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September|October 2002
A Penny Saved By John Swansburg
Effective Command By Susan Benesch
The Disobedient Dozen By Josh Saunders
After the Rainbow By Megan Twohey
Go Dutch By Tom Geoghegan
The O.J. Effect By Wendy Davis

After the Rainbow

By Megan Twohey

Deep in the Ottawa National Forest, in the middle of miles of nothing but trees and sky, thousands of parked cars and scores of young women and men—many barefoot, some bearded, others with dreadlocks—pack the two-lane road that cuts through this remote stretch of land. A girl leans out from the back seat of an oncoming old Chevy and shouts to me, "Can I get a ride, sister? These guys are drunk."

She pushes her way out of the car and the grey-haired man driving it swerves down the road. The woman, who says she is 25 but won't give her name, wears a maroon-colored sarong, a knitted cap, and duct-taped shoes. Her lip is pierced. She's heading to the woods, she says, to the heart of the Rainbow Family Gathering.

Since 1972, as many as 25,000 self-proclaimed hippies of all ages and origins have come together every summer for a week of sprawled-out camping and good vibrations. This year, fewer than 9,000 have shown up because the gathering is in such a remote place—on Michigan's upper peninsula near the lumbering town of Watersmeet. Nestled in the forest on both sides of a path about half a mile from the road, Rainbows pitch tents, build makeshift kitchens, go to drum circles and yoga, and smoke a lot of pot. The main event takes place on Independence Day, when everyone joins hands in a big circle to pray for peace and love on Earth.

To the despair of the U.S. Forest Service, the Rainbows always gather during the week of July 4th, and they always gather in a national forest. The more pristine the location, the better. This year's site is one the Forest Service explicitly asked them— begged them, actually—to stay away from. It surrounds a 19th-century ghost town that contains delicate archaeological specimens, including dishware and the foundations of homes built beginning in the 1800s. The area also has a fragile water table near the ground's surface.

According to Becky Banker, a Forest Service information officer, by the beginning of the week, the Rainbows have already damaged some artifacts and polluted the water with their waste. "You can't put thousands of people in one area without there being long-term damage," Banker says. "You do the math. That's a lot of shit."

The mess, and the environmental damage it causes, is part of a colorful legal wrangle between the Forest Service and the Rainbows, which heated up this year with at least 27 arrests and the alleged assault of an officer when the service forcibly closed down the ghost town. Ignoring the closure, on July 4th a few thousand people stormed past Forest Service officers onto the off-limits site to pray for peace.

After every gathering, dozens of Rainbows stay behind to help forest service officers clean up. "We leave the land in better shape than when we find it," insists the woman from the Chevy—something most Rainbows sincerely believe. "Sure we may stomp on some vegetation," says a stoned 18-year-old guy who hasn't slept in 36 hours. "But this public land needs to become more public. It only takes, like, three or four months for it to recover." Some of the Rainbows care less about the ghost town—at a town-hall meeting in Watersmeet, one claimed that the town wasn't worth protecting because it had been built by white settlers rather than Native Americans.

Not surprisingly, the Forest Service thinks otherwise, and it also thinks the Rainbows are deluding themselves about the impact of the gatherings. An investigation of last year's gathering in Boise National Forest in Idaho found piles of uncovered waste, vegetation destroyed by fire pits and thousands of trampling feet, and a stream damaged by two large holes that were dug for a tank and a large trench to collect water. The investigators say it could take the area years to bounce back.

To many Rainbows, going into the woods is about "avoiding Babylon"—the corrupt, everyday world of 9-to-5 jobs and materialist striving. In Babylon, the woman from the Chevy made the mistake of marrying and having kids when she was young, and then getting hooked on heroin and speed (habits she has since kicked). But at the gathering, she says, she feels like she has "come home." She frolicked naked. She met a guy she likes. She acquired two new body piercings and two new tattoos, including a marijuana leaf on her lower back.

Lots of other Rainbows feel similarly liberated when they get to the woods. Whether they are Hare Krishnas, anarchists, or alcoholics, almost all shun Babylon's capitalist values—and the confines of its government. Since the gathering is supposed to be about kicking free, it's particularly galling for Rainbows to discover that even deep in the woods, they can't escape rules and regulations.

In 1995, the Forest Service started requiring all private groups of 75 or more people who want to camp out on forest land to apply for a permit. One adult has to sign the application on the group's behalf. In a one-page application, he or she has to list the location and facilities the group wants to use and the number of campers who plan to come. Anyone in a group of 75 or more who camps without a permit faces up to six months in prison and a fine up to $5,000.

The idea behind the permit is pretty basic: The Forest Service asks someone to sign for the group not to hold him accountable, but so officials will know whom to communicate with. The agency says it's trying to accommodate large groups while protecting forest resources and staying on top of health and safety concerns. Groups are denied permission to use places that could be damaged by big gatherings and are steered toward sites seen as better alternatives. The permit requirement gives the Forest Service an idea of how many officers it should send out to monitor a gathering.

All big groups who want to use the national forests—including Burning Man, which holds a big fire festival in Nevada that's just as countercultural as the Rainbow Family Gathering—sign up for government permits. All groups, that is, except for the Rainbows, who think the permit requirement is unconstitutional. They say that it violates their First Amendment right to assemble freely, and that it unfairly calls for one person to speak for thousands of others.

The Rainbows are emphatic: They have no leaders and no organization. And they won't be boxed in to becoming a legal entity the way Burning Man or the Boy Scouts are. "The Rainbow Gathering is a spiritual concept like God," says Barry Adams, one of the original founders, who goes by the name Plunker. "No one would ask God to be liable for national forest land. Plus, no one can be a designated agent for a motley crew of unaffiliated individuals and unaffiliated groups."

Plunker's argument has gotten him nowhere. When he made it in U.S. District Court in Montana in 2000, the judge sentenced Adams to three months in prison plus a $500 fine for attending that year's gathering in southwestern Montana, which didn't have a permit.

In fact, over the past eight years, eight or so cases involving Rainbows have gone to court, and the government has won all but one of them. Some judges are starting to get annoyed by the group's persistence. U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. sentenced three Rainbows who participated in the 1999 gathering in Pennsylvania to three months in prison. The judge said that the permit requirement is constitutional because it treats all groups alike and serves a "significant governmental interest"—protecting the forest and ensuring public health and safety. Cohill concluded, "While the 'mouse that roared' syndrome sometimes has the appeal of tweaking the authorities on the nose, we hope that the time to stop has finally arrived."

The Rainbows lost on appeal, too, but they plan to keep roaring. Their small advocacy group, People for Compassion and Understanding // Free Assembly Project, is investigating the Forest Service's handling of gatherings, tracking Rainbow court cases, and offering legal support. The organization's leader, Scottie Addison, a 52-year-old from St. Louis, is counseling the Rainbows who got arrested this year.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Three, as they're known among Rainbows, started doing their time in federal prisons in Oregon, Colorado, and Connecticut. "It's going to be tough," said one of the three, Joan Kalb (a.k.a. Joanee Freedom), a week before she headed off. "I'm going to have to find someone to stay at my apartment in New York to watch my two Amazon parrots."

Megan Twohey is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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