Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Occupy winter -- it clears the mind

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2I know this because I was one of those yahoos and was, in fact, the yahoo who suggested that these people should change their lifestyle.

The night before, I had been in Memorial Park, camping out with the hippies and quite enjoying myself, and the next night I would be back there again. But at that moment in time, drink milk and read the Bible seemed like particularly good advice and so I passed it on to my long-haired brothers and sisters.

At that time, I suppose, the hippies were "occupying" Memorial Park. They were there all day and all night when the weather was good. They didn't have tents, they didn't have TV cameras and they didn't have signs with slogans written on them, but they ruled the park. Decent people, men who went to barber shops, women who wore pantyhose, avoided it as if it were plague-ridden (which it may well have been).

The same sort of thing was taking place in cities all across North America -- young people acting up, casting off the chains of conventionalism, smoking a little weed, shooting up a little speed, drinking far too much and taking advantage of the newly minted "liberation" of women. It was fun; it was party time with a political patina.

But it didn't really have any particular purpose. "Make love, not war" is not a slogan that one can actually fight for and "Peace, Brother (or Sister)" is about as mindless a salutation as one can imagine.

All those idle, happy hippies have, of course, moved on. They got jobs, had kids, bought houses, settled down -- a lot of them even cut their hair -- and some of them are drinking milk and reading the Bible (don't blame me, but good for them). Life has all kinds of twists and turns to it, twists and turns that are inevitable but that somehow we never expect.

In cities across North America, including Winnipeg, we are witnessing something similar to what happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s. People are "occupying" places. It began with Occupy Wall Street in New York, a protest, apparently against banks or something, and has spread all around the world except for some African and Asian countries such as China that don't take kindly to hippies.

In Winnipeg today, there is a little tent city in Memorial Park of people protesting something or other. It's like déjà vu all over again, except that these people have a Serious Purpose, whereas the old hippies just wanted to have fun.

The courteous thing to do in a situation like this is ask: "What is your Serious Purpose?" And journalists around the world have been asking that question of these serious people, who almost to a woman (or a man) vow to spend the rest of their lives "occupying" one place or another until their demands are met.

Free Press reporter Melissa Martin asked that question of Memorial Park occupiers this week. One respondent told her: "People go, 'Well, what's your demand?'... It's not a demand. We're living our demand."

If I had asked that same question of a Memorial Park hippie in 1969 and gotten that same response, I would have attributed it to the suspicion that my respondent had smoked a little too much weed, shot a little too much speed and drunk way more than she should have.

But these are not happy hippies anymore. These are serious people, even if they cannot articulate what it is that they are serious about. The Winnipeg demonstrator's illusion that he is "living our demand" is typical of the response you get from any occupier, anywhere in the world.

It would be comforting if we could think that this, too, shall pass, just as the hippies inevitably moved from Memorial Park to Wolseley. But the hippies weren't -- most of them anyway -- impassioned by a sense of purpose or, if they were, they at least were aware of what it might be; "make love, not war" may not be very sensible but at least it's a nice thought.

Today's occupiers have an intense sense of purpose. What is scary about that is that they don't seem to have any idea of what that purpose is. So perhaps they will continue to live in their tent cities forever -- or "for as long as it takes," as one said -- or until the rest of us get tired of the inconvenience they impose on us and demand that our governments move them out. There are signs of that already in various cities.

Personally, I would let them stay outdoors as long as they want and until they can figure out what they want. There's something about a January morning that remarkably clears the mind, especially when you're not having any fun. In the meantime, if you've got milk and a Bible, drop them off. Can't hurt.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 A18

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