By Mark Miller
The annual Rainbow Family Gathering, held this year in Wyoming during the first week of July, was marred by an incident that ranges from charges of ‘hippie rage’ (by the authorities) to accusations from eyewitnesses that it was instigated by overly aggressive law enforcement.
On July 3, 400 Rainbow Family members allegedly threw sticks and rocks at officers (this according to the U.S. Forest Service) after they attempted to arrest a Rainbow Family member, and up to 60 police responded by allegedly pointing guns at children and shooting Rainbows with pepper spray (in the form of paintball-like cylinders) and rubber bullets.
When the smoke, dust and bad vibes cleared, five Rainbow Family members found themselves behind bars. Forest Service police said the incident occurred after they detained and arrested two men, the second for interfering with their attempt to arrest the first; the Forest Service declined to say why they were pursuing the original suspect.
The Rainbow Gathering is held every year during the week of July 1-7 in a different national park across the U.S.; the Gathering is attended by the Rainbow Family, created in 1972 as a loose affiliation of individuals seeking peace and love that meet once a year during the week of the nation’s birthday at the peak of Summer. Gatherings can draw up to 25,000 blissed-out folk, but this year, it being held at the very isolated (though gorgeous) Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming, along with rising gas costs, resulted in only 7,000-some Rainbow Family members attending.
Besides peace loving hippies, Rainbow Gatherings also attract law enforcement, both of the uniformed and the undercover variety. Why are the cops always there? Is it for the easy busts? Is it an attempt to discredit one of the last vestiges of hippie culture? The answer’s unclear, but their presence only seems to cause chaos.
While on the surface it may appear suspicious that there was such an intense concentration of law enforcement at the Gathering, given the very off-the-beaten-path locale, it should be noted that the U.S. Forest Service has been monitoring Rainbow Gatherings since 1998.
A veteran of many a Rainbow Gathering and an eyewitness to the events named Paul (he preferred not to disclose his last name) was inside the ‘Kid Village’ with his family when the incident occurred. (The Kid Village is a separate area within the Gathering for Rainbow children to play).
Paul’s account of the incident, mirrored by other eyewitnesses to various media sources, differs from that of the authorities’. He said the incident was triggered when a Rainbow woman told the cops to put the guns away in front of the children: “That's when it started. They (police) got rough with her and threw her to the ground for disturbing the peace and pulled her head back with the cop's knee in her back while she was handcuffed. That was totally uncalled for.”
Paul also related that the cops came locked and loaded and with an attitude: “When we got there Sunday night (June 29), I already saw four or five guys sitting with their hands behind their backs, cuffed presumably, right at the entrance to the parking lot. Even supply runs for food and stuff were fucked with, and they circled the area with helicopters a good few times, too. It was like a fucking al-Qaeda gathering to them or something. They were walking around with guns and tasers in their hands at the ready to fuck with anyone, walking up to everyone and asking questions and harassing them.”
He also dismissed the “400 hippies” account: “People saw what happened and started getting loud about how wrong the cops were to start doing this and infringing upon personal rights. 400 Rainbows surrounding the cops is total bullshit, the only time there may have been 400 people total in that particular camp was on the Fourth for the annual rock and roll pasta dinner.”
The ACLU is investigating the cases; they expressed concern that the police were conducting “pretext arrests” according to Linda Burt, executive director of Wyoming’s ACLU, “the idea that people are just cruising around looking for people to arrest when there have been no complaints and no reason for them to be there.” Ms. Burt told the Associated Press the ACLU might consider monitoring future Rainbow Gatherings.
Paul’s account corroborates the ACLU’s concerns. “Every year they (police) are out in force trying to find something to arrest anyone for; keeping the peace, my ass. The only real crime going on inside was some drug use here and there.” He confirmed the occurrence of discreet drug use during the event, mostly pot smoking, with some hallucinogen use. Drinking and hard drugs are both widely discouraged at Gatherings. In other words, it’s hardly Woodstock ’99.
And it wasn’t just U.S. Forest Service police who got in on the fun; the presence of additional law enforcement, like the Sublette Sheriff’s Department and Wyoming state police, was also reported. From the perspective of the conservative arm of law enforcement and government agencies who resent the counterculture intrusion into the national forests with no permits and no fees paid, it may very well have been ‘mission accomplished,’ as the mainstream press had a field day casting the alternative, peace-loving Rainbow Family in yet another negative light.
Rainbow vet Paul offered sage advice: “My advice if you go next year (2009) is to keep it as ‘straight’ as possible. Drive no more than the posted speed limit within 100 miles of the Gathering. Use seat belts, turn signals, and make sure lights are working properly. Even keep the stuff you pack below eye level in the front seat; a few people got pulled over for obstruction of view. They (police) will use any teeny tiny excuse to pull someone over. There will be dogs too, so hide your herbs, party favors, pieces, etc. in airtight jars hidden well. Be compliant and courteous with the cops, but don’t let them step all over your rights—and know your rights.”