The following article is an editorialized opinion piece that reflects the views of the author only and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.
As a resident of Atlanta, I am thankful that the 47th annual Rainbow Family Gathering has come to Georgia. It’s my shortest trip to a Gathering yet! The Rainbow Gathering is my favorite place to be for the Fourth of July, so I’m taking my paid vacation right here in my home state for a change. The Gathering is happening right now in Chattahoochee National Forest near Dahlonega. The official dates are July 1-7, but people have been working in the woods for several weeks setting up kitchens and tapping springs.
In 1972, an unlikely coalition of hippie peaceniks and Vietnam veterans came together for the first Rainbow Gathering. Since then, thousands have converged to camp together in a different national forest every summer. On Independence Day, after a morning of silence throughout the camp, the encampment gathers in a giant circle to pray for world peace, followed by a children’s parade. It’s an inspiring sight. But to me, the Gathering itself is a prayer, a living vision of peace and harmony on Earth.
All are welcome at the Gathering. Everything is free, provided by donations and volunteer labor. Acoustic music, singing, and drumming emanate from every campfire. Camp decisions are made by consensus in open councils where a feather is passed to allow each person to speak. Instead of protesting the world as it is, we are demonstrating how the world could be.
Many Lumpkin County residents have welcomed the Rainbows with open arms. They recognize that we are drawn by the beauty of the area and will enrich the local economy as other tourists do. But the county authorities and the U.S. Forest Service seem to regard us as alien invaders rather than American citizens exercising our God-given freedoms of peaceable assembly and religious expression. As a taxpayer, I find it inexcusable that our public servants are spending millions to harass and obstruct a Constitutionally protected assembly. If praying for peace in God’s great outdoors was part of your religion, as it is of mine, I’m sure you would feel the same way.
The site has plenty of parking along the roads, but many of the roads have been arbitrarily closed. The Forest Service seems to be intentionally creating an unnecessary shortage of parking, creating much hardship for the gatherers and a potential food shortage if supply runs are unable to return to the Gathering. They do this in the name of “safety,” but after you’ve been to a few Gatherings, you learn to recognize harassment when you see it.
The police have also set up roadblocks where incoming vehicles are stopped and searched. This type of targeted enforcement has been ruled illegal at previous gatherings, but so far no Georgia-licensed attorneys have stepped up to help us bring those precedents before a judge. Offenders are given a mandatory court date in a makeshift courthouse that is closed to the public, in violation of the Constitutional right to a public trial.
This type of tax-funded harassment follows the Rainbow Family wherever we gather. The activities of the police are the single biggest impediment to peace and harmony at a Gathering dedicated to peace and harmony, and this seems to be deliberate. I don’t make it to every Gathering, but I’m told that police harassment this year is the worst ever.
As they do every year, photographs have circulated showing piles of trash left behind after the 1987 North Carolina Gathering. I attended that Gathering, and I know how that particular photo-op was engineered. After the first truckload of trash was hauled off, the Forest Service refused to allow the truck to return for a second load, then arrested the people who had stayed behind to clean up the site.
The photos were part of a strategy to obtain an injunction against the next year’s Gathering out in Texas. Fortunately, the judge in Texas understood that repealing the First Amendment to the Constitution did not lie under his jurisdiction. But the photos surface every year, part of a tax-funded propaganda campaign to spread fear and division between gatherers and local residents. We are all part of the spectrum of the Rainbow, which includes “everyone with a bellybutton.”
Unlike the U.S.F.S. Law Enforcement division, the Resource Rangers who are responsible for protecting the forests have a history of cooperating with the Rainbows. They know the Gathering’s tradition of caring for the woods is closely aligned with their own goals, and are well aware of the gatherers’ reputation for cleaning up and restoring each and every Gathering site — with that one exception.
At the Town Meeting held by Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard, some were angry that the Gathering is apparently exempt from U.S.F.S. Group Use regulations. In fact, those regulations were created in the 1980s specifically to target the Rainbow Gatherings. Everyone who attends the Gathering is an individual. There is literally nothing we all agree on beyond when and where to gather, and the councils that select each year’s site can drag on for days while opposing factions argue their way to consensus. The regulators in Washington were attempting to “divide and conquer” by using our own process against us.
Some years, individuals have taken it on themselves to sign the permit. They found themselves obligated to satisfy the demands of the Forest Service, with no authority over anyone but themselves. Finally, in 2009, a Gathering attendee filed suit against the two who had signed. The judge upheld the obvious principle that no one can sign a legal document on another person’s behalf without their consent. Would you?
Before the Group Use regulations, gatherers and Resource Rangers would work out an Operating Plan covering the same points as the permit: sanitation, parking, protecting endangered species, etc. No signature was necessary. After the Gathering, the Rangers would write a “cleanup letter” confirming that all agreements had been upheld. It’s called cooperation. It works, and it costs far less than the aggressive approach the government now seems to prefer.
Besides the peace prayer on July 4th, those who attend the Gathering come for many different reasons. I see it as a school of sorts. Most of us want to instill certain values in our kids: freedom, respect, tolerance, service, community, cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, individuality, caring for others and for nature. I think most parents want their children to learn these same things, and most would agree that today’s society is rife with unwholesome counter-influences that can lead children astray. The Rainbows realized long ago that by taking our families to the woods, even for a week, we can show our kids those positive values in action without the distractions of media, video games, material possessions, commercialization, and violence.
As in any school, some gatherers — of all ages — are in first grade, and some are ready to graduate. But as fast as they graduate, new “first graders” show up and the lessons begin all over. And then there are those who never do seem to get it. Some gatherers come from broken homes or families that never accepted them because they were different. For many of these lost ones, the Rainbow Family is the only loving, accepting home they ever had. We do our best to love them despite their misbehavior, up to the point where they put others at risk.
Some Gathering attendees are homeless travelers. Others, such as myself, are enjoying a paid vacation from jobs and professions in the city. All are equal at the Gathering, where it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart. Several of the kitchens at the Gathering are run by small groups that travel year-round on a bus, serving food to the homeless between Gatherings and showing up after floods and wildfires to help with disaster relief. These young people have been bitten by the bug of selfless service, and the world of minimum-wage jobs, student loans, vicarious entertainment, celebrity gossip, wars, and politicians pale by comparison.
On a logistical level, the Gathering is an amazing example of large-scale cooperation. No one is in charge; no one gets paid. Volunteers pitch in and help for the sheer love of service to others. Propane-powered kitchens and wood-fired ovens are built. Springwater filtration systems are installed. Money is collected in the “Magic Hat,” truckloads of supplies come in and are distributed to the kitchens by hard-working “sherpas.” Military-style slit latrines are dug and maintained. Hand-washing and sanitation are emphasized everywhere. At the “Center for Alternative Living Medicine,” medical professionals of all kinds deal with injuries and illness.
After the Gathering, a crew of dedicated workers stays to restore the site to its original condition, or better. They follow every trail, locate every campsite, pick up every bit of “microtrash,” break up packed earth and re-seed with native vegetation. Trash is hauled off to the dump. Recyclables are recycled. This too is a prayer, an expression of gratitude to Mother Earth for surrounding us with such beauty and providing all our needs.
Since my first Gathering in 1981, the Rainbow Family Gatherings have been a source of hope and spiritual sustenance in my journey through life. I hope many other Georgians will show up to join hands with us in our prayer for world peace on Independence Day. And I hope the authorities we have elected will relent and allow us to park on the roads our taxes maintain.
Stephen Wing has been traveling to Rainbow Gatherings since 1981. He has lived in Atlanta with his wife Dawn since 1990. He has worked as an editor and a recycler and is currently employed at his local food co-op. He is the author of three collections of poems and a novel, Free Ralph! He serves on the boards of the Lake Claire Community Land Trust and Nuclear Watch South. Bringing this year’s Gathering to Georgia was not his idea. No one person or group can represent the Rainbow Family; Wing speaks here for no one but himself.