Rainbow tally tops 10,000

Number of law enforcement officers up to about 100

The Steamboat Pilot/July 4, 2006
By Mike Lawrence

Legal clouds could cast shadows on the Rainbow gathering's sunniest moment.

As a crowd now estimated at 10,000 joins together this morning for a communal prayer circle to meditate on world peace and harmony, law enforcement officers have issued at least 531 violation notices to participants in the gathering, which the U.S. Forest Service maintains is illegal and taking place during dry conditions that present an "extreme" wildfire risk.

"We have had a growing number of violations for drug charges, and possession of drugs," Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said Monday.

Ottaviano said law enforcement officers have issued violation notices to Rainbow participants for possession of marijuana, cocaine, hashish, LSD, PCP, mushrooms, Ecstasy and methamphetamine.

The leading cause of violation notices, she added, continues to be "illegal occupancy" of national forest land. Federal law requires a special-use permit for any gathering of more than 74 people on national forest land. Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Ritschard has said a permit will not be granted to the Rainbow family. Forest Service officials denied a permit application June 22, citing fire safety concerns.

Ottaviano said about 90 cases were on the docket Monday for a makeshift federal court at a rural fire station in North Routt County. Monday marked the fifth day of court hearings for members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, which is holding its annual gathering this year on Routt National Forest land near Big Red Park, 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

The Rainbow crowd nearly doubled in size this weekend, as a steady stream of cars drove to the gathering site in anticipation of today's gigantic prayer circle, the culmination of the weeklong event scheduled to end July 7.

While the event officially began Saturday, some participants have been camping in the area for more than two weeks. Communal kitchens, a large theatrical stage fashioned like a pirate ship, Hare Krishna songs and dances, yoga classes, impromptu drum circles, a children's playground and colorful tent sites can all be seen and heard around the four-square-mile gathering site.

About 100 law enforcement officers, from various county, state and national agencies -- including the Routt County Sheriff's Office and Colorado State Patrol -- are working at the gathering.

In a three-day span over the holiday weekend, state patrol troopers made 250 "contacts" with drivers on County Road 129, Ritschard said. Six abandoned vehicles, including two roll-overs, along the road were expected to be towed away Monday.

Also over the weekend, six people were placed in custody at Routt County Jail on Rainbow-related charges, as "courtesy holds" for the Forest Service.

A jail official said the Rainbow arrests are placing a strain on the county facility.

"(The gathering) has definitely been a lot more work for us, for sure," said Sue Gaskill, detentions deputy with the sheriff's office. "We've been non-stop -- constantly busy."

The number of arrests and violations is drawing nationwide attention. A volunteer group that has advocated since 1993 for freedom of assembly rights -- especially for Rainbow gatherings -- sent a letter Sunday to Mark Rey, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

The letter disputed the arrests and violation notices, saying law enforcement at the gathering is responsible for "ongoing civil rights violations of unprecedented scale and scope." The letter, also sent to national Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, asked Rey to amend Forest Service "group use" policies regarding public lands.

"An intensive, invasive police presence continues, with persistent civil rights violations and a climate of fear around the site -- reportedly the worst ever," the letter reads. Scott Addison, coordinator for the Free Assembly Project in St. Louis, signed the letter.

Ottaviano is the spokeswoman for a National Incident Management Team managed by the Forest Service. Ottaviano is based in Washington, D.C., and was brought in to manage the gathering along with about 50 other team members, she said.

"I don't believe we are using excessive force," she said Monday. "Up until this weekend, we only had 30 officers (at the site) -- do you consider 30 officers dealing with 10,000 people excessive?"

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