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And Sheela’s charm offensive hadn’t won over some of the locals. A month after Rajneeshpuram was incorporated, three nearby ranch families got together with a land-use watchdog group, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and filed an appeal with the Land Use Board of Appeals, seeking to invalidate the county’s decision to allow the city’s incorporation.
Naturally, this played poorly with Sheela and Rajneesh. A clumsy attempt to bribe 1000 Friends made things worse, and from this point on, the commune was more or less in a cold war with the rest of Oregon.
While the appeals courts kicked the case up and down the line from local courts to the state supreme court and back, development continued at Rajneeshpuram. The city issued hundreds of building permits and dozens of business licenses, established a police force, and installed utilities for water and sewer service.
The land-use challenge was bad enough for the commune, but was probably survivable. Then as now, it’s hard to make a case that running cattle at one head per 40 acres is a higher and better use of the land than a self-sufficient semi-urban community surrounded by an organic farming operation. If land use had been the only issue, the parties would probably have soon come to some kind of an agreement that let Rajneeshpuram continue in exchange for some mitigation work and common-sense restrictions on zoning and land use.
What really became a problem, and what made such an agreement impossible for the state or 1000 Friends to consider, was the pattern of dishonesty that quickly became apparent among the leaders at Rajneeshpuram.
Put simply, the top sannyasins considered state and federal laws to lack any legitimate authority over them.
So any time a law conflicted with what the Rajneeshee leaders wanted to do, the choice they made was whether to pretend to obey the law or to defy it openly. Following the law in good faith seemed to be strictly optional.
Throughout the time the Rajneeshees were in Oregon, the law would be used a lot as a weapon against those who felt themselves to be bound by it; but the commune’s leaders never for a moment considered it legitimate. And that became obvious very quickly as non-sannyasin Oregonians started interacting with the group.
There was also a clear sense of contempt, a sense that the commune’s authorities (and especially Sheela) considered non-Sannyasin Oregonians to be categorically a bunch of ignorant, small-minded hicks who should be easy to manipulate or dupe. This came through, loud and clear, in media appearances and interviews, and it started to change the perception of the commune from “harmless weirdos” to “offensive and probably crazy weirdos.” Before long, 1000 Friends started discovering that its land-use fight with Rajneeshpuram was solid fund-raising gold. Donations poured in, reinforcing the battle lines even more.
The situation became even worse a year or so later when the Rajneeshees started getting seriously into militarization theater, posing ostentatiously with what looked like assault rifles and submachine guns at festivals and appearances around the ranch. They hoped this show of force would encourage hostile locals to back off; instead, coming less than a decade after the disaster at Jonestown in Guyana, most locals looked at all the gun brandishing and thought, “These people are not only crazy, they're also dangerous.”
Meanwhile, Ma Anand Sheela was talking to the media every chance she got. Oregonians were starting to get very used to seeing her on TV categorizing them all as “ignorant bigots” and worse.
By the end of 1983 or so, the Rajneeshees could see that there was a real possibility they would lose the fight to keep Rajneeshpuram incorporated as a city. Also, because the state of Oregon considered Rajneeshpuram illegitimate, the FBI had cut off the Rajneeshpuram Peace Force’s access to the National Crime Information System database, which Sheela’s crew had found super useful for digging up dirt on political enemies.
So they decided to take over a town that was already incorporated and transfer their energies over to that.
Their eyes turned, naturally, on the closest town to the ranch: Antelope, population 43.
(Continued in Part 3.)