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Rainbow Gatherings are temporary intentional communities, held primarily in the US and Europe in outdoor settings, and supporting and practicing the ideals of peace, love, harmony, freedom and community, as a consciously expressed alternative to mainstream popular culture, consumerism, capitalism and mass media.
Rainbow Gatherings and the Rainbow Family of Living Light (usually abbreviated to "Rainbow Family") are an expression of a Utopian impulse, combined with bohemianism, hipster and hippie culture, with roots clearly traceable to the counterculture of the 1960s. Mainstream society is commonly referred to and viewed as "Babylon", a term from the Christian New Testament connoting the participants' widely held belief that modern lifestyles and systems of government are unhealthy, unsustainable, exploitative and out of harmony with the natural systems of the planet. The original Rainbow Gathering was in 1972, and has been held annually in the United States from July 1 through 7 every year on United States National Forest land. Throughout the year, regional and international gatherings are held in the United States and throughout the rest of the world respectively.
Relations with law enforcement and local communities are frequently an issue. Media coverage is often unfavorable, focusing on drug use, nudity, assaults, fugitives, serious traffic charges such as drunken driving and the countercultural aspects of the assemblage. Nevertheless, the Gatherings have proven a durable and international phenomenon for over 40 years.
The first Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes, a four-day event in Colorado in July 1972, was organized by youth counterculture "tribes" based in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Twenty thousand people faced police roadblocks, threatened civil disobedience, and were allowed onto National Forest land. This was intended to be a onetime event; however, a second gathering in Wyoming the following year materialized, at which point an annual event was declared. The length of the gatherings has since expanded beyond the original four-day span, as have the number and frequency of the gatherings.
Although groups from California and the Northwest region of the U.S. were heavily involved in focalizing (a Rainbow term for focusing on) the first official (or unofficial as some folks would say) Rainbow Gathering, the U.S. Southeast was strongly represented as well. At least 2,600 people from throughout that region focalized at one of the four Main Camps/Kitchens and provided invaluable support for the 1972 Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes on Strawberry Lake, above Granby, Colorado. There was also strong representation from the U.S. Northeast and many other regions of the U.S.
The Rainbow Family has no leaders, no structure, no official spokespersons, no official documents, and no membership. Documents are produced as needed and maintained by various groups.
As Michael Niman notes, "Rainbow Gatherings, as a matter of principle, are free and non-commercial." Using money to buy or sell anything at Rainbow Gatherings is taboo. There are no paid organizers, although there are volunteers ("focalizers") who are crucial to setting up the gathering site. Participants are expected to contribute money, labor, and/or material. All labor is voluntary and never formally compensated.
Aside from taking up collections (the "Magic Hat" in Rainbow parlance) for essential items purchased from the local community, there is little or no exchange of currency internally at a Gathering. The primary principle is that necessities should be freely shared, while luxuries can be traded. A designated trading area is a feature at most (if not all) US Gatherings. It is called "trading circle" if it is circular and "barter lane" if it is linear. Frequently traded items include (but not limited to) sweets ("often referred to aszuzus"), books/zines, crystals/rocks/gems, handcrafts, etc. In some rare cases people may even trade marijuana or smoking pipes (usually when no law enforcement is in the area). Snickers bars have emerged as a semi-standardized unit of exchange at some gatherings.
There are no official leaders, no formal structure, no official spokespersons, and no membership. Some rainbow family participants make the claim that the family is the "largest non-organization of non-members in the world". In addition to referring to itself as a non-organization, the Rainbow Family of Living Light's "non-members" also playfully call the movement a "disorganization". However, there is a changing network of "focalizers" who take responsibility for passing on Rainbow information year-round, and serve as contacts if listed in the Rainbow Guide. In Rainbow lore you require only one thing to be a part of the Family - love.
Gatherings are loosely maintained by open, free form councils consisting of any "non-member" who wishes to be part of a council, which use consensus process for making decisions. According to the Mini-manual, "Recognized Rainbow rules come from only one source, main Council at the annual national gatherings."
Talking circles are also a feature of rainbow gatherings. Each participant in the circle talks in turn while all others present listen in silence. A ceremonial talking stick, feather or other object is passed around the circle so as to allow everyone the opportunity to speak without being interrupted; this is an adaptation of the North American aboriginal custom.
One of the central features of the annual United States gathering is silent meditation the morning of the Fourth of July, with attendees gathering in a circle in the Main Meadow. At approximately noon the entire assembly begins a collective "Om" which is ended with whooping and a celebration. A parade of children comes from the Kiddie Village, singing and dancing into the middle of the circle.
The gathering's greeting to new arrivals is "Welcome Home!" "We Love You!" is often heard as it is melodiously shouted across the site. "Nic @ Nite" is shouted when one is looking for a cigarette, "Six Up" is shouted at the approach of law enforcement officers. "Seven Up" is used to distinguish forest resource officers, though the terms "Six-Up" and "Seven-Up" are commonly confused with each other they are both recognized as being a signal for law enforcement. The term "Six-Up" came from the fact that some revolvers that officers carry with them hold six bullets in them.
Spiritually, there is a very strong influence from Native American Shamanism, Neo-Paganism, and Eastern traditions, often aligned with free-thought. Shamanism and New Age aspects are apparent in a large portion of the culture, tradition, and everyday life for the participants. For example, the practice of the Om before a meal is a prime example of Vedic spiritual practices. Native American beliefs and practices, especially those of the Hopi, were a strong influence in the founders of the Rainbow Family, and are noticed most often by the frequent use of sweat lodges, as well as the even more frequent drum circle, which is commonplace around the camp fire. There is a strong consensus that the modern world has 'forgotten the Spirit', referring to a fairly undefined concept describing an ultimate "Higher Power", has been separated from Nature, and that it is most important to find a connection with both again. It is also very important for most 'members' to find higher self-awareness, to become one with nature and their fellow humans, and even possibly connect to a universal consciousness.
Creative events may include variety shows, campfire singing, fire-juggling, and large or small art projects. At one gathering, a cable car was rigged to carry groups of four quickly across the meadow. Faerie Camp was "alive with hundreds of bells and oddly illuminated objects." Musicians and music pervade all Gatherings, at kitchens, on the trails, and at campfires.
The Rainbow Family has governed Gatherings of up to 30,000 people. Regional Rainbow gatherings can attract as many as 5,000. The U.S. national gathering centers around July 1-7th, but people come up to a month earlier to help set up (this is known as "Seed Camp") and remain on site up to a month later to participate in cleanup and to perform ecosystem restorations.
Although each event is more or less anarchic, practical guidelines have been reached through the consensus process and are documented in the Mini-manual. Items which are strongly discouraged, by some, at gatherings include firearms, alcohol, and pets. Other items that tend to be discouraged including radios, tape players, sound amplifiers, and power tools.
Camps and kitchens are the basic community units of the Gathering. Camps may be based on regional, spiritual, or even dietary commonalities. For example, Kid Village attracts attendees with children, Tea Time specializes in serving herbal teas, Jesus Camp has a Christian foundation. Some kitchens such as the Turtle Soup Kitchen serve predominantly vegetarian meals. Lovin' Ovens is a kitchen which craft ovens out of clay and mud in the area and will cook food such as pizza (meat, vegetarian, and vegan) and different types of bread and snacks. Nic@Nite is a camp that focuses on the sharing of tobacco and tobacco related products. Faerie Camp is the kitchen in which homosexuals may stay.
Not all camps are kitchens, but all kitchens are camps. In addition to feeding passers-by, kitchens send food to the one or two large communal, predominantly vegetarian meals served daily in the main meadow.
Drinking water is filtered at gatherings, both by small pump filters and large gravity-feed devices. Attendees are encouraged also to boil drinking water. Water is often tapped at a source (such as a spring or stream) and run hundreds of yards to main kitchens in the gathering via plastic hosing.
Sanitation has historically been a major concern at Rainbow Gatherings. Human waste is deposited in latrine trenches (typically referred to as 'shitters') and treated with lime and ash from campfires. New latrines are dug and filled in daily. The 1987 gathering in North Carolina experienced an outbreak of highly contagious shigellosis (a.k.a. dysentery) (known at the gathering as Beaver Fever) causing diarrhea attributed to filth and squalor in the camp.
C.A.L.M., or the Center for Alternative Living Medicine, is the primary group of doctors at Rainbow Gatherings who assist people with health and wellness and take responsibility for medical emergencies and sanitation of those who attend these large gatherings. It is an all volunteer, non-hierarchical group encompassing both mainstream, conventional medicine and alternative medicine, such as naturopathic healing modalities. It is common to find physicians working with herbalists, EMTs helping massage therapists and naturopaths coordinating with Registered Nurses on patient care. C.A.L.M. works closely with Shanti Sena, as they are often the first on the scene in a crisis. There is usually one main C.A.L.M. camp near the inner part of the gatherings and smaller first aid stations set up around the Gatherings. Even those without medical experience are encouraged to help with things such as procuring water and cooking for the healers, who are often too busy to attend main circle or visit other kitchens. In case of any emergency CALM can be contacted on FRS Channel 3 (no tones, 462.6125 MHz UHF) and other site-specific radio frequencies.
Within the Rainbow Gathering, security, conflict resolution, and emergency situations are handled by Shanti Sena ("Peace Keepers"), which includes anyone who is capable of helping at that time.  Shanti Sena also sometimes act as liaisons to observers and law enforcement officers who patrol the Rainbow Gathering, often tracking the movements of police and park rangers through the gathering, and overseeing the interactions between officers and people attending the gathering to ensure that neither group instigates or takes part in illegal or inflammatory confrontations. This type of interference with police operations resulted in numerous arrests in the 1987 gathering in North Carolina, with state, federal and local officers being assaulted, blocked from patrol areas and threatened. The Shanti Sena at the '87 gathering were characterized by local, state, and federal officers as a criminal gang and were suspected to have collaborated in the assault on an Asheville Citizen-Times reporter. Several gathering members who reported they had been expelled from the gathering called the Shanti Sena "gestapo" and thugs. In some particularly serious situations, Shanti Sena have collaborated with law enforcement (although without violating the Gathering's principle of consensus). For example, gathering regular and wanted murder suspect Joseph Geibel was peacefully approached by Shanti Sena and transferred to police custody at the 1998 gathering.
"Shanti Sena" is also used as a call for aid; an individual finding him- or herself in a dispute can shout the phrase. Everyone within earshot is expected to then investigate and reach a consensus agreement to settle the dispute.
In an October 2008 report the American Civil Liberties Union stated:
The U.S. Forest Service systematically harasses people who attend Rainbow Family gatherings on public lands.
All major gatherings in the United States are held on National Forest land, which is under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service, a federal agency with its own law enforcement federal officers. County sheriffs have concurrent jurisdiction on all forest lands, as do county police and local police depending on location, community boundaries and locals laws. So too do state law enforcement agencies, namely state wildlife wardens, state troopers and state police or bureaus of investigation. Many local gatherings occur in remote areas, with county sheriffs being the primary response. They often request deputies from neighboring counties and officers from area police departments. Additionally, it is common for state conservation and wildlife officers and state troopers to deploy. The Forest Service has often received assistance from the FBI, US Marshalls for fugitives, DEA for drug trafficking and other federal agencies. The USFS has tried to prevent these gatherings from taking place because it denies all others access to the forest and the surrounding area for the duration of the gathering  or insisted that a group-use permit be signed, contending that this is standard practice for large groups wishing to camp on public land and that it is necessary to protect public safety and the local environment. Gathering organizers generally contend that the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights give them the right to peaceably assemble on public land and that requiring a permit would violate that basic right by turning it into a privilege to be regulated. (The Gatherings did attempt to initially work within the permit system starting in 1976, but found the government-imposed requirements for facilities and insurance too onerous.)
In 1984, the Forest Service enacted a regulation requiring a permit for any expressive assembly of ten or more people on Forest Service lands. This was unenforced for a year and a half before the Service attempted to apply it to the gathering in Arizona in 1986. Judge Bilby called attention to the selective enforcement of the regulation, and in any case ruled it unconstitutional, in part because it required expressive assemblies, but not non-expressive ones, to obtain permits.
In the 1987 gathering in Graham County NC, the then Governor of North Carolina, James G. Martin, deployed 150 State Troopers and 50 State Wildlife Officers to Graham County to assist the Graham County Sheriff. The sheriff reported that he was overwhelmed and had reinforcement deputies from three neighboring counties, but reported he was still helpless to handle the volume of incidents. Rainbows had seized the Slick Rock Road area of Nantahala National Forest with over 12,000 people and then blocked federal and local law enforcement officers from patrolling the area by falling a tree in the road. Underage drinking, assaults, traffic violations, thefts, nudity, drug incidents involving hard drugs, attacks on law enforcement officers and presence of numerous fugitives overwhelmed local law enforcement. When approximately 75 officers moved in, the number of arrested persons required a NC Prison Department bus to transport them to jails, which were filled in every western NC jail the weekend of July 4. The remaining Rainbows were eventually forced out of the area by state, local and federal officers in early August 1987.
The U.S. government has in the past pressured individuals to be representatives of the Gathering (e.g., to sign a permit), however, this is in violation of the well-established Rainbow principle that "no individual may officially represent the Family as a whole." A number of court cases have resulted from both Forest Service prosecutions and Rainbow Family-inspired legal actions against enforcement activities; the Forest Service found itself rebuffed by the judge in a defendant class suit originating from the 1987 North Carolina gathering, among other defeats.
A notable account of Gathering relations with law enforcement, Judge Dave and the Rainbow People, was written by U.S. Federal Judge David Sentelle. The book provides a first hand account of Sentelle's role in presiding over the 1987 case brought by the State of North Carolina in an attempt to stop the Gathering, including site visits to the Gathering and related legal actions. Garrick Beck, AKA "Steven Sedlardo," an active Rainbow Family member and protagonist of the 1987 case, wrote an afterword to the book in which he expresses agreement with Sentelle's characterizations. Beck later tried to sue law enforcement for making warrantless arrests, photographing persons and license plates and not reading arrested persons their rights. The suit was dismissed, as none of the allegations, true or not, indicated any wrongdoing by officers but were as the court noted, perfectly normal and lawful police practices and standard procedures for all peace offices.
The Forest Service has dealt with the scale of the US Annual Rainbow Gathering in the past by assigning a Type 2 National Incident Management Team (NIMT). Around 40 personnel from the NIMT have been assigned in the past, including NIMT members, Forest Service law enforcement officers (LEOs) and resource advisors. Because the Rainbow Gathering has utilized the land in the past without required consent from the Forest Service, the gatherings have been given special attention, as under current Forestry rules and regulations they may occur illegally.
In 1999 and again in 2000, the NIMT selected three gathering participants who were charged with "use or occupancy of National Forest System lands without authorization." The citation carried a maximum penalty of six months and a $5,000 fine; the charges originally could have been cleared by paying a $100 fine. Instead, they all chose to fight it in court, but lost their appeals. The three 1999 cases were later turned down by the Supreme Court.
An individual's application for a permit for the 2006 United States Annual Gathering was denied. The reasons for denial were that there was "inadequate ingress/egress in case of a large fire" and that a permit would "conflict with existing uses for businesses that have Priority Permits and have activities planned in the area". The Gathering elected to take place without the permit. Three "incidents involving aggressive actions toward Forest Service personnel" were reported in a Forest Service press release of June 29, as were two arrests for assault on Forest Service personnel. Additionally, the NIMT issued a total of 218 citations for violation of federal regulations.
At the 2008 National Gathering in Wyoming, an incident occurred whereby Forest Service officers tried to arrest a member of the group. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service said that about 400 participants in the Gathering began to advance, throwing sticks and rocks at the officers, although this was disputed by Gathering participants. Pepper balls were then fired to control the crowd. Witnesses reported that officers pointed weapons at children and fired rubber bullets at gathering participants. The ACLU produced a report following their investigation of the incident in which they were critical of the officers for a pattern of harassment and using overzealous enforcement techniques, using small violations as a pretense for larger searches.
According to the guidelines, or Raps of the Rainbow Gathering, open and public consumption of alcohol is discouraged by many people at the gatherings with respect for others being the primary reason. A distinguishing characteristic of the U.S. annual gatherings is "A-Camp," (commonly, and mistakenly, thought to mean "alcohol camp") typically located near the front gate, where some of those who want to openly drink alcohol usually stay, yet public drinking is generally accepted in most camps close to the road. Gatherings in Europe do not have "A-Camps." Some gatherings in Canada have "A-Camps" and some do not. Wine is tolerated in moderation at some European gatherings, particularly in France, where it is customary to drink wine with the evening meal.
There has been a longstanding Rainbow rumor that the gathering was/is recognized by the elders of the Hopi people as the fulfillment of a Hopi prophecy. This was debunked by Michael I. Niman in his 1997 People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia. Niman traced the supposed Hopi prophecies to the 1962 book Warriors of the Rainbow by William Willoya and Vinson Brown, which compares prophecy of major religious sects throughout the world and tales of visions from North American natives and which he describes as purveying "a covert anti-Semitism throughout, while evangelizing against traditional Native American spirituality."
In July 2011, a woman named Marie Hanson, from South Lake Tahoe, California went missing in Skookum Meadow, Washington State while attending the 2011 Rainbow Gathering at Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The local Sheriff's office reportedly initially refused to use tracking dogs at the site, stating they were not certain a crime had taken place. After pleas by the Hanson family and the Rainbow Family, a series of 4 searches by Rainbow Family members, law enforcement and the Hanson Family took place during late summer and fall of 2011. In October 2011, human remains and jewelry were found near the woman's campsite. It was later confirmed that the remains were those of Marie Hanson.
In 2011, three unrelated fatalities occurred at Rainbow Gatherings, including two fatalities at the 2011 Washington State national Rainbow Gathering. The Washington State deaths were those of Amber Kellar, a 28-year-old Californian who died of a preexisting medical condition, and Steve Pierce, a 50-year-old Californian who died of a fatal heart attack. In February 2011, a man drowned in a Farles Prairie pond during a regional Rainbow Gathering in Ocala National Forest, Florida.
Many European countries host their own national or regional gatherings. There is an annual European gathering. The first European Rainbow Gathering was organized in 1983 in Val Campo, Ticino, Switzerland. The 2007 European gathering was the 25th edition of that annual event and took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The subsequent two European Gatherings took place in Serbia (2008), Ukraine (2009) and Finland (2010). Also in February 2010, there was a Rainbow Gathering on the island of La Palma, Canary Islands in the barranco (ravine) that lies in the north of the island between Franceses and El Tablado, and later the same year, in the central island of the archipelago, Gran Canaria. The Vision Council decided for Slovakia in 2012 after Iberia 2011 for the next European Gathering.
World Gatherings have been held in Australia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Costa Rica, Canada, Turkey, Thailand, China, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The 2000 World Gathering in Australia, held on farmland in Boonoo Boonoo State Forest, northern New South Wales, attracted 3000 people at full moon. The 2009 world gathering was held outside Murchison, Aotearoa/New Zealand. The 2011 world gathering was held in Argentina. In 2012 was held in Brazil beginning January 23, and this year will again be in Canada, on Vancouver Island in the western province of British Columbia.
Rainbow Retreats, at the World Rainbow Gathering in Turkey in May, 2005, there was a consensus to create a World pillage Healing Retreat following each World Rainbow Gathering.