It’s important to be precise about it.
The feud didn’t start, townspeople say, when followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought the 64,000 acre Big Muddy Ranch outside the little central Oregon town of Antelope in June 1981.
It didn’t start when disciples of the Bhagwan began applying for building permits in town, or showed up at a city council meeting with a lawyer from Chicago.
The real trouble began when the Indian guru’s followers started inquiring about vacancies on the Antelope school board.
The red-clad newcomers already had made it clear that they had no intention of sending their own children to the tiny one-room elementary school that represents the school board’s sole responsibility. The Bhagwan’s followers have a school on the ranch. Why, the townspeople wondered, did they want a hand in running Antelope’s school? Because we’re taxpayers and are interested in how our money is spent, was the response from the Bhagwan’s disciples. But if the issue really was fiscal prudence, the locals countered, the sannyasins (the name the disciples use in referring to themselves) could vote down the budget when it appeared on the ballot. After all, the voting population of Rajneeshpuram, the new name of the ranch, already far outnumbered pre-Rajneesh registration in the Antelope school district. The sannyasins, the locals conceded, could even sit on the school district’s budget board, which decides money matters. But why the school board, which sets curriculum policy and hires teachers? The townspeople thought they knew the answer. And for the first time they truly felt threatened.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is nothing more than intimidation,” says Don Smith of the city council. “Essentially, what they want is people to stop resisting them. This community has largely stood alone in resisting them.”
The original residents of Antelope—the forty or so locals—talk frequently these days about intimidation and resistance, and about the city’s most dramatic response, its effort to disincorporate itself to keep the Rajneesh from taking voting control. That effort, if nothing else, has focused attention on the town and its fears in a way that the locals had long felt unattainable. “The things we think are important,” says one, “never get printed.”
What the citizens of Antelope are resisting, at least in their minds, is a takeover of their community by a mysterious religious group that far outnumbers them and that has financial and legal resources of a magnitude that a year ago was unimaginable in north-central Oregon. The disciples, people think, have not only the resources but also the desire to drive them out. Anyone in Antelope will tell you that Sheela Silverman, the intermediary between the Bhagwan and his followers (and the outside world), has vowed to take over Antelope and raise taxes so high that only sannyasins can live there.
Twenty miles outside of town, in a double-wide mobile home on the former Big Muddy Ranch, Sheela Silverman denies that she ever said that and maintains that the town’s problems are all of its own making. “I guess anybody would be upset. We are happy, and people who are not happy get upset with happy people,” she explains. “The reason they’re upset is a lot of jealousy there, a lot of Mayflower mentality—they got here first, so no one else can come in. And, people get into a habit of finding fault. At least it’s publicity for them. Before this, who ever heard of Antelope, Oregon?”
The strength of Silverman’s status is that she is the only disciple who actually speaks to the Bhagwan, who now lives on the ranch and claims a following of more than a quarter million throughout the world. How many of them will eventually be living on the ranch— especially if the sannyasins succeed in incorporating the city of Rajneeshpuram there—is a subject of considerable dispute: Sheela Silverman suggests 2,000, but the locals cite a Los Angeles Times story saying that the Bhagwan has dreamed of a city in the desert of 50,000. Some indication of what the numbers might mean may come this summer, when the three hundred already living on the ranch plan to host a Festival of the Moon for 5,000 visiting disciples and others.
No matter what they do, the townspeople are not very hopeful. The city council’s effort to deny the disciples a permit for a printing plant with 111 workers in Antelope may also be a passing phase. Antelope seems likely to join the long list of American communities that have been utterly changed by the perfectly legal settlement of a different group. But the change here is so sudden and yet so complete, and the contrasts both in power and in values between the two groups so sharp, that the locals feel not only outnumbered but also strangers in what they had thought to be their land.
“I would not be at all surprised if next year at this time all of us are gone,” muses Francis Dickson, also on the city council. “Unless you wear red clothes you won’t be living in town.”
Margaret Hill didn’t particularly want to be mayor. But nobody was running for the job, and some people wrote her name in. The job is unpaid—all Antelope city jobs are unpaid, and when the city absolutely needs something, like a new water pump, the residents raise money with things like bake sales—but her husband had held the job several years earlier, and it only took two or three days a month. City council meetings were pretty informal, when enough people could be persuaded to show up.
“You know, to go way back to the beginning, when they first got here, they said they’d fallen in love with the ranch,” Hill says, referring to the Rajneeshees. “And nobody cared. Many of the things they said they wanted to do sounded great. We didn’t care what they did down there.”
Soon, however, the disciples were appearing at city council meetings, seeking permits to build and operate commercial projects in Antelope. Some early permits were granted, but differences soon emerged over the major request, a permit for an 18,000-square-foot printing plant to produce some of the books and literature that bring in a large part of the Rajneeshees’ considerable income, with a workforce almost three times the original population of Antelope. The council, citing the fact that the city’s water supply was insufficient even for current needs (Antelope has to conserve strictly in summer), has been reluctant to grant the permit. The disciples, pointing out that the building would be located in an area already zoned commercial and maintaining that they would take care of the water problem themselves, have demanded it. With the ranch still limited solely to agricultural use, Antelope is the nearest urban area where the plant could legally be built.
The council and the disciples differ sharply over what has happened in the months since. The disciples say they have offered to work on a plan to solve both the town’s and the plant’s water problems; Hill says such an offer was never actually presented to the council. The council says the disciples withdrew the request when it appeared likely that they could put a city (and therefore a printing plant) on the ranch; Silverman denies that, and says the request has been active since they first made it last fall. In March, the disciples filed suit, through their Portland attorney, to force the council to grant the permit. Last month, the Wasco County District Court refused, but did direct an unhappy city council to grant four other requested permits for houses and offices.
What both sides do agree on is that council meetings are no longer casual. Antelope’s city attorney, holder of a post that didn’t really exist before last summer, now comes down from The Dalles for the monthly gatherings. The disciples videotape the proceedings, and the locals claim that when NBC appeared to shoot some film of one meeting, the network brought less equipment than the disciples did. The council now has a formal agenda set in advance and fixed office hours, to avoid what Hill describes as disciples “appearing at my door or on the phone at any and all hours.” And large delegations from the ranch, sometimes running to several busloads, appear at meetings, a practice that the locals consider intimidation. Nobody maintains that anyone wearing red is ever physically threatening; rather, they respond to statements they disagree with by laughing in unison, a practice the locals find unsettling.
On the other side, Silverman is certain that the locals are violating their own procedures and Oregon law in their dealings with sannyasins. “I have records on secret meetings,” she says firmly. “They’ve been holding council meetings secretly, deciding things beforehand. They’ve been abusing the postal laws, putting things into post office boxes without stamps, which is a federal offense, and I’ve reported them to the postal authorities.” She has also twice reported the council to the State Ethics Commission (which has responded that it only has jurisdiction in cases of misuse of office for personal profit) and accused Postmaster Bill Dickson (husband of city council member Frances Dickson) of tampering with the Rajneeshees’ mail.
Hill’s reaction to these charges is to point out that, in a town the size of Antelope, a social gathering does not have to be very large or significant before it includes most or all of the city council, which does not mean that they are making secret decisions. In a town of forty, one Antelope resident explains, not many things are secret to start with. And then she cites, as many of the locals do fairly early in conversation, the Women’s Extension episode.
Last December, according to the story, the local Home Extension group (“I don’t know how you’d describe Home Extension,” says Hill, sounding as though she has never before had to. “It’s just a hen party, really.”) met at Hill’s house to make Christmas wreaths, causing a number of cars from town and the surrounding ranches to be parked outside her house. Swiftly, she received three phone calls from David Knapp, one of the disciples, charging her with holding a secret meeting. “If you want to talk about harassment, that’s it,” says Hill. “They were obviously watching my house.”
Ever since the disciples became a presence in town—the group now owns seven properties—many of the locals have complained of feeling watched, of having their houses photographed. Since Antelope is only a few hundred yards long, and most of the houses are on one street, nearly any house can be watched from any other, and a single figure in a red down jacket, out for a twenty minute walk, can appear to be making a fairly thorough reconnaissance. Hill’s house, at the south end of town, is one of the closest to the Rajneesh properties and almost directly across from the former Antelope Cafe and Store, which, since its purchase by the Rajneesh (who renamed it Zorba the Buddha), is no longer quite the town social center it once was.
But at this point the locals seem to feel the presence of the disciples even when there are none visible, or when, as usually seems to be the case, there is only a lone red figure, at the far end of the street, slowly making its way between the Rajneesh offices and the cafe. The feeling of disturbance seems to run almost as strong on ranches secluded ten miles of axle-breaking county road away from town as at Hill’s house. Antelope is a preternaturally quiet and isolated place—one recent arrival says that for her first months there, she thought every car going through town was speeding because of the roaring it made in the silence—and the constant sense of a presence so close, so different, is almost tangible.
Combined with the constant legal and political maneuvering, and the ever-circulating reports quoting Silverman on taxes, the perpetual physical presence of the disciples puts many of the locals constantly on edge. “The anxiety builds up,” says one. “At least I feel it, because I don’t know what they’ll do next.” The anxiety extends to Antelope’s traditional social events, the Western dances and Friday night volleyball at the school. “It doesn’t stifle things in actuality, it does mentally,” says one rancher’s wife. “We never know when they’re going to show up en masse.”
Because of this sense of uncertainty, and the feeling of opposing great resources, the presence of the disciples hangs over Antelope conversation and makes the discussion trade largely in rumor. (“What rumors do you want to hear?” asks Silverman when the subject comes up. “A lot of them I started myself. It’s a perfect way to keep useless minds occupied.”) During the course of a day in Antelope you can hear that there is really no Bhagwan, or two; that the group intends to control, soon, all the land between Route 97 and the John Day River; and that its ostensibly vegetarian leaders frequently slip into Madras for a steak.
Many of the locals are careful to say that the disciples they sometimes encounter are never offensive or threatening, and that if so many problems hadn’t surfaced, nobody would care if a few of them showed up to play volleyball. But it would probably be wrong to think that if the disciples hadn’t wanted to build a printing plant in town, or if the city council hadn’t objected, there would have been no friction between the two groups. The locals would probably still oppose the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram on the grounds that it represents the conversion of agricultural to urban land, a position shared by 1000 Friends of Oregon, which has led the legal fight. They would probably still resent what they consider the arrogance of the Rajneesh leadership, and the fact that in a dispute the religious community can hire Bob Davis, a top Salem lobbyist and former aide to Governor McCall, and Ed Sullivan, one of the state’s sharpest land-use lawyers and a former aide to Governor Straub.
And at bottom, it is not likely that the residents of Antelope would ever have been totally comfortable with a group that takes ads in Time magazine headed “Sex,” which promise, “Know your sexuality, and one day you will stumble upon your spirituality.” Just about all of the locals have seen the movie Ashram, about the original commune in Pune (Poona), India, showing nude encounter sessions and some hitting therapy, and the photos in the German newsmagazine Stern, depicting both blissed-out nudity and the end of the community. The residents of Antelope use the word morals with no sense of ambiguity whatever, and they use it a great deal in talking about their apprehensions about the disciples.
Finally, there are the letters, letters that locals have been receiving from all over the world from relatives of people who have left their families for the Rajneesh and made large financial gifts to the Bhagwan upon entering the community. The locals read these letters, pass them around, and tend to identify with the pain and bewilderment of the writers. “I see these kids walking the streets in these red outfits,” says Don Smith slowly, “and I just can’t understand what would make them join something like this.”
It took the town’s bid to disincorporate, to return its zoning and permit powers back to Wasco County, to get anyone to take notice of its concerns, says Hill.
“I was at the point where I just didn’t talk to anyone for a long time, because it didn’t do any good,” she says in a tone that stops just short of resignation. “The Rajneesh are always pictured as this happy, loving group. Only very recently has anybody thought we weren’t just a bunch of soreheads.” Even now, with locals talking on the phone with the New York Times and appearing on live telephone hookups on radio stations across the country, with the Canadian Broadcasting Company and UPI in town and 60 Minutes expressing interest, she is not sure of the effect. “It has almost become a media circus. I’m not sure that helps us; they’re more glamorous, photogenic, and articulate than we are.” Even if the town is dissolved (there are many postelection legal stages to go through), she is not optimistic: “They are driving people out of the area. The people who left recently, who sold them their houses, didn’t want to leave. Probably there will be a breaking point for everyone. It all comes down to how much of it you can take. I lie awake nights sometimes and wonder if I could have done anything differently. So far I haven’t come up with anything. But it was maybe a little more difficult than they thought. At least it wasn’t a pushover.”
Sheela Silverman has to be in The Dalles for a hearing this afternoon. She also has to be in Portland to tape a television show tomorrow, there is someone to be met at the airport, there is a television crew waiting outside and a camera crew reported approaching on the road, someone wants to know if she’s hungry, there is a phone call about every two minutes and she wants to talk to the construction crew before she leaves. Although that, maybe, can wait until tonight.
At the age of thirty-two, sitting on the thick carpet of the mobile home that serves as both her residence and office, Silverman is in effective control not only of Rajneeshpuram and its relations with the outside world but also of what is essentially a multimillion dollar international corporation. She is also currently Oregon’s hottest media personality, engaging and animated in conversation, alternately satirical, indignant, understanding.
She is having a wonderful time.
In Antelope, the locals say that if one of the Bhagwan’s stated objectives was to eliminate “the egotistical man,” the treatment doesn’t seem to have taken with Silverman. They also, in their milder phrasings, consider her arrogant, insensitive, and prone to lash out when opposed. “When you cross Sheela,” says one, “she just goes wild.”
Against the constant background noise level of the office, Silverman listens to this impatiently.
“We have not received a response on the printing-plant permit for seven months,” she says. “We have given them eternal, unnecessary paperwork that they demanded. If I state this, they say I’m getting angry. If I laugh, they say I’m laughing at them. The only way out is to jump off a cliff, and I’m not going to do that.
“The Antelope people refuse bluntly to come here and see what we’re doing, We have invited them numerous times. I’ve said bring the whole town, I can send the bus. They drove four hours to Portland to see the movie Ashram, but they won’t come here.”
(Don Smith concedes that the city council has declined invitations to come down to the ranch. “As it political body, it’s none of the city of Antelope’s business what’s going on down there.” He pauses. “As individuals, we probably should have gone down and looked around.”)
“If I’m going to take over a town, why would I take over a small town like Antelope where you can’t do anything? Let’s take over Portland. Hey,” she calls out to her staff, “we’re going to take over Portland.” If such a response, or group laughter at city council meetings, might seem insufficiently sober to some, Silverman does not agree. “The Bhagwan says that seriousness is a disease,” she explains. “Laugh your way to God.”
Silverman has been with the Bhagwan since 1972, when she returned to India from college in America. Her family was wealthy (“We had enough,” she says, drawing more laughter from a listening associate), and her father, whom she describes as “a spiritual junkie,” had insisted that she meet the Bhagwan before leaving for America. While attending various colleges (“I tried to go to many places, but the longest I stuck around was at Montclair State College in New Jersey”), she married an American, and the two of them began dreaming of how they might lure the Bhagwan to America.
The Bhagwan’s teachings have been described as a combination of Eastern mysticism and components from the Western human potential movement, combining meditation with encounter groups and putting no great premium on asceticism; followers supposedly don’t eat meat, but do drink and smoke. He stresses the de-emphasis of the individual ego, and the disciples feel themselves members of a worldwide community as well as of their local center. They wear various shades of red and orange and a photo of the Bhagwan on a string of beads around their necks. He maintains that he is not rejecting, but building upon, other religions, and there are locations on the ranch with names like Moses Way, Zen Road, and Magdalena.
The doctrine, and lifestyle, have proven highly attractive to many professional and prosperous Westerners, who thronged to Pune, the Bhagwan’s headquarters in India, during the 1970s. Many of them, such as Learjet and Baskin-Robbins heiresses, made substantial financial gifts; others, such as disciples on the ranch, work for the community without pay. Currently, there are sannyasins throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, India, New Zealand, and Australia, where the group owns two other ranches. The Antelope ranch, they say, is not better than any of the rest, even though the Bhagwan himself is there now. “He could be gone tomorrow,” says one disciple. “But we feel Bhagwan’s presence wherever we are.”
The Bhagwan lives in seclusion on the ranch, although disciples can catch a glimpse of him afternoons when he drives his Rolls Royce on his daily outing to Madras and back. He speaks only to Silverman, on the evenings when she is on the ranch, although sannyasins may write to him seeking help with their meditations or personal problems, and his counsel will come back through her. She does not, she says, discuss the management of the ranch with him.
The purchase of the Big Muddy Ranch was also Silverman’s decision. The Bhagwan had already come to America, in a sudden shift from Pune (which closed down) to Rajneesh Castle in Montclair, where Silverman had gone to college. (The move supposedly supplied, among other things, improved medical treatment for his seriously deteriorated health.) Silverman and her second husband, John Shelfer, looked all over the country for a site for the Bhagwan’s dream of a city in the desert. As soon as they saw the Big Muddy, according to another disciple, they knew that it was the place. Six million dollars later, it was.
“They call us foreigners,” says Silverman, “but from what I understand, anyone not born in Oregon is a foreigner. We don’t feel like foreigners. We feel more Oregonian, because at least we are doing something for the land. Oregon is my home, and will remain my home. I’m sure it was my home in some past life from the way I feel about it now.
“What’s happening here is creative people are being obstructed for the sake of noncreative people,” charges Silverman, citing the 1000 Friends suit and what she says is a threat to tie up the county in obstructive appeals. “This kind of organization should be shut down. They’re destructive. It’s because of organizations like this that Oregon is in economic paralysis.” In the last year, she says, the disciples have already put from fifteen to twenty million dollars into the Oregon economy.
The sannyasins, claims David Knapp, are caught in “kind of a Catch-22.” Knapp, a Southern California psychologist who became a disciple four years ago in Pune, now largely handles the group’s dealings with official bodies. The Antelope people, he complains, want to keep them out of town and are denying building permits, “which we need and deserve.” At the same time, 1000 Friends of Oregon, with Antelope’s support, is seeking to prevent the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram, which would allow for urban development and services on the ranch. “According to the 1000 Friends brief,” Knapp says, “the solution is to go to Antelope, the nearest stated urban-growth area.”
The only reason the disciples are in Antelope at all, claims Knapp, is the difficulty they’ve encountered with Rajneeshpuram. “We regard our presence in Antelope as definitely temporary,” he says. “As soon as 1000 Friends drops its suit, we will withdraw.”
The increased Rajneesh population in town, he says, is not due to disciples moving in before the disincorporation vote. “As long as we have a housing shortage on the ranch, we’ll need places in Antelope,” Knapp explains.
But the locals, although admitting that the disciples have ascribed their presence to temporary necessity before, are dubious. They are even more dubious about claims that the community’s population in Antelope was not swelling as the election approached. The total grew, they charged, from twelve at the time the vote was called, to twenty-seven by late March. At that time, Knapp estimated a population “certainly no more than thirty-six,” with fifteen or twenty registered to vote in Antelope.
Although the Rajneeshees attempted to block the disincorporation vote, Silverman maintains that she could not say how the disciples registered in town would vote. “Our people are not robots,” she says firmly. “The man who runs the store in town is a very political animal. I wouldn’t dare tell him how to vote. Voting is a private privilege. I don’t know anything to say about that.”
What does she think is going to happen in the Rajneesh dispute with Antelope?
“What’s going to happen is what they’ve brought upon themselves,” she says. “Let’s divert attention from this pettiness to something more essential, more vital. Let’s look inside ourselves.”
The way to get to central Oregon from the Willamette Valley is to drive east until you reach the West. Past the Cascades, where the rain stops and the people thin out, the West Coast ends and the West starts, and it runs from there to the Great Plains. When the rain reappears, you’ve reached the Midwest.
The lack of water has shaped the land and the agriculture and the politics of the West since settlement began. It has started range wars, sparked Supreme Court cases, and caused millions of people who moved there to pick up and move again. Most of the ones who stayed were probably secretly pleased with that part: it left them to enjoy not only the region’s most scarce commodity, water, but also its most abundant space.
Water and space, and feelings about people moving in to share them, are crucial issues in the dispute between the Antelope locals and the disciples. The town’s claim that it does not have enough water to permit a 111-worker printing plant is writ much larger in the locals’ concerns about the water needed to maintain large-scale experimental agriculture and a new city of 2,000. But just the prospect of that many people, even if their total water needs were supplied by a daily airdrop of Perrier, is enough to unsettle people whose ideas of space have been shaped by living among vast dry expanses. “When I had to go to Portland for the doctor,” recalls Lottie Barthwick, a great-grandmother who has spent her whole life in the area, “it was just like being in prison.”
To an urban eye, the Big Muddy Ranch seems an unlikely population-density danger area. It totals 64,000 square acres, plus 18,000 owned by the Bureau of Land Management and leased by the Rajneesh, for an area well over one hundred square miles, about onefourth the size of Multnomah County. You drive for ten miles, already on the property, before seeing any significant signs of settlement. It does seem as though 2,000 people could be put into the area without courting urban sprawl.
But the local ranchers, who manage spreads of 10,000 acres with one family, find a proposal for 730 agricultural workers and a slightly greater supporting population incomprehensible and threatening. To this, the disciples respond that they will be doing not open-range livestock ranching, but entirely different, more labor-intensive agriculture. Questions about why they need so many people, they say, are usually answered by a tour of the ranch.
The work done so far by the ranch’s 280 inhabitants is impressive. Selected from sannyasins all over the world for particular skills, they work from 7:30 in the morning until 7:00 at night, with a half day off every two weeks; a notice on the cafeteria bulletin board invites disciples to give their half day to “beautify the ranch” by planting trees.
With the aid of a sizable investment in heavy equipment, they have put up a cafeteria, six greenhouses, and a dairy barn for fifty Holsteins, and have begun roadwork. They expect to plant 6,000 fruit trees this spring, using an Israeli drip-irrigation system. They say they have planted 1,000 acres of winter wheat (the locals are skeptical of the figure) and will put in another 2,000 acres of oats and barley this spring. They have improved the roads, and a rock crusher is slowly turning a cliff to gravel. And they have successfully dug wells and are beginning a dam to hold the spring runoff.
“We have ample water,” says Silverman. “Not only that, we are creating projects to conserve water. We are more careful than anyone in the past has been. The people complaining are upstream from us. Their carelessness will affect us.” To their requests for incorporation, and for permits from Wasco County for another four hundred mobile homes, the disciples have appended statements from several water experts.
The locals, however, are not convinced, and the fact that the disciples’ wells are bringing up water does not reassure them. “There’s not much water out there,” complains one rancher. “There are some good springs, but we’re afraid that their wells will dry up those springs.” Like everything else the disciples do, their water policy is seen as a threat. “Water rights are water rights,” says another, “but they’ve got pretty good lawyers.”
And there is also an undercurrent of resentment that newcomers should be telling veteran ranchers about the potentialities of the land in southern Wasco County. “They come in here,” complains one, “and say they’re going to show us how to farm it efficiently.” Others say that the disciples should first show that they can farm the land successfully before they set up the city the farming is supposed to support. Like the wells, the new technology is not comforting. “Maybe,” admits one local, “we resent them because they can buy new tractors and we can’t.”
Martin Zimmerman, of the Jefferson County Agricultural Extension Service (two-thirds of the ranch is in Jefferson County, although all of the proposed city is in Wasco), does not think that the disciples are likely to suck up all the water from under their neighbors’ property. But he is not optimistic about the Big Muddy Ranch’s prospects.
“With unlimited capital, drip irrigation, and a few pumps, you can do some pretty interesting things, but not usually on a large-scale basis,” he says. “People have attempted dry-land farming before, and the soil is rather poor. Greenhouse attempts have not been profitable in this area. To have 1,500 irrigated acres of crops, you need about 5,000 acre-feet of water. I really question whether they’re going to have that.”
But, Zimmerman admits, his calculations may be beside the point. “From a practical, commercial agricultural standpoint, the things they’re doing aren’t very feasible. But from where they’re coming from, they don’t have to be practical. They’re looking at it from quite another perspective. The Egyptians, thousands of years ago, watered some pretty barren hillsides with a six mile bucket brigade. You can’t say it’s impossible.”
The opposition to the group’s most cherished project, the city of Rajneeshpuram, does not hinge upon questions of water or the likelihood of agricultural success. The three separate pieces of land, totaling a little more than three square miles, where the disciples propose to incorporate are composed entirely of soil Level VII, or worse, land on which growing anything is difficult. Silverman complains that on the one hand people say that they’ll never grow anything on the ranch, but when the disciples want to use part of it for a city, suddenly they claim it’s valuable agricultural land. The group also insists that, despite claims by opponents, the city will not exceed 2,000 disciples. “It would be fantastic if a lot of others wanted to move in,” says Knapp, “but we don’t expect that.”
The 1000 Friends of Oregon brief maintains, however, that incorporation violates the state’s land-use goals. “Once established, a city has a license to expand without any power on the part of the state to question,” warns Bob Stacey of 1000 Friends. “The Rajneesh could change their minds and decide that they wanted a large urban area with a large population there. Now is the time to question whether we want that.”
The residents of Antelope, unsurprisingly, doubt whether the new city would remain that size. “I think it’s entirely possible that the population may well exceed 2,000 in a short time,” darkly warns Keith Mobley, Antelope city attorney, who practices in The Dalles. “I think that they would like to have a very substantial city, larger than the population of Wasco County [21,750]. Unless some resistance is there, it’s going to be a relatively short time before they control Wasco County.”
To such charges, Silverman only laughs and spreads her arms wide. “Where I am going to put them?” she asks. “Can you find me space? It’s common sense.” She projects only a city of “2,000 people residing happily in 1995.”
Even at the projected levels, Rajneeshpuram would have an impact on the area. “There might be long term impacts that would keep the problems going for a long time,” says executive assistant to Governor Atiyeh Bob Oliver, who has met with both sides. “If the population continues to grow, it would be a political force in Wasco County. As the population increases, there will also be a need for more services from the county.”
The settlement, however, would also change more than the politics. To the intentionally isolated residents of Antelope, it would affect the entire nature of their lives, something they thought they had the power to choose.
“I consider it pretty valuable, the sense of space out here,” says Lloyd Forman, who works on his father’s ranch outside the town. “I don’t say all these people are going to ruin it, but it’s sure going to change things.”
Another Antelope resident, Frank MacNamee, says that he has no plans to leave. But when pressed, he hesitates. “You get to the point where you feel like you’re fighting the whole world. Sometimes you wonder if you’re doing right. But what those people believe in is really different from what we believe in, what we were brought up to. I just wish I knew what’s right.”
At about twenty minutes to three on the day of the vote to dissolve the town, out of a clear sky, hail suddenly started to fall on Antelope. Up to that point, inexplicable natural phenomena had been all the day had lacked.
For weeks before the election, the townspeople had warned that the disciples would simply move enough people into Antelope to control it. But when it became clear that exactly that had happened, they seemed, if not surprised, at least taken aback.
Knowing that the last two days’ registration had turned the odds against them, they gathered in glum groups outside the school where the votes were being cast and in the parking lot where the media cars created Antelope’s first parking problem, watching the stream of new voters, most of whom were wearing red. Still, a certain local cheerfulness persisted in the basement of the school, where Antelope’s women sought to raise money for legal expenses by selling handmade sandwiches and pie to people with expense accounts.
Before any votes were cast, the town was planning a challenge, arguing that the fifty five disciples who registered—and voted against dissolution—could not all be legal residents. Had the election somehow gone the other way, the disciples had planned to appeal; the election was less a referendum on dissolution of the town than on which group would go to court the next week.
In the back room of Zorba the Buddha, Silverman propped up her phlebitis-stricken left leg and talked to the people from 60 Minutes about the progress of tree planting on the ranch and the events of the day. “It’s a good circus,” she said, “I enjoy it.” Earlier, in a jammed press conference, she had repeated that if the group could get what it wanted on the ranch, it would be willing to sell its Antelope properties.
Talk of a compromise, which comes up intermittently, always seems to run head-on into a wall of obstacles. Both the commune and its opponents, 1000 Friends of Oregon, say they regard the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram as non-negotiable. The townspeople of Antelope say they wouldn’t trust the disciples to keep an agreement. And on all sides, there is evidence of the certain solidifying of position that results from explaining oneself too often on television.
Still, Ed Sullivan, the disciples’ lawyer, is guardedly optimistic: “There’ll be some resolution. It may not be exactly what anybody wants. But somewhere, good sense and goodwill will prevail.”
Mobley doesn’t disagree. But as he counts up the conflicts at the city, county, state, and federal levels—the disciples have given notice that they may sue for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights acts—he phrases his expectations differently.
“This,” he said on election day, looking around at the townspeople, the disciples, the cameras, and the hostility, “could go on for a long time.”
—Oregon Magazine, May 1982
This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.