U.S. Forest Service officers pointed weapons at children and fired rubber bullets and pepper spray balls at Rainbow Family members while making arrests Thursday evening, according to witnesses.
"They were so violent, like dogs," Robert Parker told reporter Deborah Stevens of the libertarian-oriented, Round Rock, Texas-based We the People Radio Network [www.wtprn.com] after the incident.
"People yelled at them, 'You're shooting children,'" Parker said during an interview on the network's "Rule of Law Show."
About 7,000 people have arrived at the gathering near Big Sandy in the Wind River Mountains for the annual Gathering of the Tribes, a seven-day event of fellowship, partying including illicit drug use, praying, and living on the land.
They camp on Forest Service land around the country every year, but the Rainbow family's nonhierarchical methods - no one can speak for the Rainbows, much less sign a land use permit - often have stymied their relationships.
But rarely do the tensions escalate into violence.
The Forest Service's Incident Command Team in Rock Springs issued a press release Friday morning, saying officers were patrolling the main meadow of the gathering Thursday evening when they contacted a man who fled and was later caught. Another Rainbow was detained for physically interfering.
Officers began to leave the area with the subjects and were circled by Rainbow participants, according to the news release from Rita Vollmer of the Incident Command Team.
Ten officers were escorting the detained subjects when about 400 Rainbows surrounded the squad, and more officers were requested, according to the news release.
"The mob began to advance, throwing sticks and rocks at the officers. Crowd control tactics were used to keep moving through the group of Rainbows," the news release said.
Other law enforcement agencies were called to the scene, the news release said.
Officers made five arrests; one officer suffered minor injuries and was cleared by a local hospital; and a government vehicle sustained damage, the news release said.
"This lawless behavior is unacceptable and we will not tolerate it," said John Twiss, Forest Service director of law enforcement. "The safety of our employees, public and Rainbow participants is our number one priority, and we will continue to protect everyone on the national forest."
Vollmer of the Forest Service Incident Management Team did not return calls requesting comment Friday.
Rainbow Family members' accounts told a different story.
One member who identified himself only as "Ryan" told Stevens he was with his two children in his tent at the Rainbows' Kid Village north of the main meadow where the major prayer circles and dinners are held.
One of the 10 officers pointed a pepper spray gun at him and his children, he said. His girlfriend was using the latrine outside when four officers came to her and asked if she was smoking marijuana.
The officers then ran through the Kid Village and through its kitchen, and chaos erupted, he said.
Other witnesses recounted seeing about 10 officers of the Forest Service's incident command team drag an older man from the woods near the Kid Village, according to interviews by Stevens.
A woman in the village told the officers to take their guns out of the Kid Village. An officer threw that woman to the ground and pulled her head back by her hair while she was being handcuffed, one Rainbow named Rick told Stevens.
"I got out and yelled, 'what the f-- are you doing?'" Rick said. "That got it started."
The officers backed up in a defensive position, and some used their Tasers on Rainbows, he said.
Rainbows called for their crisis management team, and Rainbow family elders urged the crowd to remain calm, he said. However, the crowd kept moving, and the Forest Service officers began randomly spraying the crowd with pepper spray bullets.
The officers, with their two suspects in custody, found an exit trail from the main meadow, and the peacekeepers urged the crowd to let them go, he said.
"These people deliberately, for hours, were aggressively working the camp over and working the people over," Ryan said. "They chose the kiddie village - the one place, the kids, to take their stand and create a riot, and I bought into it. … They were looking for an excuse to do some damage to us."
Ryan's partner, Feather, told Stevens she was pepper-sprayed, and saw another Rainbow with welts all over his body.
Feather also recounted seeing a couple with a young child and an infant who had just emerged from the woods and didn't know what was happening.
The couple asked the officers what was going on, and the officers pointed their guns at the children. The officers walked away, but one turned around and pointed his rifle at the baby, she told Stevens.
Robert Kinn of Afton told the Casper Star-Tribune in an interview Friday that he and his family had been camping and drove to Big Sandy because they'd never been to a gathering.
Forest Service officers gave Kinn a citation and a $175 ticket for allowing someone to ride on his vehicle's trailer, and said the officers weren't polite. "I was scared, was harassed."
Kinn and his family went to the main circle for dinner, when they heard people yelling about needing help to put out a fire in the Kid Village.
About 10 minutes later, people came back to tell the main circle the fire was over, and the crowd resumed eating, he said.
One of the senior Rainbows gathered the crowd and explained the clash with the Forest Service, and another man showed where rubber bullets hit him in the stomach, Kinn said.
Kinn and his family drove home that night, he said.
Reach Tom Morton at (307) 266-0616, or at Tom.Morton@trib.com.