Co-op groceries may now bring to mind visions of organic produce and locally-produced cheese. But it was only a few decades ago that the co-ops were seen as intensely political places.
The co-op founders came out of the anti-war foment of the 1960s and early 1970s with a sharply anti-establishment bent. These politics were represented by the food they carried, as well as the co-ops’ intensely democratic structures, which rejected bosses in favor of collective-decision making.
“These were people who decided to spend their lives here, these were people who had been active and formed progressive community over the years, and they wanted to maintain that community,” said Craig Cox, author of Storefront Revolution. “But at the same time, they wanted to create sort of an alternative economic model, a little bubble in which they could live in a way that was in line with their values.”
That political emphasis came to a head in 1975 when a group of Marxist-Leninist activists calling themselves the Co-op Organization (C.O.) tried to assert control over the counter-cultural and somewhat anarchistic co-op movement. The organization was highly secretive (something later documented in this book by former member Alexandra Stein).
Cox describes the C.O.’s argument to co-op activists: ‘You’re just a bunch of hippies playing store, you really need to use these coops to reach out and build a revolutionary movement.’”
The C.O. wanted co-ops to serve cheaper and processed foods like margarine to the working class. The group had members in co-ops all around the Twin Cities, but only explicitly controlled a couple of them. Most of the co-ops were controlled by the more anarchistic natural foods sorts.
In May 1975, C.O. members wielding metal pipes physically took over the distribution center for the co-ops, called the People’s Warehouse. C.O. members tried to physically occupy several storefronts.
“My first assignment was to be part of taking over North Country Co-op,” former C.O. member Lynnette Wells remembers in an interview in a documentary by Ampers producer Maria Almli. “This was all very exciting to me at the time because I felt like I was in a real revolution and we were going to make a difference in the cities.”
At the Seward Co-0p, now doing more than $30 million of business each year, C.O. members beat up two workers and threw them out of the store. A truck owned by a Bryant-Central Co-op organizer who opposed the C.O. was firebombed.
Another attempt to seize the Mill City Co-op in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis was remembered by Dan Nordley:
“The C.O. gathered 50 to 100 people to come march onto the co-op and take it over. The rest of us rallied and went there and formed this human barrier between the store and the C.O….All the people who were lining the co-op just started in on this rendition of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ singing to the CO. It was quite funny.”
The hippies eventually won the co-op wars due to a court ruling that held that the C.O. did not legally own the People’s Warehouse. But Craig Cox said the conflict left its mark on the state’s co-op movement.
“It drove a lot of people away from the political side of the coops. They were happy when it was just a cool food store, but they didn’t want to get involved with firebombing trucks and that sort of thing.”