An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

The Co-op Wars

In the early 70s, Minneapolis was a hub of anarchism, resistance, and community organizing. By the time I got back from wherever it was I’d been in 1971, the “West Bank” student neighborhood had fought off a major “urban renewal” project whose objective was to turn the near-downtown area into a high-rise forest. The protests had been so powerful that on “inauguration day” for the second phase of the project, then-secretary for HUD George Romney had been unable to land his helicopter in the central square of phase one, which was reserved for low-income renters. Before we were done, we would win the right to design our own neighborhood, with emphasis on low-rise, town-house and duplex styles, inner-block green spaces, etc.

In the midst of all this, we had constructed a series of member-directed and worker-directed businesses that included a bakery, a cheese supplier, an herb wholesaler, a restaurant, a hardware store, a book store, a few food stores, and a warehouse. By 1973, when I left, there were dozens of such businesses in the five-state area, served by three warehouses, and the whole thing had become a big mess.

It started when some of the original founders, bored with tending store (they were “idea people”, good at starting things but uninterested in management), got bored in turn with their subsequent factory jobs and their rural escapes, and returned to the scene of the crime.

One day, a flier appeared in all the co-op stores and allied businesses. It accused “us” of being un-revolutionary. It said that instead of building a truly alternative lifestyle, we were merely catering to the wants of a bunch of spoiled children of the middle class, who had eschewed red meat for the equally bourgeois tofu. While we were trumpeting our success at “feeding the people”, we didn’t have any idea who the people were.

The people, we were told, were the working poor. They had never eaten tofu. They didn’t want to bag their own groceries. They didn’t have time to cook raw rice when they got home from their oppressive dead-end jobs, tired and ready for a quick food fix before flopping down in front of their television sets. They didn’t care about organic: their whole lives were cancerous. We, who had never worked in factories, clearly needed the leadership of those who had. To this end, “they”, who called themselves “The Co-op Orgnaization”, were gladly – nay, insistently – offering their services. If we were but willing to recognize their leadership, publicly criticize ourselves, renounce our evil bourgeois ways, and dedicate ourselves to fighting the class war through the provision of provender to the disenfranchised and less-privileged, we could yet be saved.

After I got over the initial shock to my own self-righteous stance as servant of the people and the revolution, I spent some time pondering this multi-page manifesto. I concluded that it had effectively and precisely exposed the truth of “our” hypocrisy: that we were, in fact, claiming to be a vanguard movement of change, while actually indulging ourselves and having a fun time. Their conclusions, however, seemed very retro. Didn’t the supermarkets provide ketchup and frozen pizzas, at a much better price than we could? My parents had owned a “mini-super” such as North Country Foods (the “flagship” co-op), and Super Valu had put them out of business. How would we avoid a similar fate? By working at the lowest possible wages? What was progressive about that?

I concluded that the only reasonable solution was for “them” to set up their own stores, as a test case, and leave us to do “our thing”. As to their characterization of “us” as by-and-large a group of middle class kids playing at life-style, I decided that – since it was mostly true – we should admit it, and get on with having fun. I was not prepared for the backlash from my fellow communitarians.

The first published reaction was a long diatribe, on the order of “who are these crypto-Commies? What is their real agenda? How dare they trash us this way!” The next missive from “them” made it perfectly clear: their agenda was to take over the co-ops in the name of “the people”. This they would accomplish by leading by example. Three of the twin-cities co-ops had fallen into their hands by virtue of their group being the majority of volunteer / members. They had started an “alternative” bakery. They would continue to organize among co-op workers for control of other stores.

“We” watched with fear and loathing. The paranoia grew and grew. People whom I had thought sensible and progressive turned out to be hysterical and reactionary. More and more I found myself between the rock of their “vanguard of the people” bullshit and “our” increasingly virulent anti-Communist “enemy under every bed” diatribes.

My own collective, the New Riverside Café, became hopelessly divided as people who, a scant few weeks before, had been working, playing, and sometimes sleeping together, demonized each other as bourgeois creeps and commie thieves. Two of my favorite people rose to leadership in the “Organization”, and Café workers’ meetings became vicious name-calling shouting matches. I felt like I had landed in Bedlam.

One pleasant fall day, the organization that was charged with running the People’s Warehouse, our supply center, had its’ quarterly meeting. In attendance were the two representatives appointed by the member co-ops. The entire agenda had been scrapped in favor of a group-think about how we were going to stop “them”. About an hour into the meeting, a group of “them” came into the Elks’ hall where we were meeting, to announce that they had “taken over” the People’s Warehouse in the name of “the people”, and inviting anyone who wanted to join them to attend a meeting later that evening at one of the community colleges. I immediately jumped up and suggested that we ALL go. After all, the “Organization” said it was democratic, let’s go and outvote them. I was shouted down by people calling for police intervention, freezing bank accounts, and other forms of reliance on the system we all professed not to believe in.

I wandered back to the kitchen. There I saw Dean, who had been so important to the whole co-op renaissance in the upper Midwest, sitting on the kitchen counter, in obvious agony, while some of “them” explained that he now had a choice to face: he could join them, or he could remain on the outside looking in, totally irrelevant to an inevitable sweep of history. I knew what he was thinking: that if he just said yes, at least he would get a chance to see what was going on; that he could pretend to “believe”. Ultimately, he was wrong. He – none of us – had any idea how driven these folks were; and it wasn’t until later that it became known that even paranoids can have enemies: that in fact, the group was being directed by a charismatic cult leader known as (I forget his name, but it’s not important; eventually he was imprisoned for murder, as I recall). It was all a shuck to get him money and sex.

By the time the news broke, and the Organization either split up or (according to some sources) went on to other targets, I had split for Wisconsin, no longer able to bear the mean-spiritedness of my friends and fellow workers on both sides of the issue. I had never stopped liking pizzas and hating tofu, anyway; and sex, having been free, was now dependant on politics. Instead, I embarked on a new career: becoming the roach clip king of the upper Midwest.

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