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Two Saturdays ago, while the Gopher football team was getting whupped by North Dakota State a few blocks to the east, and while the WCCO entertainment plaza was broadcasting news you can use a few blocks to the south, and while the world in general was hurtling toward its latest apocalypse, Dan Haugen hugged a cop. When he was finished, he hugged another.
In broad daylight.
On the Nicollet Mall.
"It was awesome," says Haugen, a 28-year-old from Richfield who's a television production student at Brown College. "I can barely put into words how good it felt. It was such a great experience. I was holding a sign that said, 'Free Hugs,' and at first they thought it said, 'Free Drugs.' They were Hennepin County sheriffs, and when they saw what it said, the one guy hugged me, then he turned to his partner and said, 'This guy definitely needs a hug.' So we all hugged him."
Haugen is a member of a weeks-old Minneapolis-based collective known as the Hug Brigade. Their mission is goofball-simple—to commit random acts of kindness by embracing strangers ("No deposit! No further payments!" broadcast hugger Gary Robbins to potential huggees. The first hugathon was executed October 21 in downtown Minneapolis. A group of 16 (the brigade doubled the next week), clad in glitter, jeans, feather boas, fluorescent pants, warm-up Halloween costumes, and the like, paraded up Nicollet Mall from Grant Street to Ninth Street, passing out, yes, hugs.
"It's just to spread love," says Haugen. "There's so much going on right now that everybody needs love. And who doesn't love a hug?"
And so for four hours, the Hug Brigade embraced strangers far and wide. Some casualties wouldn't have anything to do with them, never breaking stride or feinting past like Dr. Sphincter around a group of lepers. Others, most others in fact, were into it. Most memorably, an elderly, snaggle-toothed woman who blossomed on the spot and hugged every member of the group.
"I was sitting around thinking, 'How can I make a difference?'" says Carrie Rupp, a 22-year-old pool-maintenance worker from Minneapolis and "instigator" of the Hug Brigade. "I wanted it to be simple, because everybody tries to make it super-complex and super-difficult to change something. And I thought, 'I really like giving hugs, and I'm really good at it, so why not just go stand out there and spread some love?' All you have to do is plant that seed and it just grows and grows and grows."
She's either on to something or on something. Something that has roots in Grateful Dead concerts, where "Free Hugs" signs were commonplace, and in the philosophy of Leo Buscaglia, the so-called "Hug Doctor" of the '70s who espoused the metabolic healing powers of hugs, and whose fans would wait in line for hours to receive bear hugs from the good doctor. Then there's the "hugging saint," Mata Amritanandamayi, who hugs everyone who approaches her, and who, in India, has been known to individually hug over 50,000 people in a day. Amritanandamayi is said to have hugged at least 30 million people in the past 30 years.
More recently, "Juan Mann," a 22-year-old student from Sydney, Australia, took his "Free Hugs" sign to the Pitt Street Mall in Sydney. He got plenty of hugs and plenty of grief from the cops, until he procured 10,000 signatures from free-hugger supporters, and won permission to continue his hugging. When the video of his experience (www.freehugs.org, shot by Mann's buddy) hit YouTube on September 22, it almost instantly garnered two million views, and has since been seen on Good Morning America. The video has inspired similar movements in South Korea and Taipei, where one student's goal is to "hug everyone in Taiwan."
For her part, Rupp says the inspiration for Minneapolis's hugathon (www.myspace.com/hug_brigade) was purely organic: "There's six billion of us on this planet, and what is the common thing going through everyone's brain? 'I'm isolated. I feel alone. I don't know who to turn to.' It's terrible that there's so many of us so alone," says Rupp. "And in my mind, the only thing that makes sense is if we just open up and start speaking to each other like brothers and sisters, as one human race. I just think if you put it in someone's face—love, a peace sign, a hug—it can only be good."
Tabatha Robbins knows as much firsthand. The 26-year-old home-healthcare provider joined the first hug-off with her handicapped employer, her husband, and her brother-in-law. "It was the greatest experience to be able to give complete strangers hugs and have some of them actually accept them and some of them look at us like we were nuts," she says. "People asked us, 'What are you selling?' 'What do you want?' We were like, 'Nothing. We're just here, doing this because we want to.' I can't wait to do it again."
The current plan is to organize hug-ins twice a month. When the weather turns colder, the Brigade will hit the malls. They might spend the holidays going to old folks' homes.
"It tickles people," concludes Gary Robbins. "The expression you get off of people's faces? When they keep walking past you and then they finally lean into you and go, 'Oh, all right.' It just tickles their heart, and I am completely down with doing it again and again and again and again."
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org