Sunday, October 5, 2008

ACLU blasts Forest Service over Rainbow gathering

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service systematically harasses people who attend Rainbow Family gatherings on public lands, the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union contends in a report.

The ACLU began investigating this summer after a clash between members of the Rainbow Family — an informal group of self-styled hippies and peace activists — and Forest Service law enforcement officers.

About 7,000 members of the group attended its annual gathering this summer, which was held in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming, about 260 miles northwest of Cheyenne.

Forest Service officers fired pepper balls — similar to paintballs but containing a pepper substance — at Rainbow Family members on July 3.

Scores of witnesses told the ACLU that the officers lacked justification, but the Forest Service said officers fired only after a crowd threw sticks and rocks at them and otherwise interfered in the arrest of a man on drug charges.

The report also said officers used small violations as excuses to search participants' cars and campsites for drugs throughout the gathering.

"This type of harassment and general overzealous enforcement appear to have been the pattern in the USFS relationship with the Rainbow Family," the ACLU report said. "The USFS has set up roadblocks, safety checkpoints, rolling gauntlets, and have searched and ticketed people on the narrowest of pretexts."

John Twiss, national head of law enforcement for the Forest Service, said Friday that he strongly disagreed with the ACLU's report.

"There's a lot of drugs at the gathering, a tremendous amount of drugs," Twiss said. "Which often leads to overdoses, violence and a tremendous amount of problems."

The agency wrote only 18 citations for traffic and vehicle violations but wrote 139 citations and arrested eight people for drug offenses, he said.

Linda Burt, executive director of the ACLU in Wyoming, said her office interviewed about 60 Rainbow Family members who attended this year's gathering and reviewed court records of charges against members. The ACLU did not talk to Forest Service officials.

During the pepper balling, only one person the ACLU spoke with reported that someone might have thrown a stick at law enforcement. The rest said they saw nothing thrown, Burt said.

In an interview Thursday, Burt said that the ACLU is not planning to sue, but that she hopes Congress looks hard at the issue. The ACLU sent its report to members of Wyoming's congressional delegation.

"Certainly people do have that right to peaceable assembly under the Constitution," 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 peaceable assembly."

Twiss was among the officers who responded to the disturbance at this year's Rainbow Family gathering. He described the notion that Forest Service officers searched people or vehicles for drugs without probable cause as "nonsense."

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