A Hard Rain(bow) is Going to Fall: Permisiveness or Domination — Is There a Third Way?

When I showed up at the Montana Rainbow Gathering and unknowingly camped across the main trail from a large fenced area with a menacing “Enter at Your Own Risk” sign, I had no idea that these neighbors would shape and impact not only my experience that week, but the experience of those who participated in the Nonviolent Communication workshops I came to offer as well.

Initially I found it amusing that this group of people would choose to identify their camp as “The Projects.” “How strange that the elements of outside society are re-creating themselves here,” I thought. I had never heard of this camp despite this being my fifth national rainbow gathering. Many of the other rainbow attendees refer to this crowd as “crusties.” The typical Project camper, of which there were a few dozen it seemed, is a traveler (hitchhiker, train hopper) with dirty black and grey clothes, usually with patches and holes, but more of the latter. They were loud and raucous, ignoring the rainbow policy of “No alcohol in the gathering!” asking passersby to give them snacks, and setting off fireworks till the wee hours of the morning (another rainbow no-no with the dangers of forest fires, not to mention people wanting to experience the rejuvenation of the quiet forest outside city limits).

It didn’t end there though. This group was on one side of many conflicts throughout the week. I don’t think they always “started” it per se, but they did seem to be purposefully antagonizing those around them with such antics as putting logs and digging holes in the path at night, so that people walking through without a flashlight would trip. Ouch. My approach to this was to just go around, because I quickly came to the conclusion that the more people reacted to their behavior in any way, the more things escalated. I also saw what they were doing as mostly harmless, a letting off of steam that builds up from being in cities too long.

Sometimes these folks got into fights with each other, which once again didn’t bother me as much as some other people. It seemed like consensual fighting, more letting off steam. This is just what these people did for fun. It’s not my idea of a good time, but different strokes for different folks. Sometimes it did seem that people got involved who were not so consensual about it, however, and that’s when it became really dramatic. During these times, I found myself in a conundrum. Despite my skills with NVC, there was simply too much going on for me to see any meaningful way I could contribute to defusing a brawl. There were so many people yelling, there were already people from Shantisena (the rainbow peacekeeping infrastructure) trying to help, that all I could do was give silent empathy to all involved from the sidelines, and try to help the sensitive souls of bystanders by inviting them over to my camp, Empathic Rejuvenation, to relax and ground.

During these times, I wondered if this was a situation for protective use of force. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), made this distinction between using force to protect health and safety, and using force to punish–punitive use of force. The second would be considered violence in the NVC system. For me the line between these two things gets really blurry though. Although most NVCers, including myself, would see capital punishment as punitive use of force, proponents could argue it’s protective in the sense that it can discourage others from killing people (whether or not this is the case, people can and certainly do argue it). One of our options, that was never acted on, was to ask the police overseeing the gathering to intervene with this camp. I was even convinced for a day or two that this would be a good course of action, mainly because I was sick of the fireworks.

But, I thought, wouldn’t I be hypocritical if I asked the police to intervene for my cause (no fireworks) but oppose them for intervening in other cases? There are many “illegal” things happening at a rainbow gathering–people walk around nude, have their dogs off leashes, and bring a variety of blacklisted substances for recreational or spiritual use. No, I didn’t want to promote such an arbitrary double standard. I want to let go of brute force as a solution to minor problems, and find other creative ways to deal with social challenges. What this meant in this case, was until we found a better way to work with this group of people, we had to default to putting up with them in the meantime. In the grand scheme of things, walking around logs and holes is not that big of an inconvenience. I’d like to save protective force for more important things–such as when there really are nonconsensual fights, although in this case brute force didn’t seem to help with that either, just more escalation.

I still don’t know what creative solution would work for the Projects and the rest of the rainbows to live together in peace. One thought I have is to work with the Shantisena crew next year, offering them the powerful tool of NVC-style empathy, both for their own rejuvenation and to use in the midst of conflict. This idea inspires me; I see it as a new frontier in human development (which I also see in the gathering as a whole). It is painful to me to see how quickly some of the people who say we want a new world resorted to brute force in the face of The Projects, a tactic of the so-called “old paradigm.” I believe looking at situations through the lens of human needs helps to defuse a lot of the “us vs. them” energy and open up at least the possibility for a solution that works for everyone involved. I hope that activists and rainbows and all cultural transformers will consider learning more about the NVC system for resolving conflict; it is one of the few things that gives me hope that the miracle of a more peaceful society will ever emerge.

Resources for learning NVC: BayNVC.org, (Also see Miki Kashtan’s blog “The Fearless Heart”) norcalnvc.org (in Chico, where I live) cnvc.org (Center for Nonviolent Communication, founded by Marshall Rosenberg)