People tend to think of cults as primarily religious, but the O. fits the classic definition with its clandestine structure, charismatic leader and all-controlling environment, said Janja Lalich, author of "Captive Hearts, Captive Minds." Lalich is an assistant sociology professor at California State University-Chico who has studied the O. She considers it a cult.
Once in a cult, a person's deep personal convictions mesh with group manipulation, Lalich said. Members are shamed into staying and getting more involved, until the cult becomes their whole world. Behavior that appears crazy to the outside world becomes the norm.
"Even when intuition told us that leadership wasn't making the best decisions, we still felt that we had the Truth, like a gold nugget, concealed in our pockets. It was ours," said Lynnette Wells, who with her husband, Bob Malles, was in the O. for 17 years. "And as cadre around us disappeared one by one over the years, we hung on even tighter because the Truth was all we had."
Most former members are embarrassed to talk about what Malles calls a "bizarre and painful experience." While he lauds Alexandra Stein's description of the O.'s lure and its gradual indoctrination process, he questions whether it was a cult. It was more like a failed experiment to transform people and the capitalist system, he said.
"The experiment blew up in the lab, so to speak, flinging the research staff far and wide," Malles said.
Minneapolis City Council Member Dean Zimmermann, who was briefly an O. member, agrees. "People wanted a dramatic change in our society. And this co-op organization with the left-wing dogma exploited that deep, burning desire to transform our society in a way that would make it better for all and not just the privileged.
"We looked to Cuba, which had health care for everyone. We looked to China, which eradicated starvation. We thought we could transform our society and eliminate the chasm between the rich and the poor," Zimmermann said.
The O. started around 1974 as the C.O. (Cooperative Organization), a Marxist-Leninist group, and operated for more than 25 years. Longtime members who left speculate that fragments of it may exist today.
At its height, the O. probably had 100 members, but was so secretive that even well-connected people in the Twin Cities political left were clueless about its inner workings, said Craig Cox, author of the 1995 book "Storefront Revolution" and executive editor of the Utne Magazine.
What they did see was an amazingly destructive force as the O. infiltrated existing food co-ops, antiwar and feminist organizations in the 1970s.
"These people were incredibly driven by ideological purity," Cox said. "They believed that to allow the co-ops to be this elite hippie, anarchist thing would detract from their own work. They were fairly ruthless in their desire for business gain."
Although the O. started its own businesses to prepare for the coming revolution, its leaders viewed the growing food co-op movement as an economic opportunity, Cox said. Late one Sunday night in May 1975, O. members armed with iron pipes took over the People's Warehouse, which distributed food to all the co-ops, fomenting Minneapolis' "co-op wars," Cox said. O. members later firebombed an opponent's truck and were believed to have a cache of weapons stored on the South Side of Minneapolis, Cox said.
The O. divided what had been one of the nation's most vibrant co-op communities, leaving it in disarray.
"I know people today who are still bitter about what the C.O. did to them and the co-op movement, and that was 30 years ago," Cox said.
None of the O.'s co-ops survived, Cox said. "The revolution that they wanted to create never happened."