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The Rainbow Family of Living Light (commonly shortened to the Rainbow Family) is a loosely affiliated group of individuals committed to principles of non-violence and egalitarianism. They put on peaceable assemblies/free speech events known as Rainbow Gatherings.
The Rainbow Family was created out of the Vortex I gathering at Milo McIver State Park in Estacada, Oregon (30 miles south of Portland, Oregon) from August 28 to September 3, 1970. The Kent State shootings in May 1970 sent the antiwar movement into a state of crisis and re-evaluation. Inspired in large part by the first Woodstock Festival, two attendees at Vortex, Barry "Plunker" Adams and Garrick Beck are both considered among the elders of the Rainbow Family. Adams emerged from the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, and is the author of Where Have All the Flower Children Gone? Beck is the son of Julian Beck, founder of The Living Theatre, known for their production Paradise Now!
The first official Rainbow Family Gathering was held in Strawberry Lake, Colorado, on the Continental Divide, in 1972. This site was selected by Adams, who was featured in an extensive Rolling Stone interview that covered the event.
Regional Rainbow Gatherings are held throughout the year in the United States, as are national and regional gatherings in dozens of other countries. These Gatherings are non-commercial, and all who wish to attend peacefully are welcome to participate. There are no leaders, and traditionally the Gatherings last for a week, with the primary focus being on gathering on public land on the Fourth of July in the U.S., when attendees pray, meditate, and/or observe silence in a group effort to focus on World Peace. Most gatherings elsewhere in the world last a month from new moon to new moon, with the full moon being the peak celebration. Rainbow Gatherings emphasize a spiritual focus towards peace, love, and unity.
Those who attend Rainbow Gatherings usually share an interest in intentional communities, ecology, New Age spirituality and entheogens. Attendees refer to one another as "brother", "sister", or the gender neutral term, "sibling." Individuals council or circle, regularly, with attendance being open to all interested parties and decisions being reached through consensus. At the council or circle, which is usually held outside, a feather is passed and the attendees take turns speaking to resolve issues. The exchange of money is frowned upon, and barter stressed as an alternative. Adherents call the camp "Rainbowland" and, in an appropriaton of Rastafarian customs, refer to the world outside of gatherings as "Babylon."
The use of alcohol in "Rainbowland" is discouraged, but not banned, and is a heated topic within the Rainbow community.
The organization is a loose, international affiliation of individuals who have a stated goal of trying to achieve peace and love on Earth. Participants make the claim that they are the "largest non-organization of non-members in the world." In addition to referring to itself as a non-organization, the group's "non-members" also even playfully call the group a "disorganization." There are no official leaders or structure, no official spokespersons, and no formalized membership. Strictly speaking, the only goals are set by each individual, as no individual can claim to represent all Rainbows in word or deed. Also contained within the philosophy are the ideals of creating an intentional community, embodying spirituality and conscious evolution, and practicing non-commercialism.
All Rainbow Gatherings are held with an open invitation to people of all walks of life, and of all beliefs, to share experiences, love, dance, music, food, and learning.
The Rainbow Family is most widely known for its large annual American Gatherings (i.e. U.S. "Nationals" or "Annuals") which are held on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (or B.L.M.) land. These U.S. Annual Gatherings usually attract between 8,000 and 20,000 participants.
In addition to these larger U.S. Annuals, individuals practice this throughout the year in dozens of other countries. "World Gatherings" are also held from time to time in various countries. Other activities include regional Gatherings (or Regionals) and retreats. There are also small, local activities such as local drum circles, potlucks, music related events, and campouts.
Money is not used (or not encouraged), camps set up kitchens to share food, and there is a circle on the Fourth of July to pray for peace.
The Forest Service Incident Management team cost federal taxpayers $750,000 in 2006[dubious ] (this cost is for 'monitoring' of the Rainbows), and the team handled the Gathering in Colorado that year and other large events in National Forests. By comparison, the Burning Man festival, unconnected to the Rainbow Gatherings, is a commercial venture that operates each year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, pays the Bureau of Land Management $750,000 for a permit, and recoups the cost by charging attendees between $210 and $360. The Rainbow Family asserts that being charged $750,000 dollars to gather peaceably on National Forest Land is a violation of their First Amendment rights, and that the event is free to all members of the public.
After the Rainbow Gathering visited the National Forest near the town of Richwood, West Virginia, in 2005, Mayor Bob Henry Baber stated: "I never saw one bit of any activity that required any Forest Service legal intervention." He calls the Incident Management Team "bizarre and unnecessary," and adds that his town was not put off by the Rainbows or their behavior.
Controversies over the Rainbow Family's 1987 Gathering are discussed in the book Judge Dave and the Rainbow People.
The environmental impact of the Rainbow Family is often significant, easily overwhelming the meager resources available at most National Forest campgrounds. Members of the Rainbow Family have previously used nearby medical facilities and have left significant bills unpaid, as well as costing local animal control agencies who treated parvovirus amongst the dogs at the Rainbow Gathering in 2006. Though the Rainbow Family removes its trash after a gathering, the Forest Service has criticized their cleanup efforts as being only "cosmetic" and "not rehabilitation by any stretch of the imagination." Cleanup crews have had to bury compost piles, and cover extensive latrine trenches and fire pits.
Similarly, in Montana in 2000, then governor Marc Racicot declared a "state of emergency" because of the alleged coming environmental destruction of the Rainbows on the National Forest. A year later, Dennis Havig, the District ranger from the nearby town of Wisdom, commented that “There were 23,000 people here and you can find virtually no trash. There’s an aspect of diminished vegetation, but you’d have to look hard to see the damage. The untrained eye isn’t going to see it.”
Summit County health officials also had a positive assessment of the site, said Bob Swensen, environmental director for the agency: "My opinion is, it looks as if no one had been there," Swensen concluded. "I'd have to give them an 'A' for their cleanup."
At the California National Gathering in 2004, in Modoc County, after public health officials reported speaking with their counterparts in Utah, opted to take preventive measures apart from law enforcement, which the Utah individuals found to be the source of many of the problems encountered at their event. The Public Health Department reported that the Forest Service officers were observed being confrontational and antagonistic towards the Rainbows at the Gathering site, which "did not facilitate a cooperative response from the Rainbows," the report states. "The explanation that was given is that this was an illegal gathering because no permit had been signed. However, even after the permit had been signed, this attitude was unchanged."
Rainbow Gatherings are not places of perfect peace and harmony. There have been incidents of theft, rape, stabbings and other violence. In an effort at self-policing and conflict resolution, Rainbow attendees have created a method they call "Shanti Sena," that involve blowing on a conch shell. It is used in emergencies or serious conflict, as a call for help, and responders with a variety of skills show up to help facilitate a solution to the problem.