By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: October 4, 2008
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) A report by the Wyoming chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union contends that the federal Forest Service has
engaged in systematic harassment of people who attend Rainbow Family
gatherings on public lands.
The A.C.L.U. opened an investigation this summer after a clash on
July 3 between members of the Rainbow Family, an informal group of
professed hippies and peace activists, and Forest Service law
About 7,000 members of the group attended its annual gathering this
summer, held in the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Big Sandy in
Forest Service law enforcement officers fired pepper balls like
paint balls but containing a pepper substance at Rainbow Family
members during the incident.
Scores of witnesses told the A.C.L.U. that the officers had lacked
justification. The A.C.L.U. did not talk to Forest Service officials
for its report. The report also said that officers had taken the
smallest violation as an excuse to search participants' cars and
campsites for drugs.
"This type of harassment and general overzealous enforcement appear
to have been the pattern in the U.S.F.S. relationship with the
Rainbow Family," the report said. It reported that the Forest Service
had set up roadblocks and safety checkpoints and had "searched and
ticketed people on the narrowest of pretexts."
Linda Burt, executive director of the A.C.L.U. in Wyoming, said her
office had interviewed about 60 Rainbow Family members who attended
this year's gathering and reviewed court records of charges against members.
In response to the report, the Forest Service said officers had fired
only after a crowd threw sticks and rocks at officers and otherwise
interfered in the arrest of a man on drug charges.
John Twiss, the national head of law enforcement for the Forest
Service, said Friday that he strongly disagreed with the report.
Mr. Twiss was among the officers who responded to the disturbance at
this year's gathering. He described as "nonsense" the notion that
Forest Service officers searched people or vehicles for drugs without
The agency wrote only 18 citations for traffic and vehicle
violations, but wrote 139 citations and arrested eight people for
drug offenses, he said.
The Forest Service is discussing whether to allow future Rainbow
Family gatherings on Forest Service lands, he said.
"Their behavior is unacceptable, and it's a tremendous financial
burden on the taxpayers to keep the gathering safe," Mr. Twiss said.
He estimated that it cost the Forest Service $1 million to patrol the
gathering in Wyoming this year. He said the group had not paid any of
During the pepper ball incident, only one of the people the A.C.L.U.
spoke with reported that they had possibly seen one person throw a
stick at law enforcement. The rest said they had seen nothing thrown,
Ms. Burt said.
In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Burt said the A.C.L.U. was not
planning to pursue legal action, but she said she hoped Congress
would look hard at the issue. The organization sent its report to
members of Wyoming's Congressional delegation.
"Certainly people do have that right to peaceable assembly under the
Constitution," Ms. Burt said. "It doesn't state anything in the
Constitution that only the 'right kind' of people can have peaceable
assembly, or only the people who dress like we like to dress can have
Garrick Beck, 58, of Santa Fe, N.M., was a participant at the Wyoming
gathering. In a telephone interview Friday, Mr. Beck said he had been
attending gatherings since 1972 and had seen increasing harassment
from Forest Service law enforcement in recent years.
"I would say that the conclusion that there has been a consistent
pattern of harassment is absolutely correct, and some of these
consistent patterns have been extremely provocative," Mr. Beck said.
He said confrontations would escalate more were it not for the
peaceful nature of the Rainbow participants.