movement is beginning to.

Starting in 2003, freedom folk from as far away as Russia began moving to New Hampshire. Concentrated – yet spread across – the “Live Free or Die State,” roughly 2,000 of these liberty refugees have moved here so far with another 18,000 pledged to do so. Free stater migrants currently hold around 15 seats in the legislature and have already passed legislation protecting crypto businesses from government attack.

But toward the beginning, government attack was exactly what the free staters were experiencing. Civil disobedience, driving without a license, child support disputes, failing to stand in court, failing to remove a hat in court… the authorities always seemed to have some petty or not-petty demand they were willing to enforce with an arrest. It never seemed to end, until the day it did, sort of. What took us from ignored, to ridiculed, to attacked to…whatever it is we are now? I’m not sure. But I can tell you what we did, what surprised us and what seemed to work well enough to be passed on as advice.

In 2003 the free staters were still suffering from the nationwide pro-government fervor generated by 9/11, it curbed growth. Further slowing us down was the fact that we had just picked a state and, though migration did begin, there was no longer an exciting horse-race vote as to where we would move. Membership fell; activity dropped off. Then in 2005 a sober, thoughtful computer repairman named Mike Fisher undertook a brilliant, selfless act.

He wrote state bureaucrats telling them he would appear on a given date outside the Board of Barbering and begin filing peoples’ nails without a license. He said he would continue doing so until arrested. A crowd of about 20 supporters and journalists watched as officials came, went and begged him to stop. Eventually Concord police cuffed him, introduced him into a squad car. Incarceration, court and ultimately a lengthy but suspended jail sentence followed. The event triggered positive media coverage in nearly every New Hampshire media outlet, a political cartoon in the Union Leader and a bill in the state legislature restricting the Board of Barbering.

Setting the tone: Gandhi imitator, Mike Fisher kept filing nails without a license outside the NH Board of Barbering office, until they called police.  Photo from NHfree.com.

Initially, in fact probably for about seven years, Fisher’s sacrifice increased the conflict between authorities and liberty folk here. Inspired by Fishers’s PR success, follow-up textbook civil disobedience started almost immediately… first at the Manchester TSA checkpoint, then three NH IRS offices. Over almost the next decade the disobedience and punishment never seemed to stop. There were commonly one or two of us in jail, and one man even burned himself alive.

These deeds had both intended and unexpected results. By generating buzz and publicity, we put ourselves back on the map and recovered from our recruitment dips. The migration began in earnest, and the project was able to complete its primary goal of signing 20,000 movers. Other factors contributed perhaps as much as the “anarchist high jinx,” as one reporter called it. But the other key thing that happened is more appropriately something that didn’t happen.

You probably have some familiarity with the way D.C. handles dissent. Some group or another breaks some obscure law or acts a little weird. In roll the blue-and-yellow-jackets if they’re lucky, or a SWAT team if they’re not. There’s a choreographed news conference, a press release, the word “militia” gets thrown around and a scary picture released. Then off the “weird” people go to a concrete box, never to be heard from again. It’s a wonder anyone was ever allowed to wave their arms in a loud TV commercial.

“The Free State Project will be infiltrated by Homeland Security, then fail,” as one naysayer put it on our forums in the early aughts. And that may have been the fate planned or expected for us in Federal circles.

But the civil disobedience introduced us to them on our terms in 2005 and set the tone which was to continue. It became difficult for them to separate us from the Gandhi/King methods we were using, and, like the British enforcers tasked with persecuting Gandhi, they may have found it difficult to dislike us. Eventually the arrests mostly petered out, we got better and better at more techniques, and the free staters simply became a part of the state’s political and economic landscape.

For now we are blessed not only with a strong geographically oriented movement, but with you. With Bitcoin. A connected, worldwide technological endeavor which is becoming rich. That means it is becoming a target for predatory governments. Like most targets of predatory governments it is helpless if its participants don’t know how to react – as we didn’t at first. So, in case you were wondering… here are some options when they come for you, or other Bitcoiners. These should make you a harder PR target; most crypto folk simply aren’t doing most of this stuff.


1) Get video, and publish it. You’d think everyone would know this already, but two of the best-known attacks on individual Bitcoiners in the U.S. are both well over ten weeks old. And other than some talking heads I can’t find a frame of video anyone has shot related to their persecution. That part is a win for the imperials.

If authorities are around, you generally want to start recording and keep recording until they’re gone… especially if they’re interacting with you. Usually I wear an audio recorder around my neck, running nearly the entire time, when I’m in a government building. In some places this requires a lapel pin or something which informs those around you that you’re taping. The video camera joins the fight if anything interesting starts happening.

If you can’t get video of an arrest or some other event/location, sometimes the outskirts of it are even more interesting. Here’s how we handled a FedCourt event where recording was banned.  Usually you should only retreat as far as you are forced to and do what you can from there. You can go to a meeting where the arresting institution will be represented and question one or more of its employees or overseers on camera. If you can’t film in a courthouse, you can film the defendant entering it or any other thing that may be happening outside. You can go instead to a relevant government building where recording is allowed and question occupants over their involvement. If there’s nothing to film at these places, put a sign in your hand and film yourself if you have to. There are always a dozen things you can film; the problem is that so few people are trying.

2) If questioned by authorities, be polite, but provide them little or no information.  Assume they are lying. If you’re answering their questions, they’re winning. In the US, you now supposedly have to tell them you are exercising your fifth amendment right to not answer questions in order for that right to be upheld in court. Being silent is difficult and does surrender some power. Usually what I do is just ask questions.

Mark Edge, a libertarian radio host in New Hampshire, favors the technique of asking: Are you conducting an investigation? Yes? Then I would like a lawyer present. Remember when Martha Stewart went to jail over alleged insider trading? The things that actually put her there were her statements to investigators… they claimed she made false statements. Ending any sentence with a period can be deadly when the government walks up to you, so you generally want to avoid doing that.

3) Be the good guy. Just as importantly, be perceived as the good guy. Counter-intuitively, this is not done so much by being in the right… it is mostly about demeanor. Demeanor trumps almost everything else. If you speak softly and don’t look like a freak of nature, you will almost always be perceived as the good guy. Being amused trumps being angry, questioning trumps accusing.

4) Don’t assume you need helpers. For example, protesting as a group does have its place. But it means your group will be associated with the most obnoxious person who shows up. It also takes a lot more time and effort to gather and schedule a group protest… so it’s sometimes more appropriate and efficient to protest – or do whatever you’re doing – alone. And the biggest difference is the difference between zero and one.

5) Treat mainstream press coverage as oxygen, even if it’s negative. Quantity of this publicity trumps quality. As a TV newsroom employee in the early aughts, I outlined techniques for helping ensure coverage is positive. But what surprised me later was how unimportant that was compared to simply getting publicity. The weak link in this chain is almost always the number of people who learn about your grievance. You shouldn’t let mainstream reporters bully you, but you shouldn’t be automatically hostile or tight-lipped toward them either.

6) Convert each attack into a loss of confidence in the attacking government, or turn it into more supporters.

7) Stage publicity stunts to illustrate your grievance, and make them visual. Here’s a guide.

8) Divide each grievance into multiple grievances, and turn each sub-grievance into a public story. This was what we learned the hard way after the Outlaw Manicurist arrest. We treated it, initially, as one event. We showed up, then we went home. But there was later an arraignment, a trial-like event, a holding facility, an offending police department and a need to get our champion his ride home from jail. We should have made an issue out of all of these and had a presence at each of their locations, even if it was just one person with a sign. Later we did start doing this sort of thing.

But the Bitcoin world, still focused on geeking and investing, will probably have to learn this tough lesson by making the same mistakes. If you don’t know where to publicize your grievance, you can call FreeTalkLive about anything you want from nearly any part of the world, reaching tens of thousands of folk with each call.

9) Think outside the court-box. You may remember that scene in Big Love where a cult is about to put Bill Henrickson’s son on trial, and his grandmother whispers in his ear “it’s not a real trial.” That is usually the case when a nation-state tries you as well. You probably can’t defeat them directly in the courtroom, but you can start to turn public opinion or legislation against them.

10) Support detainees while they’re inside. For example, Amnesty International claims the people they are trying to defend get better treatment when they receive a lot of mail.

11) Be realistic about your capabilities. It’s very common for activists to overstate their expected results, but it’s just as common (and even worse) when they claim they can do nothing about a given situation. There’s always something you can do. BTC-e probably can’t recover all the money stolen by Washington. So they’re improvising, staying in the fight, doing what they can for the survivors outside the courtroom… if their public statements are to be believed.

12) Think in terms of deprival and orderly retreat. They want your cooperation and your money; give as little of each as slowly and inconveniently-for-them as you can.  I usually leave very slowly when ordered out of a spot and film/upload the process.  Churchill, writing before the First World War, believed that an orderly retreat was the key to victory in the event Germany were to invade France. Joffre didn’t listen to him; the French launch an ill conceived offensive at the beginning… but it was the eventual skilled retreat that enabled a counterattack and and stopped von Moltke.

13) Listen to Sun Tzu. And I do mean listen, not read. Make an audio copy of The Art of War, set it to auto-replay and play it dozens of times while jogging or driving. In a barely civilized age he was already twice as humane in his thinking as the average soldier you’ll meet today.. .although “he” may have been multiple people. His ideas are almost as relevant to nonviolent conflict as they are to warfare. Gandhi may have sensed this too when he identified himself as a soldier… but a soldier for peace.

14) Don’t assume you need to be in a given geographic area to help a crypto-detainee. Do what you can, from where you are, with what you have.

15) Having said that, don’t underestimate (or overestimate) the increased safety you might gain by moving to a more humane jurisdiction. Like New Hampshire. Our whole purpose was to create a climate here where people like you would be relatively safe if you’re not hurting anyone. We’re already halfway there.

Featured image by Nicholas Cool on Unsplash

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