The O., short for "the Organization", also known as the C.O. or Cooperative Organization, was a Marxist-Leninist political group which grew out of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul food cooperative movement in the 1970s.
2 The co-op wars (1975-76),
3 After the co-op wars (late '70s-present),
In the early 1970s, anti-war activists in Minneapolis and St Paul had founded more than two dozen natural food co-operatives, which were owned and operated entirely by volunteer members. Former co-op members Craig Cox and David Gutnick describes the growth of co-ops as attempt to enact ideals of mutual aid, and other principles held by members of the hippie counter-culture and the anti-war movement
Political differences arose between those who were influenced by the ideas of the counter-culture of the time, and more orthodox Marxist-Leninists. The second group argued that the co-operatives should sell products such as Coca-Cola, white sugar, and canned goods, arguing that selling cheaper goods would make co-ops more accessible to the working class, and would allow them to better deliver a message of revolution to those they felt were most in need of it. Other co-op members argued that part of furthering their ideals was selling better-quality food than was typically sold in grocery stores at the time.
The co-op wars (1975-76):
By the mid-70s, the Marxist-Leninists in the co-op movement had formed an organization known as the Cooperative Organization, or C.O. They argued that the "middle-class hippies" pushing for organic food in co-op stores did not understand the plight of the working class, and that the co-op community was too disorganized and dominated by middle-class elites to lead the sustained struggle against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that the C.O. felt was necessary. The group had members in many of the co-ops around town, and their membership was strongest at the People's Warehouse (a distributor which serviced many of the cooperatively-run businesses around town) and the Beanery.
In late 1975, the C.O. attempted to take over the People's Warehouse. After negotiation at a board meeting failed, they simply walked into the financial offices at the Warehouse and grabbed the checkbook and financial records, announcing the next morning to their rivals that "The People's Warehouse now belongs to the people!" Other co-op members attempted to negotiate with the C.O. and were met with violence - co-op member Phill Baker, who was part of a group meeting the C.O. at the warehouse, described C.O. members attacking them with iron bars and ripping the phones from the walls. On January 9, 1976, C.O. members entered the Seward Community Co-op and attacked worker-owners Kris Olsen and Leo Cashman, beating them and throwing them out of the store. Such actions appalled many in the co-op community, who organized a boycott of C.O.-run businesses. This boycott was responsible for the eventual failure of the C.O., as the People's Warehouse and other businesses they attempted to take over were reacquired by the original owners.
After the co-op wars (late '70s-present):
Though they had suffered a defeat in the co-op wars, the C.O. persisted into the late '70s and early '80s. Now known simply as "The O," they became a highly secretive group of about 30 members (down from around 300-100 in their heyday). Members were known by code names and organized in disconnected cells in order to throw off the FBI, and were expected to unquestioningly follow directives from elusive leader Theophilus Smith. These directives did not only concern political actions, but personal lives as well - former member Alexandra Stein has described being ordered to enter into a "P.R" (personal relationship) with one of her follow O members, with the aim of getting pregnant.
It is difficult to tell whether the O still survives today, due to its policy of near-total secrecy (members were not allowed to talk to non-members, and were given very limited information about other members). Stein mentions 10 people in her social circle who left the organization in 1991 - presumably it still existed at that time. However, beyond that, it is difficult to say.