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Tucson Weekly Rainbow's End

Federal and state officials gear up for a 20,000-member gathering of The Rainbow Family.

By Dave Irwin

JUNE 8, 1998:  THE FREAK FLAG will be flying high--very high--over Arizona this summer.

In a few weeks, the Rainbow Family of Living Light will designate a site in one of Arizona's six national forests for its annual Gathering, to be celebrated June 28 through July 10. That no one knows exactly where, is of considerable concern to authorities, since the event will draw an estimated 20,000 people, many of the so-called "hippie" persuasion.

Gov. Jane Dee Hull's office hosted a meeting on May 15 to begin coordinating between federal, state and local authorities. Although the Governor's Office declined to list who attended or specifics of the discussion, citing law-enforcement concerns, the guests included the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl's office, the state Division of Emergency Management and local law-enforcement representatives.

"What I can tell you is the Governor's Office is aware that these folks are looking at coming here," said Francine Noyes, Hull's spokeswoman. "We're trying to monitor the situation, but beyond that now, there isn't much we can do yet. We have a number of concerns about sanitation, law enforcement, health and safety..."

Rainbow Gatherings have been held in national forests every summer since 1972. The Rainbow Family of Living Light describes itself as the "largest non-organization of non-members in the world." More mindset than organization, it has no set structure, no mission statement and no hierarchical leadership.

"No one speaks for the Rainbow," the unofficial website admonishes. Only half joking, they say membership is open to "anyone with a belly button."

In addition to the annual national Gathering, there are a number of regional gatherings, as well as numerous local pot lucks and drum circles. The national Gathering was held in Arizona once before, in 1979 on the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest.

For a month now, Rainbow Family scouts have been "on the ground," looking over topo maps, driving back roads, searching for a site that will meet the requirements of available water, adequate parking and attractive camping for 20,000 squatters. Leading contenders appear to be Coconino and Apache Sitgreaves National Forests. The scouts will make a proposal at the Arizona Spring Council, to be held this Saturday and Sunday somewhere in the national forest, after which, the Council may choose a site. Or not. This is the Rainbow Family after all and no one is really in charge. Decisions, if and when they are reached, are by consensus.

Garrick Beck is a long-standing member of the Rainbow Family. He's missed only two national Gatherings. He has deep counterculture roots as the son of Julian and Judith Beck, founders of the Living Theatre, a famous and controversial '60s guerrilla theatre troupe. Having been there from the beginning, he traces the Rainbow Family's lineage from influences of civil-rights marches, the then-new ecology movement, a variety of spiritual movements, hippies and Happenings, rock concerts and the melding of antiwar protesters and Vietnam veterans.

"The Gatherings grew out of a need from the cultural changes in the '60s to create an event that was very inclusive," Beck recalls. "The coming together of returning Vietnam veterans and peace movement activists gave the early gatherings a lot of their strength.

"Most organizations have a hierarchy of people in charge of different things in a pyramid-shaped form. We're organized much more like a living cell. The key is communication between the parts and each part doing its job well," Beck adds. "More than anything else the Gatherings teach people to live in harmony with the earth, not as a vague ideal, but as a practical activity. The No. 1 thing people should expect is to find a large, very open-hearted community in the woods."

GATHERINGS ARE MADE up of 60 to 200 "neighborhoods," including kitchens, outdoor latrines, water supplies and camping areas. A meadow serves as the primary gathering place, although activities are dispersed throughout the site. An information booth handles questions, messages and scheduling. Food preparation is monitored, as is water quality.

Medical facilities are staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses. The emphasis is on creating a temporary community where individuals act responsibly, volunteering for chores such as cooking, cleaning up, parking cars, moving materials or whatever is needed.

"One of the things about the Gatherings is that services are provided so efficiently for such a remote area," Beck notes. "It takes a lot of plain old-fashioned cooperation."

Over the two weeks, hundreds of events and activities are available, from nature hikes to workshops on dozens of topics to impromptu parades to musical entertainment, including the ubiquitous drum circles.

Councils, made up of whoever's in attendance, make operational decisions, such as food distribution or solid-waste management (a considerable concern for a city of 20,000 with no sewer system). Other councils hold discussions on topics such as spirituality, social issues or the environment.

For children, there are clowns and mimes, supervised play areas, art activities, exercise and storytelling.

The Gathering peaks on July 4, when participants form a giant circle at noon to chant "om" and pray for world peace.

As part of the utopian nature of the Gathering, drug use is openly tolerated and clothing is optional.

People planning to attend should arrive prepared with comfortable, waterproof camping gear, a bowl, cup and utensils. Information on the location will be posted as soon as it's available on the unofficial website, www.welcomehome.org/rainbow.html, and at the newsgroup, alt.gathering.rainbow. It will also be a major buzz on the street, so check with your local crustypunk.

THERE ARE TENS of thousands of people who have come to the Gatherings and discovered that community isn't something that's brought to you by the corporations and the police, fire and garbage departments. It's brought to you by the people who live in your community, who are your neighbors working together," Beck says.

Aron "Pieman" Kay, a self-proclaimed hippie who has become somewhat infamous by zapping famous people in the kisser with pies just for the zen of it, has been attending Gatherings since the '80s. He also attended Love-Ins and was at the Rolling Stones disaster at Altamont in 1969.

The son of Holocaust survivors, he held his 12-year-old daughter's Bat Mitzvah at a Gathering.

"It's not a '60s party," Kay says. "It's not sex, drugs and rock and roll. We just want to communicate with our mother, Mother Earth. We just want to heal the earth and heal the children."

At the end of the Gathering, a team stays behind to return the site to its natural condition. They see to it, according to Beck, that "not only the fire ring of stones is dismantled, but that the ashes are composted, all the holes are filled in, every piece of string tied to a tree is removed. The areas that were compacted by people's feet are aerated with hand tools so that the roots can grow again. The forest floor material is scattered in a random, natural fashion, so there aren't any clearings left behind. All the trails disappear."

ROSE DAVIS HAS been to four gatherings so far.

However, the former Flagstaff resident works on the other side of the fence. She's the information officer for the Forest Service's National Incident Management Team, which is assigned to provide year-to-year management of the Gatherings for the Forest Service.

"So far, the sites have all healed nicely," Davis concedes. "The fact that they have to heal and that there are rehabilitation efforts involved is something we have to look at. Digging slit latrines in the national forest is something that we're not pleased about. But they do work with the district. After about a year or so when the land heals, it's turned out real well."

From the Forest Service side, she cites problems in terms of illegal drugs, public nudity, runaways and traffic control.

"A lot of the potential conflict can arise from culture shock for the local community," Davis explains. "Once they announce the Gathering site, there is an element of folks that come in because it's a safe place to hide and there's the possibility of a free meal. These can include runaways, homeless people, individuals running from the law. Unfortunately, that element tends to hit town first. Then that community sees problems like dumpster diving, shoplifting, public urination."

Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards notes that, "Over the past six to eight weeks, our department has seen about 200 Rainbow types in and around the area."

A Forest Service source also noted that approximately 20-30 small Rainbow camps have sprung up in the woods around Flagstaff, waiting for word on where to go.

Beck says, "There are people at the Forest Service who believe the Rainbow Gatherings are just a plain, old criminal act and we should be rounded up and arrested for our beliefs. Other people in the Forest Service believe the Gatherings educate more young people to the value of the heritage of the national forest than any other single activity."

The annual yin/yang between the Rainbows and the Forest Service will continue this year, with the Forest Service enforcing regulations requiring a use permit for any gathering of more than 75 people in the national forest. The Rainbows steadfastly refuse to obtain the required permits, citing the Gatherings as a constitutional right to assemble peaceably on public lands.

"We will require a permit as soon as the number of people at the site exceeds 75," Davis asserts. "We hope it's not confrontational, but we're trying to enforce the federal regulations as we're required by law."

Law enforcement has generally stayed outside of the Gatherings. "Where they can, they enforce everything that they have responsibility for, but officer safety is very important and they are well outnumbered," Davis notes.

There's a question whether officials will use a policy of interdiction around the Gathering, setting up checkpoints and strictly enforcing traffic laws. Attendees consider such interdiction harassment.

"We're more concerned about major felonies," Sheriff Richards says. "Child abuse, assault, theft."

"There is an understanding," Beck says, "that there is no buying or selling at the Gatherings of anything, food, parking spaces, anything. So it's not a good place for anyone to come looking to buy or sell drugs. When you consider how little drug-related violence there's been in more than 25 years of Gatherings and then how much drug-related violence there is in modern America, then maybe we're on to something."

IN ANY CASE, for more than 25 years, the Rainbow Gatherings have represented the largest single recreational use of the national forests, a fact that the Forest Service is reluctant to accept officially.

"There are instances when we've had really beautiful, golden cooperative relations with the Forest Service," Beck notes, "and there have been instances where we've had a really knucklehead group of Forest Service officials who've not been willing to give us the time of day."

So it comes down to your view. For the Rainbow Family, the Gathering is an utopian Club Med, a temporary autonomous zone where there are no leaders, only focalizers to lead discussions, and where order is kept by shanti sena, a community-based combination of intervention counselors, peacekeepers and communicators. It's a hippie Tomorrowland where marijuana is "green energy" and the Magic Hat garners donations of more money than expected.

To government officials, it's a gathering of marginal lifestyles where illegal activities are rampant and hygiene is iffy.

"It's definitely a study in sociology, I'll give you that," Davis says with a laugh. "It basically becomes a small city on the national forest. It pops up quickly and it's pretty amazing."

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