Jennifer Brooks
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LuAnn Buechler hugged her way around the Trump rally.

She hugged the Trump supporters in line. She hugged the protesters in the street. She hugged until her sweatshirt was as soaked with rainwater as they were.

She was trying, she said, to change the energy in a space where thousands of people were bristling with anger on opposite sides of police barricades.

A stranger with a “FREE HUGS” sign is a tough sell in a state where many people are uncomfortable making eye contact until they’ve known you for at least a year. But Buechler, a motivational speaker from Byron, Minn., and author of a book about the manifold benefits of hugging, found plenty of people willing to take her up on the offer.

As they bent down to give the 4-foot-11 Buechler a hug, some of them whispered in her ear.

“Go talk to those other people,” they told her, nodding to the crowd on the other side of the Trump divide. “They’re the ones who are angry.”

Buechler hugged hundreds, dispensed “ihug” stickers and FREE HUGS signs, then hit the road back to Byron as the rally started. She considers herself nonpolitical and doesn’t like the way the debate over this polarizing president has unraveled relationships in her tightknit family.

“What I want,” she said, “is for people to stop fighting.”

By the time she got home, the president had taken the stage, swearing and swinging at Minneapolis and its “rotten” mayor and its “America-hating” congresswoman.

Outside Target Center, protesters were burning MAGA hats and pelting Minneapolis police with garbage.

Inside, the crowd was booing their Somali-American neighbors and cheering the president’s suggestion that cities should be allowed to turn Somali immigrants away.

It’s hard to see how America is going to hug its way out of this one. A few blocks down Hennepin Avenue, they were trying.

The nonprofit Citizens League held its annual Civic Celebration on Thursday night in downtown Minneapolis. They came to honor two Minnesotans who have spent decades working toward the common good from opposite ends of the political spectrum: former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger.

Attendees sidestepped the lies, noise and gleeful cruelty up the road to meet on crumbling common ground.

It was a night for people who “wanted to work in the more difficult middle space,” said Pahoua Yang Hoffman, executive director of the Citizens League.

“It was about coming together, it was about a voice of hope,” she said. “It was about, how do you reach across to people you might disagree with and still come out on the other end, working toward that common goal.”

In a video put together for the evening, the two honorees talked about what kept them reaching across the aisle.

“Getting involved in civic activity, it was almost like a spiritual thing,” said Durenberger, who has spent his career, in the Senate and out, in search of bipartisan health care policies that could save Americans from the crushing medical costs of the current system.

“It wasn’t like going to church, but it had that same flavor to it. It’s like, ‘What can you do for the people with whom you live?’ ... Community has meaning. The people next door are part of your life as well.”

As a child, Sayles Belton watched a public policy decision destroy her entire community — the homes, businesses and schools of St. Paul’s thriving, majority-black Rondo neighborhood — bulldozed to make way for Interstate 94. Determined to work on public policy that worked for all the public, she became the first black woman to lead the city of Minneapolis.

“It starts with us coming together,” she said. “It starts with this understanding that it’s not ‘us and them.’ It’s us.”

This is us, Minnesota.

For FREE HUGS, visit ihugmovement.com.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks