The Co-op Wars dir. Deacon Warner, 2021 (radicalrootsfilm.com)
The souring of the hippy dream as the idealistic 1960s gave way to the embittered ’70s is a familiar tale, but here is an absorbing co-operative variation on the theme, set among the warring factions of Minnesota’s grocery co-ops.
This hour-long documentary mixes archive footage with testimony from a charismatic cast of survivors, beautifully narrated by Peter Coyote – himself a veteran of the counterculture and a familiar voice from Ken Burns’ epic American histories.
Showcased at last month’s Minneapolis-St Paul Film Festival, it’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when the internal tensions of a passionate, radical youth movement run out of control.
It opens in 1969 on a commune, where a group of young hippies, radicalised by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, are plotting an alternative economy, with an Aquarian take on the millenialist fervour that often pops up in the US. An industrious bunch who are as keen on broccooli as pot and LSD, they launch a wholefood co-op store so successfully that by the mid 70s, the area around the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul has more food co-ops than anywhere else in the country.
A rift opens when some of the group are introduced to the politics of Marx, Lenin and Mao. Linking up with Black Panthers, they reject the anarchist ideals of the co-op’s founders as white bourgeois elitism. Armed with steel bars, they seize control of the co-op distribution depot; guns are fired and a delivery van is blown up.
It’s an entertaining but poignant account, with sorrow written on the faces of some participants as they look back. They can console themselves with their legacy; the grocery co-ops survived and today have sales of more than $200m a year, providing a market for around 300 sustainable farms.
Lessons have been learned from the Black Panthers’ criticisms, the film argues, with today’s co-ops working with community leaders to work towards racial equity in workforce and service.
Here we have a snapshot of the counterculture in miniature, and a useful social history of the old giving way the new – a time when the baby boom gave strength in numbers to young activists, and the demise of the traditional Mom-and-Pop store left them an empty marketplace to colonise.
Co-op News reviewed an online screening of The Co-op Wars at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, which will return in The MSP Film society screens independent and international films year-round, more info at MSPfilm.org