"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Pass the Mustard, Please, Sister Sunshine Daisy-Hat



Of all the family picnics that will take place this Fourth of July holiday, none promises to be more entertaining than this year's hippies-in-the-woods fest the Rainbow Gathering, recently announced for the Montana/Idaho border during the entire first week of July. Concerned law enforcement officials ready to search cars on the basis of faulty-sounding mufflers have warned local media of a potential 20,000 campers and hangers-on, of whom only a small percentage are potential thieves, nudists and drug abusers.

Lucky residents in the nearby town of Jackson, Montana have braced themselves, preparing for distant rumblings of meditative prayer, barely audible circle drumming, and, if they're lucky, the occasional oddly well-mannered and beatific-faced supply store customer doing a quick change in aisle three. Possible benefits for Jackson include a mini-boom in the local economy, the peace of mind that comes with facing one's worst fears of the outside world, and, depending on whether prayers are answered, an opportunity to serve as the potential epicenter for universal peace and environmental healing. As a bonus, if recent versions of the now 28-year-old summer ritual are any indication, Jackson may host the latest not very compelling chapter in America's most laconic free speech battle. Sounds like a full week.



In many ways, the Rainbow Family resembles the American family: They wait until the last minute before they decide where to go on vacation, they bicker to the point of occasionally disowning one another, and if you go back far enough it's hard to tell what's going on in the family tree. Although members of the Rainbow family are reluctant to sanction an official history of the organization, the original 1972 gathering appears to have grown from a variety of seeds: the downfall of organized student radicalism in the late 1960s, the rise of ecologically-conscious Christian evangelism, the need for people to help fleeing draftees make their way into Canada, and the popularity of the Portland, Oregon Renaissance Faire. In that the original meeting in Colorado was never intended to give birth to future meetings but did so anyway, the Rainbow Family history can even claim a minor pregnancy scandal.

United by broad pro-nature and pro-peace positions, the Rainbow Family's meetings, from local get-togethers to each summer's Rainbow Gathering, don't serve a purpose as much as they are the purpose. Meetings put into practice the group's beliefs in non-corporate organization, action through non-coercive impulse and, most importantly, agreement through consensus. According to Rainbow Family tenets, the gatherings provide a model for how society could best be run: anarchy as ironic organizing principle. If the Rainbow Family lived in your neighborhood, their house would be the one where the kids call the adults by their first names and everyone contributes to the food budget.

Serving as the de facto Mr. Roper for the Family's summer rental is the National Forest Service, with whom the Gathering has enjoyed a complicated, mostly antagonistic relationship since inception. Imagine Hatfields vs. McCoys with less buckshot and a lot more paperwork. The Forest Service files stringent reports about the rehabilitation of the land used for the Gatherings, while Family member web sites and oral histories bristle with anecdotal evidence about police-style abuse. The 1997 Forest Service report revealed competing theories among Service officials — should NFS agents treat the Gathering as a law enforcement issue which they must control, or as a particularly involved use of the land to which they must provide service?



Like a dimwitted teenager facing conficting parental strategies, the Family has let its specific pecadilloes about authority keep it from taking advantage. The legal dispute which followed last year's Gathering in Ridgway, Pennsylvania is a perfect case in point. The Forest Service wanted paperwork filed, as it does for every park usage of over 75 people. Family members refused to file the paperwork because doing so would imply that the Rainbow Family invests authority in those individuals who signed. Forest Service officials selected three campers, designated them leaders of the event, and convicted them. The defense argued that a leaderless group means that everyone must sign the NFS documents, and that doing so would be a violation of a group's right to assemble peacefully. Never mind that a group where members spontaneously volunteer to dig toilets could probably spontaneously generate a couple of paperwork signers — American Indians signed plenty of treaties — or that designating three secret leaders is less a sound legal strategy than a plot point from Paths of Glory. There are principles at stake, the kind that infuse minor fines and the threat of jail with world-changing hubris.

If Jackson's finest or the Forest Service clash with those attending this year's gathering, the Family could be dragged through more legal thornbushes. New indictments would overlap the Family's current appeal of last year's eventual convictions. One district judge is expected to strike down the Rainbow Family's Harold Stassen-like attempt to cast this fight as a legitimate threat to assembly. So why continue to fight? As the WTO protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C. made clear, a leaderless group can still exhibit a predilection for self-drama. The same unofficial web sites disseminating the final place for this year's Gathering warn Family members everywhere about angry backwoods deputies and aggressive Forest Service officials. This hardly helps avoid potential conflict with Forest Service authorities, but it may make digging toilets and chanting feel a little more subversive. Inflationary myth-making plays a huge role in the continuing existence of the Gathering. As Gathering attendee Michael Niman points out in his book People of the Rainbow; A Nomadic Utopia, Family members have even asserted that their beliefs are authentic Native American legend. And only straight-faced sincerity could sell a one-week camping experience, with an attendance figure roughly that of a Major League Soccer game, as a model for government-light society.



But don't knock self-delusional forms of social protest. In the kind of towns where 30-year-old rock bands continue to sell out the local ampitheatre, outgrowths of hippie culture with a few legitimate anarchist/utopia threads like the Rainbow Gathering retain an enormous amount of credibility. Alienated people hold onto modes of rebellion the way Havana cab drivers hang onto their 1950s Fords. Nothing feels more like faith than a pilgrimage, even if the road itself holds few of the dangers of decades past, or if a cell phone and laptop keep you connected to the home office right up until you get there. Even if they don't see it as a basis for a utopian society, most people claim to be anti-authoritarian believers in broad environmental aims and mutual tolerance. There is nothing more patriotic than the assertion of relevance for the irrelevant, from dancing in a room with your fellow Klingons to joining the Reform Party to praying and drumming a new world into existence on the border of Idaho. If your parents used the Fourth of July picnic to make dubious claims for the importance and significance of the basic family unit, then why shouldn't the Rainbow Family? Chances are Dad didn't fill out his paperwork, either.

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black