Behind the Scenes: “The Co-op Wars” Movie Missed the Real Story

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“The Co-op Wars” premiered at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival in mid-May. It shows how one man known as Smitty organized a closed group (the Co-op Organization or “CO”) that aimed to transform the coops into a mass base for anti-capitalist organizing. The movie captures the flowering of the counterculture and the explosive growth of natural food co-ops in the Twin Cities and the Upper Midwest where the co-ops in turn became a community center for the counterculture. 

The movie accurately portrays the founding of the co-ops and the events leading up to the takeover of the People’s Warehouse by the Co-op Organization (CO) and the intense battles that followed. Through interviews with supporters and members of the CO, “The Co-op Wars” presents their case for transforming the co-ops from anarchistic promotion of whole foods and hippie culture to a base of working class organizing. However, the movie misreads the class and racial critique of the co-ops: that they excluded people who didn’t look like them. And it ignores the role of women who were in leadership of the CO. Despite this, “The Co-op Wars” is well worth watching for anyone interested in avoiding the mistakes of Boomer revolutionaries and activists on both sides of the co-op struggle.  

The film’s soundtrack is supreme and makes the movie. It features Willie Murphy and other musicians from the Minneapolis West Bank music scene that spawned Bonnie Raitt, Spider, Ray, and Koerner and many others. The music weaves together a series of interviews, photographs and a few old film clips. Expert editing enables the movie to tell the story of how the food co-ops grew out of the counterculture and anti-war movement in the early 1970s.

Class Struggle in the Coops

Smitty has a secretive past but is known to have been part of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a follower of its Executive Secretary, James Foreman. That path led through the SNCC/Black Panther Party merger and messy divorce, as well as The Black Manifesto –an attempt to extract reparations for Black economic development– the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Workers Congress. That curving course led Smitty on a visit to the Winding Road Farm in Wisconsin. That commune was started by two of the founders of the Twin Cities co-ops.

During the summer of ’73 many co-op activists came and went at Winding Road Farm. They lived in a dug out and worked the vegetable garden. As they weeded and harvested lettuce and green peppers, they took turns reading from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, commonly called “the Little Red Book.” The produce was trucked to the Twin Cities and sold at the co-ops.

Smitty, a well-muscled black man in his mid-twenties, was an intense observer. Bob, an exuberant, skinny white man in the same age bracket, was a well-known figure in the Twin Cities co-ops and leaned toward anarchism. Smitty was a charismatic leader and skilled organizer. Bob became his first organizer. They visited many of the dozen or so food co-ops in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Smitty observed from a vegetable tray or a bin of whole grains while Bob chatted and got the latest local news and gossip at Selby Coop in St. Paul, North Country, and Seward Co-op and the People’s Warehouse in Minneapolis.

They identified activists who were serious about continuing revolutionary change. Smitty focused on woman leaders with working class backgrounds. Selected activists were recruited into study groups on “The Woman Question” and “The National Question.” They studied Marxist texts written by Stalin. Stalin and Mao were favorites within the New Communist Movement, which was growing rapidly. Stalin’s crimes are well known — but he had a direct writing style and clearly laid out how minorities and women were oppressed by capitalism. Studying Stalin was also a test of an activist’s commitment: if you were able to overcome the deeply ingrained fear of Stalin and struggle to understand his words, you would be able to take on other challenges.

The Paris Peace Treaty of 1973 effectively ended the American War in Vietnam. Combined with reforms of the military draft, it meant the end of the anti-war movement as a social force. The FBI’s COINTELPRO projects shattered the Black Liberation movement and also targeted anti-war leaders. 

Tens of thousands of student activists had been radicalized through the Sixties social revolution. And many of them came to Marxism and anti-imperialism. But few organizations had concrete plans to organize as the Sixties movements disintegrated. And Smitty did.

The co-ops would be an open form for organizing working class people. Leading activists would be pulled aside, provided political education, tested and –if they passed the tests– continue to be developed as a political cadre. In addition to providing good food, the natural foods co-ops would be a means of educating people about the capitalist food system and providing them both job and organizational skills. The CO started the Youth Farm Program. The cadre recruited working class youth from the neighborhoods as well as farmers in western Wisconsin. The youth would work and live on farms. They helped with hay baling and chores. There were social and educational events to promote cultural ties and educate people about the food system. And in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, the CO opened a “Working Woman and Man Bookstore.”

By the winter of 1974, the CO had taken over the Beanery, a failing co-op in south Minneapolis. They had a strong presence in the Selby Co-op in the heart of St. Paul’s Black community. They worked with black community organizers in the Bryant-Central area of south Minneapolis to create a new co-op. Half of the workers’ collective ran the People’s Warehouse, the distribution center for co-ops in the Twin Cities and throughout a five-state area. The CO promoted selling canned goods, sugar, and white flour products that most working-class people were used to. This was anathema to whole foods purists. The CO advocated bookkeeping and formal organization within the anarchic co-op stores. And they critiqued the white hippie culture that tended to exclude People of Color and working-class people. 

Some people who lined up with the CO and were seen to have potential were asked to move into “organizational households.” These were collectives of 3 or so people living in apartments that observed strict security rules, including not providing your address or phone number to anyone outside of the CO. That alone split many friendships. 

A CO organizing strategy was to draw sharp distinctions to “heighten the contradiction.” This pushed people to take a stand for one side or the other. And it served to separate revolutionaries from liberals. In addition to the food co-ops, the CO recruited many leading activists from other groups including the Twin Cities Women’s Union and the New American Movement, headquartered in Minneapolis — a predecessor of the Democratic Socialists of America. On May 5, 1975, the CO occupied the People’s Warehouse, with the support of most warehouse workers and the nascent black led co-op. The white Left split right down the middle. 

Unfortunately for the CO, most co-op activists and shoppers were turned off by the militance and Marxist rhetoric. The CO had few connections with working people in the c-oop neighborhoods and the issues the CO was raising didn’t resonate with them. The CO had done little organizing outside of the co-op base, except for Bryant-Central neighborhood. And the main community organizer in that neighborhood was Mo Burton, a former Black Panther. Smitty’s leadership style tolerated little or no dissent. And the two men clashed. CO members tried to intimidate Burton with threats of violence and of burning his truck. They only succeeded in losing influence in that neighborhood and sabotaging the co-op before it opened. 

In response to the warehouse occupation, many local co-ops formed a new distribution system. Soon the alternative warehouse gained the business of the majority of co-ops in the Twin Cities and throughout the region. During the winter, the financial position of the People’s Warehouse became desperate. The CO tried to forcibly take over several key co-ops in Minneapolis. The CO had also failed to solidify legal control of either the People’s Warehouse or Selby Coop in St. Paul. Then, in the spring of 1975, the CO lost control of both.

After the co-op defeats, the CO declared itself disbanded. But the cadre organization Smitty had organized was very much alive. Smitty launched two internal campaigns: one was a Maoist style “two-line struggle,” ostensibly a discussion around the cause of the co-op defeat. The second was the “Ideological Transformation Process,” an effort that built on the conscious raising groups from the women’s and civil rights movements. People were required to go through an in-depth personal history review to understand their ingrained racism, sexism and class oppression. The two simultaneous processes, one theoretical and one deeply personal, revealed a basic split in the CO cadre. There were those who wanted to debate our experience and figure out the next steps. And there were those who were willing to trust Smitty and submit to changing their bourgeois traits to build a revolutionary organization. 

Smitty let the debate go on for a couple of months and then acted. The CO had already developed a secure network where unit members only knew who their contact was, and not the next step in the chain towards “CL,” or Central Leadership. Smitty and his lieutenants labeled that network the “Economic Arm” of the Organization, then set it aside. They created the “the Military Arm,” an even more secretive network of small units who arrived  wearing dark glasses at the doorstep of dissidents, demanding all organizational papers before purging them from the Organization.

The CO was now known to its members simply as “The O.” The Beanery stayed open for a year or two and there were some attempts to organize new co-ops and continue with the Youth Farm Program. Our Daily Bread, the St. Paul co-op bakery, continued and became a commercial bakery. A co-op daycare center and the Minneapolis bookstore also survived. But increasingly, the cadre focused on “ideological development.” As political organizing ceased and the cadre became more and more isolated, membership dropped and “The O” became more and more of a cult as the years progressed. 

Learning from the Past

The co-op struggle in the Twin Cities holds valuable lessons for socialists in the 2020s. And there are a few published accounts. “Storefront Revolution” by Craig Cox tells the story from the side of the CO’s opponents. “Inside Out” by Alexandra Stein explores the cult stage of “The O” and its ending. But I don’t know of a political analysis of the co-op struggle from a socialist perspective. 

After the failure of the People’s Co-op Movement, Smitty claimed that taking over the co-ops was never his goal. He hinted that the goal was instead to create a cadre of white revolutionaries, then train them in technical, financial and legal skills that could be used to support the revolution. Many of us who stayed in “The O” believed we were part of a group of revolutionaries that grew out of the Black Liberation Movement. Instead we discovered there was nothing beyond Smitty. And our work in The O became more and more removed from any political or revolutionary context. Instead of funding the revolution, we were funding an individual. And many women became victims of sexual abuse. All true.

While many of us learned important skills and lessons from the experience, one former cadre told me that her main takeaway was, “Mistrust any organization. And the only way to make real change is through organization.”

If you look at the CO as an organizing campaign, the first stage of creating a disciplined cadre group within a mass movement was remarkably successful. At one point, over 200 people were activists for the CO. The strategy of creating a mass base for socialist organizing within the co-ops was a good one. Where things went wrong was that the “contradictions were heightened too quickly.” Or in Mao’s words, “contradictions between the people” were treated as “contradictions between the people and the enemy.” Of course, in Marxist-Leninist and other hierarchical organizations, it is often the leader that determines who is the enemy.

A few things we can learn from this campaign:

  • Lesson #1 – Democracy is important and anyone who cannot accept criticism is not worthy of leadership.

The women and men within the CO did take the liberation of women seriously. We spent countless hours examining our internalized male chauvinism and sexist subordination. This wasn’t just talk. Sharing housework equally, promoting women into leadership, encouraging men to get jobs in childcare and women in auto mechanics or machining: All of this forced us to struggle with the social conditioning we were raised with. At the same time, sexual exploitation by the leader was secretive and abusive. It damaged many of my comrades. I had a hard time holding both truths in my mind: women’s equality within our families and units and the horrendous stories of exploitation by the man we saw as our iconic leader.  

  • Lesson #2 – Social hierarchies of class, race and gender recreate themselves in all organizations, even those that seek to change the status quo.

 Or in the words of the first person outside of the O that I told the story to, “If a leader is strongly promoting an ideal, look long and hard at his practice, because often they do the opposite of what they teach.”

– Robbie O.

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