TRIBAL CULTURE IN LONDON

by Julian Cook

The Hopi Indians of North America have an old prophecy. It says that when the earth is sick and all the animals have disappeared, there will come a tribe of people; people of all races and all cultures, people who believe in deeds not in words. They will restore the earth to its former beauty. These will be known as the Warriors of the Rainbow.

The inhabitants of the One World Rainbow Centre in north London are one part of just such a tribe. They are a fluctuating, loose-knit group, most of them in their early twenties. Armed with a mixture of resolute idealism and practical know-how, they have established their home in an enormous disused church, which they have turned into an "environmental community centre, providing space for a wide range of positive and creative projects."

Phoenix, one of the co-founders of the Rainbow Centre, explains how it all started:

"The original Rainbow tribes came out of the pop-festival scene of the sixties and seventies, but our group actually got together because we were disillusioned with what had come out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

"The world leaders at the summit said they were going to create this 'Agenda 21' environmental blueprint for the 21st century. But what they did was get together and talked and argued and waffled. So basically we were just a group of people sitting round deciding we'd got to so something about it. So then we started squatting different buildings saying that we were setting up Rainbow Environment Centres."


But for a group that had no money and no friends in high places, this was going to be an uphill struggle. Over the next eighteen months they occupied, or "recycled," a succession of empty buildings including a department store, a bank and a property belonging to McDonalds.

No wide-eyed flower children these; but strictly in touch with the realities of the 1990s, they soon learnt how to manipulate the media and negotiate with the owners. They went to the property owners' offices and presented them with a business plan. They reminded the owners that their public image could suffer if there was a high-profile and heavy-handed eviction of a homeless environmental group.

All this gained them time and concessions. But, ultimately, evicted they were, from building after building.

"But you can't kill the spirit. We knew eventually we'd find somewhere where we'd be allowed to stay for quite a while."

Finally, just before Christmas in 1993, they squatted the disused church in Kentish Town, north London. "We thought if they tried to kick us out, we'd ring them up and say: 'Hold on - it's the middle of Christmas. Why is the Church of England, which has got thousands of empty buildings, kicking homeless people out, and saying they don't care about the environment.'

"So the church people came in, and over the first month they were pretty angry. But after the first few months they'd actually sit down and have a cup of tea and start to chat; and they were still saying: 'Oh we might take you to court,' but now, finally, they're happy that we're here - glad to see we're doing something. So we're as good as in here, really."


The tribe describes itself as non-hierarchical, as Susanna, a longstanding Rainbow-person explains: "There are no leaders in the normal sense of the word. There are people who are natural focalisers and co-ordinators, and they seem to rise spontaneously in the moment. But it's not like a career-path. Obviously the people who've been here the longest have the most experience of how it works." All around the walls of the large communal cooking and dining area, also used for meetings and workshops, are posters and banners that encourage you to "Dance your dream awake" or to "Disobey - their power comes from obedience." Susanna describes the Rainbow People as an eclectic tribe; and there certainly is quite a variety of styles and appearance on show - everything from long hair and beards, shaven heads and multi-studded ears and noses, to the standard sweatshirt and jeans, stripy Angora sweaters, or just an old boilersuit with oily hands to match.

At 11 o'clock (not watch time, but the rather more flexible "Rainbow Time") on a Monday morning, the "caretakers," mainly people who live at the Centre and take turns to welcome people and show them round, are gathered for their weekly circle.


This "Talking Circle" is the conventional Rainbow medium for airing views - a kind of non-hierarchical meeting in which each person in turn has a chance to speak and be heard. Joining hands in a circle, they chant together:

We are a circle.
We are a circle;
With no beginning
And never ending.

To join in this simple but powerful ritual is to experience a sense of connectedness created by the circle. "You get a kind of consensus, as it were, just by hearing how many different stories there are to tell," says Susanna. "A lot of people say things which are quite mad, or quite meaningless, but here they have a space to say it."


This morning Pok wants to announce the musical programme for that evening's party, and that he really has to rush off and do some busking. Stella wants to suggest using some Sikh warriors as security for the forthcoming open day. She recommends martial arts as representing "one of the darker colours of the Rainbow." Headstrong John announces that a modem has been donated, and the Centre will shortly be connected to the Internet.

This particularly urban clan of the Rainbow Tribe differs in many ways from other Rainbow groups. The doors of the centre are open to anyone. People can just wander in off the street and they will be made welcome. So the tribe find themselves dealing with the kinds of social problems - drink, drugs, homelessness, mental illness - that the rest of society no longer has the will or resources to tackle.


This makes for a different kind of Rainbow Centre. As Susanna explains: "Everybody who comes here is, in some way, an outlaw or outside of the consensus reality. We get the traditional Rainbow Gathering people come and visit us, and they're stunned because this place functions like any other Rainbow Gathering circle; but a lot of the things that are being discussed are drink, drugs, money and stuff. We manage to maintain the Rainbow spirit under what they would see as very difficult circumstances."

But this demanding open-door policy also means that they are not a separated, isolated group, but draw in people from the local community. The knowledge of the local area that this brings is indispensable, as the Rainbow Centre receives no outside funding and few of its members have conventional jobs.

So they feed themselves largely from what the local market hasn't sold, or from what the supermarkets have left for them out the back of the store. Other necessities such as clothes, tools - and even computers - are provided by using what other people have thrown away, or by approaching local businesses for their leftovers. Even a local school is now becoming involved, offering to hold car-boot sales to raise money for the Centre. Members of the tribe also bring in money through performing music and other forms of public entertainments. (All donations are welcome.)

The group is just part of a burgeoning nationwide movement that calls itself DIY Culture. It is a response to the growing realisation that it is "everyone's responsibility to create the world we want to live in." As the Rainbow Centre's publicity handout expresses it:


DIY Centres make use of skills and resources within the community that would otherwise be wasted, and provide a space where people can share their ideas and solutions for a sustainable 21st century, and put them in action.

So the Rainbow Centre recycles not only the physical resources otherwise being wasted by society, but also its human resources. "There are literally millions of people out of work," as Phoenix stresses, "with hundreds of skills. Everybody who comes in here - it takes them time sometimes - has skill and multiple skill. The idea is to bring out the creativity within people."

He also describes some of the aims of the Centre. "The idea is to get displays and interactive working examples: geodesic domes, alternative technology, suppressed technology, free-energy devices, anti-gravity devices. We try to have information on every aspect of the environment here. There's a lot of different projects that we do here - there's workshops and there's music events, and everything from Tai-Chi, Shiatsu, drama..."

(He adds in retrospect: alternative health, squatting, "travelling," parties, direct action, nuclear disarmament, human/animal rights, housing advice and global information.)


The group is currently planning a travelling environmental "circus" - The Rainbow Earth Circus (TREC) - which is intended to raise awareness of the environment all over the country, through a variety of displays and performance. They hope to encourage people to organise and remind their local council of its obligations under Agenda 21, and then offer the council a self-funding means of implementing these in return for providing an empty council building.

"The Rainbow Tribe in London has been trying to get more people empowering themselves to do things for their own lives in their own areas," says Susanna. "That can also mean local non-violent direct action - either squatting empty buildings or going onto sites where they're chopping down trees, and getting in the way of people who are trying to chop them down, or building tree-houses in them."

This is the function of the Rainbow Tribe that she believes really fuses it together. "There is a very strong trust which is the tribal one. That's why actions are so important, because in a front-line situation, you're actually put into a position of defending the group, or whatever, as a tribe. And that, in a sense, defines the tribe. It changes your perception of who one's group is - and that is unique."

The tribe offers young people a sense of acceptance and belonging often missing in their original families. So it has attracted a lot of formerly angry and aggressive young men who used to go on demonstrations to riot and fight with the police. But their experience with the Rainbow People has taught them that you're actually much stronger if you don't use violence.

"So you get 20 year-olds giving lectures on how strong it makes one to stay fluffy" - in other words to stay good-natured and peaceful, even when faced with hostility and aggression.

And this kind of strength is not the only quality that these Rainbow Warriors need. "Everything Rainbow has achieved," says Phoenix, "is the end-result of lots of ideas, lots of energy, lots of creative visualisation, lots of going on actions, lots of talking and networking, talking to people about it, going out and gathering all the pieces of the puzzle and never giving up, really. You've just got to keep going and keep going and keep going, and hopefully we'll make it into an environmentally-friendly 21st century.

"Never give up. You can't kill the spirit."

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