On July 2, law enforcement officers from the Forest Service, acting in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, cited three individuals for participating in the National Rainbow Gathering held in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest outside of Wisdom, Mont. The Gathering, held annually on public lands, drew an estimated 23,000 people to a remote valley in the Big Hole for several weeks, prompting Gov. Marc Racicot to declare a state of emergency and coordinate all emergency and law enforcement services through the National Incident Management Team.
Rainbow Gatherings are considered illegal assemblies by the Forest Service—and more recently, by the federal courts—because the attendees refuse to obtain a Forest Service permit. The Rainbows argue that they are not a membership organization but a non-hierarchical collection of individuals exercising their First Amendment right of free assembly and worship.
Now, some members of the Rainbow Family, including one Missoula-area man who was among the three cited by the Forest Service, are claiming that the Rainbows were unfairly singled out by law enforcement.
“I have a total objection, for moral and spiritual reasons, to have to get a permit to pray. That’s basically the same position that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have toward not saluting the flag,” says Barry Adams of Drummond, who on July 14 pleaded innocent before a federal magistrate in Great Falls. “I believe that the Forest Service targeted me specifically because of my beliefs, my viewpoint, because I don’t believe you need a hierarchy in order to use National Forest land.”
Adams, who has been attending Rainbow Gatherings since the first one was held in 1972, is no stranger to the Forest Service or the legal system. In that year, Adams went to court as a plaintiff to try to declare illegal a Forest Service roadblock of a Colorado road leading into the National Forest. He lost. Then in 1980, Adams was cited for his involvement in a Rainbow Gathering in West Virginia, a ticket which a federal magistrate later dismissed. In 1988, Adams was again in federal court in Texas defending himself in the lawsuit, U.S. v. Rainbow Family.
“The Forest Service targeted me because I’ve been a target now for 30 years,” says Adams. “An individual cannot sign [a permit] for the Rainbow Family because who’s the family? That’s everybody on Earth. That’s absurd.”
Adams says he and the other two defendants cited this year—Edward James Allen of Reno, Nev., and Val Demars (address unknown)—were not the only ones subjected to harassment this year. He claims that Rainbows were targeted on the highways, “running a gauntlet of law enforcement nets along the way ... from St. Regis, Idaho to Wyoming.”
Special Agent Bill Fox of the Forest Service, who served as incident commander for National Rainbow Gatherings for the last three years, would not comment on the case against Adams, citing its pending status. He does say, however, that while law enforcement activities were coordinated, he vehemently denies that police specifically targeted the Rainbows or set up roadblocks or checkpoints of any kind.
“There was absolutely a no-harassment policy. Let me make that real clear,” says Fox. “It was the job of law enforcement in all different levels of government to enforce the law, so if someone violated the speeding limit, they were stopped, or if someone left a campfire unattended, they probably got a violation notice. … We don’t treat them any different from any large group gathering.”
All told, law enforcement officers with the Beaverhead County Sheriff’s Department, the Dillon City Police Department, Montana Highway Patrol, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Forest Service issued 580 citations and 931 warnings at or around the Rainbow Gathering, made 42 felony arrests and 136 misdemeanor arrests between June 3 and July 6.
Among those stopped on the highway was Barrett Golding, a radio producer with KGLT in Bozeman, who reported on this year’s Gathering for the syndicated High Plains News. Golding says that he was stopped twice by police, questioned extensively about whether he was carrying weapons or drugs, then had his car searched without his consent.
“It was not serious, but it did concern me,” says Golding, who admits that while there was probable cause for both traffic stops—he had a headlight out—he believes the search was unjustified. “As a journalist, I try to remain objective about all this…[but] there’s a First Amendment issue going on there. It’s just pretty hard to peg.”
In fact, the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has received at least 15 formal complaints about heavy-handed law enforcement tactics. ACLU attorney Beth Brenneman cannot say yet what action, if any, her office will take in response, except to say that “They [the Rainbow Family] are the counterculture, and we’ve made the counterculture illegal.”
“It’s definitely worth going to court over. If I lose, which I don’t believe I will, but if I have to go to jail for six months, it was well-worth it,” says Adams. “It’s the struggle for freedom and the right to peaceably assemble. … What they do on us hippies, they’ll do on everyone else. Believe it.”
If found guilty, Adams, Allen and Demars face a maximum penalty of $5,000 and six months in jail.