In my humble opinion, the gatherings from 1999 to 2008 were the height of the conflicts between the United States Forest Service (USFS) and those who chose to gather and pray for world peace and the positive evolution of the planet on the 4th day of July. For brief recounts of those years, click here.
I believe that the Forest Service was trying to discourage family from coming home with harassment, legal maneuvers, sending people to prison, issuing untold number of B.S. tickets (see blog sidebar), and doing their best to either stop the gatherings altogether or to convert them into a version of Burning Man -- i.e. an event that charges admission and has porta potties, paid staff, etc. (no disrespect to Burning Man).
Many people who still gather today, attended some or all of the worst years. Now don't get me wrong, there were some amazingly beautiful moments during those years - the 4th in Michigan when we didn't know what would happen, but we all silently crossed the bridge to the west bank while being smudged by the bridge fairy and in our peace and prayer, defied the Forest Service to make us leave. The dragonfly who landed on the clasped hands of me and another sister during the om. That morning still brings tears to my eyes. This family was incredibly strong and powerful in our silence and prayer.
However, for those of you who did not gather during the worst years, I would like to share my thoughts and ideas of what the gathering was like, what I feel I and others could have done better. I also offer this personal reflection as what I think we as a family could do better in the future if, under the new administration, the USFS is forced to or decides to change their strategy. As an FYI, as of last year in Vermont, the USFS strategy is that although we are an illegal event, they will treat it as a recreation event and limit their interference. (Yes I hear those of you who were in Vermont last year groaning -- but that was limited interference compared to the height of the conflicts).
One tactic some people took was to try to avoid being a "group" with the argument that if we are not a "group," the group use regs do not apply to us. The results was that we stopped having councils and we stopped using the words council, counsel and circle to explain what we do. We also stopped trying to reach a consensus for much of anything based on the argument that if a council can reach consensus, then we have a governing body that can sign a permit. We were trying to prove we were less organized then we were.
IMHO, the fallout from that is that we slowly drifted away from being a family and being more like small groups of people who gather at the beach to watch fireworks on the 4th of July. Both things are great but very, very different.
Without cooperation between all of us when we gather, we lose the big picture, fail to deal with problems collectively, and loose our focus. Now council/counsel/circle is not the only way cooperation happens, but it is the way that is most opening to all bellies at the gathering. For example, if no council is called to discuss parking, then people park where ever, many people's cars get towed, and then when it gets really bad, a few people off to the side are forced into dealing with the situation. While counciling may take longer and have its own challenges, it is the process that insures that all voices are heard, we are doing what is best for the gathering (not a handful of people), and it allows less experienced gatherers to learn from more experienced gatherers. By the way, it also allows less experienced gatherers to share new and potentially better ideas with everyone. Fresh eyes can see opportunities tired eyes don't see.
We and by we, I also mean "I," spent too much time focusing on the USFS and not enough time taking care of our own house. What I mean by this is that were were endless calls, discussions, ideas spent trying to figure out how to get the Group Use Regs struck down, modified to accommodate a unsigned operating plan, and/or grant the gathering an "alternative means" to comply with the regulation (per the regulations themselves). We had circles with the USFS at gatherings, side conversations, discussions at kangaroo courts, and conference calls with the USFS.
I personally spent years walking with the USFS to insure that there was a witness to their harassment and my family knew they were coming. These were the years when yelling Six-Up could get you arrested. These were the years when some or much of my family thought Shanti Sena meant law enforcement. These were the years when the conflict was at its worst. Why did I spend so much time walking with the USFS? Very few people were willing to do it then. 5 or 6 people were trying to cover 8 hours a day, with multiple groups of USFS law enforcement officers. These were the years that if you tried to talk to a law enforcement officers, you might get taken to jail for "interfering with an officer."
Some of these years, digging shitters might get you a mandatory court appearance ticket so when the calls of "Six-Up" rang out, shitter diggers disappeared into the woods -- not a scenario that helps us all to stay healthy. Some years, our medical folks where harassed when trying to help the health of our family: cars were held up when trying to take people to the hospital, medical personnel tents were searched, and charges were brought for a host of issues against family trying to help family.
Many of these years, the USFS came into the gathering at dinner time on the third of July looking to serve warrants on people who missed their court dates. The years 2006 to 2008 were especially bad for this with the USFS engaging in escalating aggression and violence toward gathering participants. These were scary years and there were times that I was so scared I was shaking. I was afraid of what the USFS was doing to us, and I was afraid of what gathering participants might do to the USFS. Thankfully this is a wonderful family. We have always acted better than the USFS although that doesn't mean we have always acted as good as we could have. We are the peacekeepers the world needs now.
These are all hard issues to deal with and they do demand a lot of attention. If I have to do it all over again, there are some things I would change and some I wouldn't. I would still walk with the USFS as much as I can. It deescalates their behavior, tends to keep them on the trails instead of searching through people's campsites, and keeps my family from being arrested. But I would also make sure to spend more time participating in workshops, sitting in council/counsel/circle, and encouraging others to go about their business while ignoring the USFS as best they could.
I would encourage all of us to have councils/counsels/circles as much as possible. Even one council with 20 people changes the vibe of the area around them. I've been witness to this myself on more than one occasion. While trying to find a permanent resolution with the USFS is important, sharing our knowledge on how to gather with each other is even more important. If we forgot how to gather, then gatherings will stop.
I would encourage the USFS to sit in council with us. I would encourage the USFS to have their meeting with us in the Cooperations area (usually near INFO) so that all family are free to attend, listen in, ask questions, and share their ideas. However, as we do not control the USFS, I would strongly encourage that where ever the meetings with the USFS take place, the information is widely distributed and all people who can be peaceful with law enforcement attend. Remember, they tried to shut us down by imprisoning people they thought were leaders. That's only possible when a handful of people step up. When a thousand people step up, that doesn't happen. Be one of the thousand!
Protect the meek among us. Many of our meeker family stopped coming home during the bad years because it was all too much for them. We need the meek as much as we need the brave. Life is a balance and if we are going to create peace on earth, then we need what looks like peace to everyone, not just to some.
When I interact with the USFS, I would try to be kinder and gentler. While dealing with the USFS is a fact of life when we gather on National Forest Land, we can set the tone for our interactions, we can educate each other, and we can take more responsibility for protecting the natural resources and not rely on the USFS to be the muscle behind us.
Doing our own media outreach is critical. Many media outlets don't have the time to come to the gathering, so having people who can be reached by telephone helps a lot. The more people who volunteer to share their personal perspective about the gathering, the better. Doing outreach in the local towns is critical. The more people who volunteer to share their personal perspective about the gathering, the better.
During these years, the USFS tried to drive a wedge in the gathering between more hippy-like-gatherers and more dirty-kid-like gatherers. They stated in multiple town meetings that most of us were good, but the there was a criminal element among us that fit the description of dirty kids. We must always stand together and not allow anyone to blame problems on one set of gatherers. Now I know that some people cause more drama at gatherings than others, but that just means they are more in need of healing than others. We should focus our efforts on those who need healing -- what ever that means.
During the worst years of the conflict, we were slowly forgetting how to gather in a way that protects the land, maintains human health, and that allows other creatures to co-exist. IMHO the most important thing I and hopefully others can do if the conflict resurfaces is to keep sharing our collective knowledge, keep gathering how we gather, refrain from becoming reactive to the USFS and always project love and kindness -- even to law enforcement.
As an early gatherer has said repeatedly, "peace wins."