The Minnesota Co-op Wars: Lessons in Organizing Gone Wrong

A new documentary, The Co-op Wars , tells a story of conflict in the Minneapolis-St. Paul food co-ops and counterculture. The conflict was precipitated by a group of community activists (my comrades in the Coop Organization or CO) who took over the People’s Warehouse in Minneapolis in 1975. 

       The documentary accurately portrays the mistakes of the activists in an era when the mass movements of the sixties were ebbing, but it misses the historical context of the United States in crisis, and the intense repression of activists by the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) led by the FBI, including assassinations and defamations of Black activists and the New Communist Movement. And the movie misses the class analysis of  the CO, which criticized the co-op culture as white and middle-class. The movie also ignores the role of women’s leadership in the CO. In spite of this, The Co-op Wars is worth watching for anyone interested in avoiding the mistakes made by revolutionaries and activists in the 1970s.

The natural food co-ops grew out of the youth rebellion against the Vietnam War, racism, and corporate culture. Activists created dozens of cooperatives in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The biggest of these was the People’s Warehouse, which supplied food to many co-ops across the Midwest. 

By 1975, the anti-war movement as a social force was fading, and the Black Liberation Movement, the American Indian Movement, and other movements were shattered by infighting and  government repression. Many Minnesota activists were looking for a way to continue the movements. A new group, called the Cooperative Organization (CO),  headed by Black founder Theophilus Smith (Smitty), stepped in to fill the gap.  Smitty was an activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had just had a messy fallout with the Black Panther Party. He saw the potential for the co-ops as  a base for multiracial, anticapitalist programs that would provide healthy food, jobs, and  organizational skills to working-class people while teaching them about the capitalist food system. Smitty organized Marxist study groups and carefully evaluated and recruited local activists, including many founders of the co-ops. 

In 1974, the CO took over the Beanery, a failing co-op in South Minneapolis. It was to be a model for co-op transformation. The CO started selling canned goods, sugar, and the white flour products that most working-class people were used to. This type of food was anathema to whole-food purists. The CO also advocated formal accounting procedures and organizational structures, a red flag to the anarchists who ran most other co-ops. Things broke down further when the CO criticized the white “hippie” culture for excluding Black people and working-class people. 

The CO organizing style was provocative and forced people to line up for or against transforming the co-ops. The debate spread into all the co-ops and most left organizations, including the national office of the New American Movement, one of DSA’s predecessors.  The CO recruited a majority of the People’s Warehouse collective. On May 5, 1975, CO supporters occupied the People’s Warehouse, some brandishing  metal pipes as weapons. The conflict spread to co-ops across the Midwest. 

Most co-op activists and shoppers were turned off by the militance and Marxist rhetoric of the CO.  The CO initially aligned with Black community members at the Selby Coop in the Rondo area of St. Paul  and in building a co-op in the Bryant-Central neighborhood of Minneapolis. But Smitty had a falling out with a neighborhood leader, former Black Panther Mo Burton. He tried to intimidate Burton with threats of violence and had CO members firebomb Burton’s truck. The tactics only succeeded in destroying the Bryant-Central co-op and alienating many in the Black community.

In response to the People’s Warehouse occupation, most local co-ops formed new distribution systems that bypassed the CO. The CO tried to forcibly occupy two other co-op stores in February and March 1976, but ended up losing Selby co-op, their largest store. Soon the CO lost legal control of the People’s Warehouse and declared itself disbanded. Instead, it became a  highly secretive group known as “The Organization” dedicated to creating ideologically pure, anti-racist and anti-sexist cadres.  

Many of us who stayed in what we called “The O” believed we were part of a group of revolutionaries connected to a network of Black revolutionaries.  We went underground, ran a few programs (including co-op food stores, a bakery, a garage, a daycare center, and the Elizabeth Blackwell Women’s Health Center), lived collectively, got jobs in computer technology and health care, and paid most of our salaries as dues to The O. Eventually, we realized that instead of funding the revolution, we were funding one man. Many of the female members were sexually abused, and both male and female members began to turn away from “The O,” as a failed social experiment, or even worse, a cult.

The United States faced a social revolution in the 1960s and 1970s . Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and the ruling class broke the back of that revolution and re-invented global capitalism. In the 2020s, we again face a set of planetary crises caused by neoliberal capitalism. We must learn what we did wrong and what they did right. Here are a few small but important lessons from a good organizing idea that went very wrong. 

  • Lesson One: The strategy of creating a mass base for socialist organizing within the co-ops was a good one, but the CO treated potential allies like the enemy, a common occurrence in political and social movements.
  • Lesson Two:  Democracy is important, and anyone who cannot accept criticism is not worthy of leadership. The organization collapsed in the early 1990s when a number of us criticized Smitty. Then stories of abuse came out. The horrendous stories of exploitation by the man we saw as our leader turned many of us off to political work for years. 
  • Lesson Three:  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 a friend, “If a leader is strongly promoting an ideal, look long and hard at his practice, because often he will do the opposite of what he is teaching.”
  • Lesson Four:  Offensive violence was counterproductive. It alienated us from co-op activists who agreed with our ideals. And it made working-class community members look at us as crazies. 

Further Readings with Lessons not Lectures or Reminiscences:

The Making of Black Revolutionaries by James Forman

Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum

Underground by Mark Rudd

A version of this article was previously published in The Little Red Letter, the newsletter of the Twin Cities DSA. The Co-op Wars will be shown on PBS this fall. Check the website for schedule.

Mill City Co-op members rally to defend their co-op from takeover by the CO, January, 1976. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Mill City Co-op members rally to defend their co-op from takeover by the CO, January, 1976. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.