By Gabe Moses

Once the legal dust settled, the 2005 Rainbow Gathering in the mountains of West Virginia was a mellow affair. The US Forest Service had rejected the Rainbow scouts’ original choice of a site near Alpena, and ticketed hundreds of early campers there for illegal use and occupancy of a national forest. Fortunately, the alternative location suggested by the USFS, in the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area of the Monongahela National Forest, further south near Richwood, was both beautiful and hospitable to the estimated 10,000 who attended the event July 1–7.

The 2005 Gathering site—hosting abundant wildflowers, interesting insects, streams, rock ledges, mountain fog and other spectacular natural features—became home to thousands of campers who came for a week of connecting with old and new friends, communing with nature and praying, in one’s own way, for world peace. The site, several miles in diameter, straddled a small mountain with streams on either side, and was crisscrossed by a network of Rainbow trails that spontaneously appeared in the brush to serve as “hippie highways.” Over 100 camps staked out various magical locations, and several large kitchens served their own constituents as well as the masses that came to Main Meadow each evening for dinner.

Dinner circle was a good time to find one’s friends, while waiting patiently for the evening’s mystery potluck offerings. As usual, vast quantities of vegetable stew and halvah were served by Krishna camp, along with sprouts from Sprout Kitchen, bread from a small crew representing the West Coast’s notorious Lovin’ Ovens, and beans and rice from various other charitable enterprises. The Magic Hat was passed nightly, with musical accompaniment, to keep everything “all ways free”; thus were the kitchens enabled. (The Rainbow journal All Ways Free thankfully included a large map of the Byzantine trails connecting the camps.)

Aside from critical donations to the Magic Hat, money is fairly useless at Rainbow, best saved for gas to get down the road. Dozens of Trading Circle blanket-sitters bartered practical and curious objects—knives, crystals, art supplies—at the large crossroads, with not a greenback in sight. Nearby, the Information Center, better known simply as Info, gave directions to faraway camps and answered questions about health, safety, lost dogs and “lost parents.” Kiddie Village, in view of the crossroads, was wonderfully decked out by Felipe and his crew, with a large kitchen, swings and log seesaws.

Further down the path, past the 24/7 drum circle, lay the fabled Cranberry Glades, a sunken bog of rhododendron trees, wetland plants and millions of grasshoppers, which clustered silently on milkweed plants lining the old road.

A long, sloping path ran alongside an exquisite stream up Cranberry Mountain, with numerous small waterfalls flowing over a series of flat rock shelves. Turtle Soup, Fairy Camp and Jerusalem, hosted by groovy Jews from the US and Israel, were located on this lightly populated ridge, a good mile or two from Main Meadow. At the bottom of the hill, not far from Rt. 102, another stream flowed through large and small rock towers and sculptures, and fireflies filled the air there each evening.

A week of too much fun in the woods has a healing effect, and the serenity of the lush environment was nicely countered by a slew of old and new Rainbow events. Zero Boy got things moving on July 2 with Comedy Night at NYC /Purple Gang, which included a rare recitation of the abstruse sex regulations of a nearby commune. Lively yoga and capoiera sessions were held near Yogaville each day, the Latin jam by Main Meadow was bumpin’ every evening, and music could be found far into the night at many camps scattered about the site.

The morning of July 4th, Rainbow’s holiest day, was by tradition silent, as people read lips and used homemade sign language to indicate essential information (like the location of the nearest latrine). Most drifted to Main Meadow to meditate, and by noon many thousands prayed for peace and held hands, ultimately forming a circle so large it went over the rise and couldn’t be seen from the opposite side—considered an auspicious sign in Rainbowland. At “Rainbow noon”—12:45 or so—Kiddie Village children with painted faces reached the peace pole at the circle’s center, triggering whoops and hollers and an all-day party under the sun.

Armed USFS Law Enforcement officers,, sometimes 12 at a time, had been entering the site all week on horseback and on foot behind shouted Rainbow warnings of “Six-up!” However, no police appeared on site until the evening of July 4th, and the idea that respect was being shown by the police, who apparently were given the day off to be with their families, took hold among some participants.

In another official twist, the nearby town of Richwood displayed a large rainbow-hued banner—“Welcome Rainbow Family”—over the highway, and Richwood’s gracious mayor, Bob Henry Baber, was seen serving soup at the Instant Soup kitchen. Rainbow participants have a long history of spending serious money on supplies in remote communities, injecting a rare economic jolt to the host area. Of course, the well-stocked Wal-Mart in Lewisburg saw plenty of action as well, and their policy of allowing overnights in their parking lot didn’t hurt, either.

Granola Funk—the camp that birthed the touring band Granola Funk Express—was the site of the all-night Talent Show on the 4th. GFE’s rustic two-story wood and fabric stage structure showcased impressive talent, and performers included the Rainbow Gypsies, comic Vermin Supreme, singer Aliza Hava, longtime Rainbow musical superstar Fantuzzi, several GFE MCs spittin’ “hippie-hop,” a classical violinist and many others. The show was stolen by a silent, naked dancer who performed with no music, to thunderous applause.

The morning of July 5th brought the beginning of a big day for NYC/Purple Gang, as G. Rock and dozens of others executed a culinary conspiracy to serve champagne brunch to a lucky 600 people—who consumed 55 dozen eggs, hundreds of potato latkes and lots of fresh fruit salad. Then it was time for the highly anticipated big Whiffleball game, complete with 15 pounds of peanuts, eager spectators and a legendary rivalry: NYC vs. Boston.

According to an anonymous Whiffleballer, the Boston Area Rainbow Family (BARF) team had provocatively dissed their notoriously attitudinal opponent, variously asserting that NYC stood for “Not Your Chair” or even “Not Your Camp,” usually in the company of laughter. However, after Boston’s early 3-0 lead, New York proved the letters really stand for “Now You Can,” as they were well ahead 9-3 when the game was called on account of rain.

Earlier on the 5th, scores of campers who had been ticketed reported to a makeshift court at 9 a.m., conveniently set up on the road near the site. Some paid a $250 or $125 fine, some paid a reduced fee and others opted instead for community service, generally a Rainbow cleanup stint after the event officially ended July 7. Some wore black armbands in protest pf the charges, a gesture described by a flyer as “a sign of our sorrow over the fact that the Rainbow Gatherings have become a criminal activity.”

Rainbow continues to survive as a unique American tribe, defending its culture in the face of persistent legal challenges. Rainbow 2006? Reportedly, the National Gathering, which is in a different state each year, will return to Colorado for an unprecedented three-peat.

Rainbow’s Legal Gray Area

A leaderless, anarchic group, Rainbow—a non-organization without members—has long frustrated law enforcement by refusing to fit neatly into a proscribed legal box, and by choosing where and when to gather by council consensus rather than by application to the authorities. As a result, the FS has used every means at its disposal to attempt to control the site selection process, usually working with Rainbow scouts simply on an operating plan to ensure that health, sanitation, water, parking and other criteria are fulfilled. Rainbows allege a pattern of harassment by police, especially at smaller regional Gatherings, and many arrests have been made in recent years.

Although at least one person signed a use permit for the West Virginia Gathering at Cranberry Glades, Rainbow tradition specifies that no individual may represent the Family. Traditionally, all Rainbow decisions are made by consensus in open council, and this year’s site selection process appeared to set precedent, with Rainbow ultimately accepting the site chosen by the Forest Service (although not specifically authorizing the signing of a permit). The 200+ tickets issued at the Alpena site, reportedly blockaded by the police, was apparently trouble enough, and the Cranberry Glades site—though lacking swimming—was a decent choice perhaps not worth fighting over.

For Rainbow 2005, the Forest Service cited about 950 legal infractions, mostly involving illegal use and occupancy, traffic violations, dogs off the leash (there were many, along with trail poop), nudity and parking infractions. One serious incident involved a man who reportedly refused to remove his garbage from A-Camp (the only alcohol-tolerant camp, confined to an area of the parking lot), and then stabbed an objecting camp resident, who was taken to the hospital.

The current pattern of ticketing Rainbow people—variously described by the media as hippies, neo-hippies, pagans, punks, hoboes or even Satan worshippers—has been in effect since 1995, when the USFS finally managed to promulgate seemingly unconstitutional regulations restricting the First Amendment right of the “people peaceably to assemble” on public lands. It is this provision under which the Rainbow Family had gathered, sans permits, for world peace since the first Rainbow Gathering near Granby, Colorado in 1972. However, the infamous regs, now a decade old, state that 75 or more people may not gather on National Forest lands without a permit.

The Rainbows charge that the nebulous statute has been unfairly and aggressively enforced during Gatherings rather than at scout troupe or church outings. Hundreds of tickets are now routinely issued at national and regional Rainbow events throughout the country. Since the regs went into effect, several permits have been signed by individuals, to the consternation of some who consider such acquiescence the ultimate betrayal of a God-given right of assembly.

In 2002, alleged Rainbow “leaders” Garrick Beck, Joanee Freedom and Stephen Principle served 90 days in federal prison for refusing to pay illegal use and occupancy tickets issued them at the 1999 Gathering in Pennsylvania. Their cases went all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear them. Several other prominent non-organizers have since served time in federal prison.

Despite the difficulties of Rainbow 2005, Joanee Freedom said, “It was one of the most amazing, peaceful and spiritual gatherings in a long time.”

The End of the Rainbow?
By Ryan Grim
Photos by G. Moses

“You bow down to terrorism if you take the guilty plea!” shouted a bearded hippie in a ripped black t-shirt outside the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center near Hillsboro, WV. He was surrounded by around 200 similarly-dressed attendees of this year’s annual National Rainbow Gathering. They, along with thousands of others, gather to silently pray for world peace in what is usually the year’s biggest human circle.

“Go to trial!” cried another.

“This is decision-making by consensus,” whispered Steve Stine, a Forest Service spokesperson. The Forest Service has ticketed more than 200 Rainbows for gathering without a permit, and today is their day in court.

As has been the case since the first gathering, the Rainbows and Forest Service are locked in a legal and philosophical battle over the right to assemble. Specifically, the Rainbows were ticketed for non-permitted group use of Forest Service land by 75 or more people, a regulation that was enacted specifically to address Rainbow Gatherings, after two similarly aimed regulations were struck down in court. To the current charge, the Rainbows present three defenses: they’re not a group, they’re not Rainbows and they were not 75. And they’re making their arguments in a makeshift courtroom set up in the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, across from the site of the gathering. Until 1959, this ground was home to World War II conscientious objectors and other prisoners, before Millpoint Federal Prison Camp was shut down.

Since 1972, the rangers and the Rainbows have been at each other like this. No one affiliated with the Rainbow Family of Living Light—the unofficial unorganization that doesn’t organize this non-event—would agree to put a Hancock on a Forest Service permit. Three people identified by the Forest Service as Rainbow leaders—Garrick Beck, Stephen Principle and Joannee Freedom—spent time in jail in 1999 as a result. In 2003, Beck signed a permit believing, he says, that it was the only way to avoid a violent confrontation. That permit, along with one signed by Alison Rodden in 2004, enabled the Forest Service to increase harassment, though they were unable to dictate any fundamental changes. This year was a different story.

Gatherings work like this: a council meets to choose a bio-region—in this case the “mid-Atlantic”—then scouts go out within that area to find a suitable location in a National Forest. From the end of June until the middle of July somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 hippies gather at the site. Notice the lack of any mention of the Forest Service or any other government entity in that process.

This year, the harassment began early, with roadblocks (“information checkpoints”), searches, and arrests. Once the Forest Service counted 75-plus people, they started issuing tickets. On June 14, someone finally filled out the permit provided by Forest Service senior special agent for the National Incident Management Team, Tim Lynn. It was rejected.

Lynn then presented a map of Monongahela National Forest with two circled locations. On June 18, a permit application for a new site on Cranberry Mountain, at the foot of the Nature Center, was signed by Patrick Thompson. It was accepted and most of the Rainbows, having already been ticketed, packed up and headed to the new site. A few remained behind. For the first time, the Forest Service had been able to give an order and have it followed.

“This is the last Rainbow Gathering,” said Rob Savoye, who hosts the non-group’s unofficial Web site, “The Forest Service has finally managed to hijack it. It’s over.”

The first group of Rainbows to face trial was offered a deal: each would get a $30 fine or eight hours community service, with no record of the misdemeanor, if they would just sign up for it. Cleaning up the site, which Rainbows famously do anyway, would count as community service. Seven of the eight—three of them barefoot—took the deal. The eighth, Andy Cook of Athens, OH stood alone. “I believe in the First Amendment,” he told me. “I believe in the Family. I came here to stand up.”

One by one, Forest Service officials took the stand to establish that the Rainbow Family is an actual, organized group; they were on Forest Service land; they had no permit; and Cook is a Rainbow Family member, or at least a spectator at the event.

Their first hurdle was the 75-person threshhold. Officer Jason Jacbas testified he counted 73 hippies. Officer T. Rainville then said he counted 21 in “A” Camp, which is deliberately set apart from the main gathering because the “A” campers don’t follow the prohibition—or, more accurately, condemnation—of alcohol at gatherings. Many Rainbows try to distance themselves from “A” Camp, which is made up of a hard-knuckled group that piggybacks every year on the Rainbows’ organizing abilities. Secondly, assistant US attorney Steve Warner had to establish that the Rainbows were an organized group.

For Cook’s part, he seemed more intent on surviving the trial, literally. Shaking intensely and doubled over behind his table, Cook, an “A” camper, told me during a recess, “I'm DT’ing right now.”

When Cook testified on his own behalf, US magistrate judge John Kaull noticed his shaking. “Don’t be nervous,” he told Cook, wearing ripped pants, a torn shirt and a baseball hat with bottle caps bent around the brim.

Trembling harder now, Cook called R.J. Sutton to the stand. Sutton, responding to questions that had been written down for Cook, testified that there is no Rainbow Family, he is not a member and he has never seen Cook in his life. He also testified that “A” Camp and the rest of the gathering were separated by more than a mile as well as more than 75 locals camping and drinking beer. Warner, watched closely by his boss, Robert McWilliams, grilled Sutton, who sported a long ponytail and goatee.

Warner: “How did you hear about the gathering?”

Sutton: “I was at the council that decided it.”

Warner: “Are you a member of the council?”

Sutton: “No, I’m not a member of the council.”

Warner: “If this isn't a group, what is it?”

Sutton: “It’s not a group, it’s a gathering.”

Warner: “Is there a purpose?”

Sutton: “No.”

Warner: “Why do you gather?”

Sutton: “For world peace.”

And with that, his fate was sealed. Cook was found guilty and sentenced to either a $125 fine or 16 hours community service. Moments after hearing the verdict, he bolted from the Nature Center and dry-heaved.

“At least I tried,” he said. “That’s about all I have to say. I’m too sick to think about it.”

Inspired by Cook, the not-guilty pleas increased, along with the courtroom bravado. The circus that was the Nature Center aside, one Rainbow did finally find the loophole. Leo Bopp testified that he had asked officers where in the National Forest he could camp without being affiliated with the Rainbows and without getting arrested. The officers confirmed on the stand that they told him they had no idea where it was safe to camp.

Judge Kaull, perking up, then asked Officer Brian Roemeling, “What is the difference in distance between the camps that’s necessary to distinguish them.” Roemeling had no answer.

Outside, Bopp, 34, with a salt-and-pepper ponytail, basked in the glow of the crowd’s cheer for only a moment before reflecting on his future. “Well, I won’t be able to get out of the next one,” he said, pulling another ticket out of his pocket. He had been cited for driving with a suspended license when his RV broke down. “I get a ticket for driving my own vehicle. Can you believe it?”