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When "The Rolls-Royce Guru" came to Oregon

Part Three: Occupation

In the courtyard at the Antelope Post Office today, there stands a large bronze plaque attached to the base of a flagpole. It reads, “Dedicated to those of this community who throughout the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-1985 remained, resisted and remembered.”

Most visitors probably roll their eyes at this, thinking it a bit melodramatic. Invasion? Occupation? Puh-leeze, they might mutter.

But the Rajneeshee takeover of Antelope was not an anodyne bureaucratic exercise. To those who lived through it, it really did feel like a foreign military power had rolled into their town and occupied it.

It started out very stealthily. Several properties in the town were up for sale, and suddenly there were offers on all of them. Very ordinary-looking people signed the documents and took possession. Then some more very ordinary-looking people moved into the properties. Quite a few of them, actually. The population of the town nearly doubled.

They lived there in Antelope, keeping to themselves as much as possible, until just before election season, when several of them filed for election as city officials.

Then the truth came out: The new residents were Rajneeshees, and they were out to take over the town.

At the same time, the Rajneeshee leaders launched a concerted campaign to get other Antelope residents to leave town. They tried to buy people’s houses, and those who would not sell were relentlessly harassed. Red-clad photographers with ostentatious cameras parked outside their houses, photographing them when they came and went, photographing their children when they left for school, following them around, staring whenever they could catch their eyes.

The Antelope residents scrambled to try and head off the invasion. They called an emergency meeting and set up a vote to disincorporate the town, but the Rajneeshees got word of it and made sure to vote in the resulting election, and there was only so much resistance the few dozen voters of Antelope could do. The vote was defeated, and, that November, so were the incumbent mayor and city officials of Antelope.

The victorious Rajneeshees promptly renamed the town Rajneesh and got busy approving variances and building permits.

By this time, nearly all executive decisions were being made by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s personal secretary, the ever-bellicose Ma Anand Sheela; Rajneesh himself had “entered a period of silence” and was speaking only to her and a few other Rajneeshee leaders.

Now those leaders, having tasted this cup of power, decided to expand their power base by taking over all of Wasco County using the same playbook that had worked so well in Antelope.

To do this would be trickier, though. Wasco County had about 21,000 non-Sannyasin residents, roughly 12,000 of whom were registered to vote. At least half of those voters could probably be counted on to actively oppose the takeover.

But Sheela had a plan for that: a plan called the “Share-a-Home Program.”

The share-a-home program was launched in 1984 and cost the Rajneeshees about $1 million.

The way it worked was, sannyasins fanned out across the country driving chartered buses, recruiting homeless people to come to Rajneeshpuram to live … and, of course, vote.

Free food, shelter, and (red) clothing: It was a compelling idea for anyone shivering under a railroad bridge in Seattle or Boston or Oakland. Thousands took them up on it.

As the primary season approached in 1984, the population of the twin cities of Rajneeshpuram and Rajneesh (Antelope) swelled to over 7,000. Every newcomer to the commune was promptly registered as a Wasco County voter.

This was probably the point at which the Rajneeshees definitively lost the fight to stay in Oregon. Because, well, it was one thing to have a bunch of far-out mystics developing a piece of Oregon’s outback; nobody really minded that. The takeover of Antelope had been bad, but Antelope was a tiny place, and the whole thing was easily understood as the commune’s only option for having a municipality. The nastiness of the campaign to drive the locals out was a public-relations disaster, as was an attempt to force local farm kids to attend Rajneeshee schools; but these weren’t the kinds of missteps that can’t be recovered from with a quick course correction and a little public-relations balm.

However, when Sheela and her operatives started scheming to seize power at the county level, disenfranchising thousands of Wasco County residents — and doing so in such a transparent and intelligence-insulting way, obviously thinking their plan was too clever and subtle for the local rubes to catch onto — they lost any claim they might have had on the moral high ground.

From that point on, the story of Rajneeshpuram would be a series of increasingly desperate and petulant rear-guard actions and acts of open spitefulness that quickly escalated to crime.

The state’s response to Share-a-Home was a fairly obvious one: Secretary of State Norma Paulus stopped all voter registration in Wasco County and assigned a fleet of attorneys from her staff to travel to the county and interview each and every new registrant, to make sure that person actually intended to live in the county.

This, as far as the takeover plan was concerned, was checkmate. But Sheela and her lieutenants tried to play through it. If they couldn’t pack the voter rolls to achieve a winning majority, maybe they could depress voter turnout enough to win …

And so it was that, in the summer of 1984, Sheela and her cronies — most notably Ma Anand Puja, a.k.a. Diane Omang, the director of the commune’s medical service — started poisoning people, testing formulas and seeing what might work.

First, they poisoned two Wasco County Commissioners with cultured bacteria stirred into glasses of water offered to them while they were on a visit to the site. Then Sheela and Puja led a team into The Dalles to dribble cultured salmonella bacteria on the salad bars in several restaurants near the freeway.

Hundreds of people got sick — the official count is about 750, but likely there were many more, minor cases involving people who didn’t bother to seek medical attention. It was the biggest biological-warfare attack in U.S. history.

The attack is still baffling today because it was carried out a month and a half before the elections. Was it supposed to be a trial run, to test the poisons in advance to make sure they would be effective? If so, it was a really stupid move, as it put Wasco County on notice; the salad bars were shut down, and people became very serious about handwashing and other hygienic preventions. Was it supposed to actually kill people, thereby removing them from the voter rolls? If so, it was even stupider. Either way, it was not exactly a 4-D chess move.

At the time, nobody really knew the source of the food poisoning. But almost everyone suspected the Rajneeshees, and that was enough to put the stink of criminality on the commune — all of them, not just Sheela and her gang. This was a bigger deal than it has later been made out to be. Rank-and-file Rajneeshees were not the kind of nasty monsters that some of their leaders were turning out to be. They were mostly goodhearted, normal people who had found a new vision for life under the charismatic spell of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. They were there to bask in his wisdom, dissolve themselves into his movement, and be a part of something that was creating (as they saw it) good things in the world.

Poisoning people, stockpiling and brandishing automatic weapons, ghosting ex-members, harassing former Antelope residents with cameras — these were all very off-brand actions for them. But more and more, these were coming to characterize life in Rajneeshpuram.

A creeping demoralization started percolating into the ranks of the sannyasins, and a sort of bunker mentality — a sense similar to that of a people at war. But, remember, these were people who had sold everything to start a new life in Rajneeshpuram. This was their home now; they had burned their boats. They had little choice other than to hunker down and hope for the best.

(Sources: “Rajneeshpuram,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Eric Cain and Nadine Jelsing and aired Nov. 19, 2012, by Oregon Public Broadcasting; “Beyond the Ranch: Rajneesh Revisited,” a three-part series by Cory Frye published July 8, 2018, in the Corvallis Gazette-Times; the Portland Oregonian’s 20-part series on Rajneeshpuram, published June 30 through July 19, 1985, and 5-part series by reporter Les Zaitz published April 14, 2011)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

 

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