The O., short for "the Organization", also known as the C.O. or Cooperative Organization, was a Maoist or Marxist-Leninist political group which grew out of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul food cooperative movement in the 1970s.
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 and anarchism, and more orthodox communists. The second group argued that the co-operatives should sell processed food products, white sugar, and canned goods. They argued 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.
By the mid-70s, some of the communists had formed a group known as the Cooperative Organization, or C.O. The group had developed through secretive study groups. 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 at the Beanery.
In late 1975, the C.O. took over the People's Warehouse. Firstly the C.O. attempted to negotiate control at a board meeting. When this failed they walked into the financial offices at the Warehouse and grabbed the checkbook and financial records. 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 the board meeting, described C.O. members attacking them with iron bars and ripping the phones from the walls. The next morning the C.O. announced, "The People's Warehouse now belongs to the people!"
After this meeting there was a clear divide between the two sides. The C.O. used different tactics to take control of over others co-ops, including further violence. 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. A non C.O. distribution warehouse was set up called DANCE. The C.O.'s leader Theophilus Smith criticized Black Panther Mo Burton and used bullying tactics. This led to Burton's supporters to physically retaliate. These events lead to a decline of the C.O., as the People's Warehouse and other businesses reverted to non C.O. control.
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 300-1000 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 unknown 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 ten people in her social circle who left the organization in 1991 - presumably it still existed at that time.
The group was characterized by an extreme form of secrecy. Members used code-names, and instructions were communicated by memos. The secrecy was such that many members had never met, or could not even name, group leader Theophilus Smith. Some members were under the totally false impression that the group was related to the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or was part of a nationwide group. At one point members received no orders for a year, with no explanation given at the time or afterwards. The reason was that Smith was spending a year in jail for manslaughter.
Sociology professor and specialist on cults Janja Lalich stated that the O, "with its clandestine structure, charismatic leader and all-controlling environment", was a cult. However some former members have disagreed. Former member Bob Malles described being in the O as a "bizarre and painful experience". However he describes it not as a cult, but as a failed social experiment which "blew up in the lab, so to speak, flinging the research staff far and wide."