The motto of Rainbow Farm in Vandalia, Mich., could have been “A Working-Class Hippie Is Something to Be.” On Memorial and Labor Day weekends from 1996 to 2000, a few thousand amplifier-factory workers, hippie girls and truckers’ wives-turned-political-activists camped out there to smoke weed, listen to rock ‘n’ roll, hear pro-legalization speeches and commune with the land and each other.
A 34-acre campground owned by a gay couple named Tom Crosslin and Rolland Rohm, Rainbow Farm was located in a hardcore Republican part of southwest Michigan. The county’s prosecutor, Scott Teter, believed he was “guided by the Lord” and crusaded against abortion and drugs. After several attempts to squelch the festivals, Teter succeeded in May 2001, when a police raid, ostensibly for tax evasion, nailed Crosslin and Rohm for growing marijuana in their basement. Then the government kidnapped Rohm’s son out of middle school – Rohm found out when the boy didn’t get off the bus that afternoon – and put him in foster care. Teter filed papers to seize the land as property used in a drug crime.
At the end of August, the couple gave away their possessions, torched the farm buildings and holed up on the land with rifles. The FBI shot Crosslin on Labor Day. Michigan state police gunned Rohm down the next morning.
Dean Kuipers’ Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke is a detailed account of the farm’s story, weaving in the couple’s biographies and drug-war history. Kuipers has unearthed an impressive amount of background material – I covered Rainbow Farm for High Times, and I learned a lot – though it’s occasionally marred by minor errors (misspelling Harry Anslinger’s name, garbling what I told him about Rainbow Farm’s ticket prices). Generally, however, he gets the flow of events right and tells the tale well.
Tom Crosslin grew up in a brawling hillbilly family in Elkhart, Ind., reaching adolescence as the weed culture of the ’60s was filtering into the factory town. After a stint as a trucker, he built a construction and real-estate business, living as a discreetly out gay man and hard-partying godfather to his crew. Rollie Rohm was a rock-fan stoner and troubled teenage father who joined the crew in 1990.
Sixties counterculture was a strong force in the industrial Midwest, from MC5’s rabble-rousing rock to the 1972 strike by longhaired workers at the GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio. Though gone from most cities by the ’80s, hippie culture survived in rural America. By 1990, “hemp festivals” – micro-Woodstocks with a pot-legalization agenda – had sprung up in places like Logansport, Ind., and Black River Falls, Wis. These provided the template for the “Hemp Aid” and “Roach Roast” events at Rainbow Farm.
The dominant atmosphere there was, as Kuipers puts it, “a cross between Woodstock and a union picnic” – people with a strong naïve sense of justice, enraged when they had to pee in jars to keep their jobs and wondering why their peaceful party rite brought down such violent repression. I connected to it immediately when I went to Hemp Aid in 1999. Coming from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I recognized a fellow low-rent counterculture community, a blessed find when my own was being crushed by a ruthless real-estate market and paramilitary evictions. Marijuana was central, but passing the spliff was often more about bonding than intoxication. Being able to burn one openly was liberating (especially coming from Rudy Giuliani’s New York, which led the nation in petty pot busts), but once you left the gates, the descending paranoia was palpable.
Some in this rural-stoner world had odd hippie-rightist libertarian politics. Among the characters involved in Rainbow Farm’s early days were an Indiana pot activist who opposed Social Security (while collecting SSI disability payments) and a Michigan Militia leader who claimed Biblical justification for herb. And while urban blacks would cite Amadou Diallo and Rodney King as examples of police violence, Crosslin was one of the many rural whites who would talk about Waco and Ruby Ridge. And his beliefs were strongly motivated by property rights, the idea that people could do whatever they wanted on his land. Rainbow Farm hired the Michigan Militia as unarmed security one year, but rejected their path in favor of nonviolence and electoral activism, trying to get a marijuana-legalization initiative on the state ballot in 2000 and 2001.
“We are pacifists,” Crosslin wrote Teter in March 1999, but he also warned that “we are all prepared to die on this land before we allow it to be stolen from us.”
The confrontation gradually intensified. In 2000, Crosslin rented an expensive stage setup, enabling him to bring in national acts like Merle Haggard and partial reunions of the Byrds and Big Brother and the Holding Company. (For Kuipers, the Haggard show was totemic, with people waving joints in the air when the singer stretched out the word “marijuana” to twist his 1969 anti-hippie anthem “Okie from Muskogee.”) But police checkpoints on the road in scared off hundreds of people, and the core crew disintegrated in financial acrimony. When the farm was raided the next spring, the die was cast.
Kuipers is telling an important story here. There has been a cultural war going on in America since the late ’60s: a war between the spiritual freedom symbolized by hippiedom and open homosexuality and the spiritual lockdown ordained by Mammonite fundamentalism, that rapacious hybrid of imperialist capitalism and dominionist Christianity that has become America’s state church. That war – in which one side controls the violence of state power – put Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm in a position where their defiance – mixed with mistakes and rage – would get them slaughtered.
It’s a story that should be remembered, not least because it was quickly obscured by another religious war. Rollie Rohm’s funeral took place on September 11, 2001.
One wonders how many Rainbow Farms loom in the future, in a country whose rulers denounce critics of their militaristic crusades as traitorous faggots. Or how many Rainbow Farms will find room to be born in a land where every physical and cultural corner is colonized by corporate greed.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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