The ACLU of VT has received a significant number of complaints about law enforcement actions at the Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering in Mount Tabor. We're keeping a watchful eye on developments as the gathering continues. We hope gathering attendees will be allowed to exercise their rights to free expression and assembly without unnecessary disruption or an unreasonable police response.

The Rainbow Family (unofficial site) is a loosely knit, leaderless group of people from all over the country who, since 1972, annually gather in a national forest to celebrate nature, find community, and call for peace. The gathering, which culminates over the July 4 weekend, is expected to attract 10,000 or more people.

We’ve received complaints that police have taken heavy-handed and at times unlawful law enforcement actions that include checkpoint-like stops where people are being stopped for minor traffic violations and then -- absent any reasonable suspicion of drug activity -- held for up to an hour while a drug dog is brought in to sniff for odors of drugs. We’ve also been told that people are pressured to consent to searches of their person, vehicle, or belongings; that they are subjected to abusive and prolonged questioning by state, local, and federal law enforcement; and that citations under federal law for “petty federal offenses on public federal lands” are being issued.

The U.S. Forest Service has known about the planned gathering for some time; this is not some flash mob that caught law enforcement by surprise. As in other years, the Rainbow Family’s conduct is subject to a U.S.F.S. “Final Operating Plan” detailing the Family’s obligations to provide for participants’ health and safety, protect and rehabilitate the land and its flora and fauna, and respect the rights and privacy of members of the surrounding community. The U.S.F.S. annually allocates a half-million dollars specifically for law enforcement at the yearly gathering; U.S.F.S. “veterans” of these gatherings have been flown in from other states.

This year’s allegations of violations of constitutional rights seem to repeat a pattern that routinely occurs when the Rainbow Gathering comes to town. In the 1990s, a Rainbow Family participant obtained a nationwide injunction against unconstitutional U.S.F.S. checkpoints or roadblocks; the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that injunction, finding that the plaintiff had not established a likelihood that U.S.F.S. law enforcement would continue to harass the Family in the future. The court concluded its ruling, however, by expressing its “hope . . . that [the plaintiff] will not have to resort to legal action again to be free from future violations of her constitutional rights, and that the administrators of the Forest Service will ensure that the inappropriate conduct of 1996 is not repeated.” Based on the calls we have received already this year, and calls that other ACLU affiliates have fielded during past gatherings, it would appear that hope remains unfulfilled.

This is no different than how we have managed these events in the past,” said U.S.F.S. Special Agent— and this year’s “incident commander” -- Bill Mickle. That’s exactly the problem.

For those attending the gathering, here is some information about your rights:

  • Do not give law enforcement a reason to pull you over or stop you – know the laws, and check your license, registration, and car to ensure that all meet legal requirements.
  • If stopped, the law only requires that you identify yourself. Avoid answering questions; invoke your right to remain silent.
  • If interacting with police, do not make quick movements, act aggressively, or disobey Regularly and politely ask, “Am I free to leave?”
  • Don’t consent to a search of your person, car, or belongings unless police have a warrant.
  • For more information, see our Know Your Rights with Police Wallet Card. Feel free to reproduce the card and share with your friends.

If other members of the public wish to support members of the Rainbow Family, you can help by visiting the access roads and event site (while parking and behaving lawfully) to observe police behavior. You can use your smartphone to record police interactions with Rainbow Family members (being careful, however, not to interfere with those interactions). U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has said he takes First Amendment rights “very seriously,” and you do not need a permit or permission to do this type of audio or video recording.

If you, as an observer or participant, believe you have witnessed or experienced an inappropriate search or seizure or other violation by law enforcement, feel free to contact us. Our contact information can be found at acluvt.org.

If you can’t make it to the gathering, you can still support those who have been targeted and cited into court by attending upcoming arraignment hearings in Rutland Federal Court on July 1st at 10 a.m. or in Burlington Federal Court on July 5th.

In the meantime, the ACLU of Vermont is preparing a letter to relevant law enforcement officials calling for an end to the targeting of Rainbow Gathering attendees or anyone else based on the exercise of their rights of assembly and free expression. Vermont has recently taken a step forward by adopting a policy that will help end profiling based on race, ethnicity, and national origin. Our local and federal police should also end any profiling of individuals based upon their exercise of constitutional rights. The right to be free from this type of policing is fundamental to the rule of law.

-- Jay Diaz and Lia Ernst, ACLU-VT staff attorneys/public advocates

Stay informed

ACLU of Vermont is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National