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Camping Out for the Right to Assemble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don’t be misled by the dope smoking, the incessant drumming, the incense haze and the twirling dancers. This is nothing less than a Constitutional Convention, a referendum on the right to assemble.

To many, the 27th Gathering of the Tribes for World Peace and Healing is a freaky, funky, smelly assemblage of anarchists, Druids, tree-worshiping Pagans and latter-day hippies. They call it Weirdstock.

To the 20,000 members of the Rainbow Family camped here in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, this annual Fourth of July weekend event is about the right to live without interference on what is, after all, public land.

The U.S. Forest Service, along with other law enforcement entities, does not see it that way. They see a significant environmental impact over 1,100 acres, a high incidence of unlawfulness and an illegal use of national land. As they have every summer for more than a quarter century, the Rainbow Family is facing off against an assortment of armed officers, defending themselves only with smiles, offers of herbal tea and dogma heavily reminiscent of the founding fathers’ cry for personal freedom.

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Allen Firesong, who has been coming to gatherings for 20 years, said the event is about a sense of community.

“It’s the energy of the people,” he said. “It’s the same whether it’s 300 or 30,000. We just take care of each other. . . . You have to experience it to know what it’s all about. It’s an experiment in living peacefully together. To have everybody fed, everybody happy, treat everyone’s feelings so that they are valuable and important.”

A Weeks-Long Rock Concert

Aside from its political statement, the gathering looks pretty much like a weeks-long rock concert. Once the site was selected, members began to arrive as early as mid-June. They scouted the forest, located at an elevation of 9,000 feet on the Arizona-New Mexico border, just west of Springerville.

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The Forest Service was here then too. Its national incident team was organized a year ago to handle the Rainbows, who represent the largest single recreational users of federal forests. Local towns are affected by the gathering; the assembly is now the largest city, by far, in Apache County.

The presence of so many people without a permit is being challenged in U.S. District Court. The Rainbows respond that they have a right to peaceable assembly, and find it especially relevant to do so on the Fourth of July.

The gathering, said a 21-year-old from Arkansas named Never, is about being an American: “Ya know, when I was at home for the Fourth, we never talked about what the holiday was about. Here, we are celebrating what it is to live here [in America] . . . our freedoms.”

Still, they have been engaged in a running battle with authorities for decades. Among the concerns:

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* Traffic from more than 4,000 vehicles making their way to the remote site. Already scores of citations have been issued. Rainbows say they are being harassed by local police, who pull over vehicles for minor violations and use the stop as a pretext to search for drugs.

* Garbage from the gathering is expected to reach more than 25 tons, which the family will collect and dispose of. There are recycling bins around the site, all trash is bagged and even the Forest Service admits the group has an exemplary record for leaving sites clean.

* Water, or lack of it, is a problem. Family members are trucking in water daily and “borrowing” from a local spring. The shortage has meant that water must be used sparingly for cooking, cleaning of utensils and washing hands. Only. Officials say local businesses have removed the handles from their outdoor taps to prevent Rainbows from stealing water. Family members say locals have helped by donating water.

* Dogs. There is an estimated one dog per three people. After last year’s gathering in Oregon, more than 100 dogs were left behind.

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* Fires. There is an open fire ban in effect. Intermittent storms have not lessened the fire danger. In fact, forest officials fear lightning-caused blazes. As in most regards, the Family prefers to police itself. Rainbow fire wardens prowl the site in search of open fires.

* Environment. There are no bathrooms for the 20,000 Rainbows, who have dug slit latrines. This has caused concern about ground water contamination. In addition, rangers say the ground is severely compacted by foot traffic and will require about a year to recover. Rainbows say they minimize impact on the trails and re-seed meadows. Within the various camps, signs are posted regarding respect for the streams, forest and grasslands. Interestingly, these messages are invariably affixed by nails hammered into trees.

Operating by Consensus

Through it all, the Rainbow philosophy of “whatever” prevails.

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The vast, leaderless collective operates on a consensus system, and is adamant that it has no hierarchy. There are Rainbows all over the world, and the whereabouts of the national gathering is made known by word of mouth and the Internet.

Their anarchist’s bent notwithstanding, the gatherings are highly organized. Rainbows are not so counterculture that they don’t provide a media tent, a sophisticated system of radio checkpoints and a highly vigilant group watching the “front and back doors.”

Drake, who was among the first family members to set up camp, said: “It’s amazing to be one of the first people to go into the area and look around and say, ‘This is a good place for my family.’ ”

The various camps spill across vast meadows, stands of pine and aspen trees and over stream beds. Trails lead from camp to camp, such as Teepee Camp, Barbarian Camp for teenagers, Kiddie Camp for children with swings and puppet shows and the ever-present A Camp, for those who care to drink. According to Rainbow Rap 151--from the set of guidelines for the gathering--"It is the tradition in our family to discourage alcohol use at the gathering. The gathering is a prayer and peace sanctuary, not a tailgate party.”

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But being an inclusive group, the family allows A Camp, which by mutual agreement is located on the edge of the gathering--because family members strive to keep alcohol at a distance from the main camp and, as one A Camper noted: “We want to be a reasonable keg-hauling distance from the road.”

The site is fully self-contained. There are about a dozen kitchens, as well as a highly efficient bakery that uses mud ovens. There is a medical tent, a lost and found, outgoing mail and message center.

Although Rainbows are commonly perceived as aging hippies, in practice the gathering is intergenerational. The most common fashion look is long dreadlocked hair, strings of beads and a flowing dress or skirt. The women are even more elaborately clothed.

There are few rules. Clothing is optional, sex is free, no weapons are allowed, the use of hard drugs is discouraged, but marijuana--green energy--is everywhere.

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The atmosphere is redolent with the dense, sweet smell of marijuana, mingled with incense, dust, and, overwhelmingly, body odor. Some family members have been here for two weeks, and the combination of high temperatures and precious little water have made this gathering a highly fragrant one.

With more than 70 arrests in the last week, the Rainbows also are often portrayed as scofflaws.

In fact, trouble attributed to the gathering is often caused by others. Last week, three Phoenix men not affiliated with the group were arrested for assaulting an officer, and on weapons and drugs charges.

The manager of the Safeway in Springerville said he’s had no trouble from Rainbows. Watching his store bulge with family members buying every organic product he offered, the manager--who asked not to be identified--said his grungy customers are some of the nicest people he’d met.

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He did have to hire a security guard--the locals have been shoplifting, he said.

Other merchants have padlocked dumpsters to keep family members from diving for spoiled food.

Rainbow elder Garrick, with his cell phone and edgy New York attitude, believes authorities have misinformed the public about family behavior. “For a 20,000-person event, over a holiday weekend, we have a surprisingly small incidence of violence,” he said.

Tim, who makes a living selling tie-dyed clothing, said the younger Rainbows must be taught the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of the event. “It’s misconstrued as a party by some of the younger people,” he said as he passed a group of scantily clad dancers.

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No Agreement on Point of Gathering

The problem is that no one agrees about the nature of Rainbow philosophy and the point of the gathering. Today will be the highlight: Silence from sunrise to midday and a mass prayer/chant for peace as the throng is seated in a circle.

“You can feel a sense of God, you can feel the power,” Tim said of the chant. “There have been a lot of positive changes brought by people who come to places like this and were able to get out of their personal situations long enough to take a look at the bigger picture.”

Holly is an elder Rainbow, with her graying hair matted into spikes. The family, she said, is all about constitutional rights. Just like the first Americans.

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“I used to wear the business suit, I went to college, I lived that life,” she said while tie-dying striped officials’ shirts for a family football game. “I want the world to know that we’re all not all funky, tripping, punks.”

Outside her tent, the rain had finally stopped and a half-rainbow arced across the newly blue sky.

Cosmic.


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