End of an era for Denmark’s free-town

May 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of Europe’s most famous communes, Christiania in Copenhagen, is facing the most serious challenge to its existence yet.

An ongoing legal case – viewed by the residents as an attempt by a center-right government to finally crush Christiania – has resulted in an agreement between the Danish government and the commune that the latter will purchase the real estate for the tidy sum of 150 million Danish kroner – roughly 30 million dollars. But for a community where the majority shuns materialism and many earn less than 30,000 dollars a year, such an arrangement is unrealistic – as well as being fundamentally against the spirit of the old squatter commune.

Christiania is home to around 650 adults and 130 children. It has enjoyed the tacit acceptance of 17 governments through forty years. Residents construct and maintain their own homes, ranging from eco-friendly huts to the old barracks on the site, and run all facilities within the commune themselves – from childcare to cafés to waste disposal. The commune is governed by a system of grassroots self-management in which every decision affecting the community is debated by all residents, and the residents pride themselves in their inclusive system.

For forty years, the commune has been a social experiment, a celebration of a different lifestyle – and a thorn in the side of many. Opinion has been divided from the beginning. To some, Christiania is a bastion of anarchy, a drug-infested epicenter of welfare fraud populated by hordes of unwashed, work-shy alcoholics who threaten to invade the rest of Denmark with their outmoded hippie slogans and criminal attitudes. To others, Christiania is the embodiment and finest expression of those noblest of Danish values – cooperation, tolerance and freedom to choose alternative lifestyle.

Cannabis has been openly on sale in the commune for decades, causing conflict between the authorities and the residents and causing many of a more conservative bent to charge that Christiania is a haven of crime and drug abuse – even though hard drugs, weapons and gang insignia are banned by the residents. So are cars, incidentally.

Police raids resulted in riots last month, with accusations of police brutality from the residents of Christiania after some residents were arrested in a storm of Molotov cocktails and rocks

But it’s not really about the cannabis. For many, the idea that a few hundred people have squatting rights to 34 hectares of prime real estate in the heart of Copenhagen while everybody else has to pay their rents and mortgages is offensive. Who do these people think they are that they should be above the law and enjoy special privileges, I hear asked? Residents of Christiania tartly counter that they have lived up to their financial obligations for decades – and that perhaps society would do well to pose such critical questions to large corporations, not just of small communes.

Denmark’s most far-right party, The Danish People’s Party, which has taken the lead in efforts to dismantle the commune, remains intransigent.

It is actually both shocking and absurd that the free-town Christiania has not been razed to the ground ages ago. What started as an experiment – illegal squatting in the derelict military barracks at Bådsmands Street – is still there. It is a relic of the hippie culture of ’68, where drugs seduced youths with promises of consciousness-expanding experiences. Free hash and Flower Power. A monument to an era which fortunately has ended […] Christiania must be dismantled. The free-town has no future. All chances have been squandered, and we will not be made into a laughing-stock…”

An eco-friendly hut in Christiania

Efforts to ‘normalize’ Christiania have been ongoing for some time. But this most recent legal offensive, mounted under intense political pressure from the right-wing Danish People’s Party, is likely to mark the end of an age for the commune. However one feels about squatters, eco-huts and cannabis, the question remains: can Denmark afford to lose Christiania? Whichever side of that divide you find yourself on, the fact remains that Christiania is the third most popular tourist attraction in Denmark, attracting thousands of visitors each year, who come to savor an atmosphere and a heritage that is to be found in no other European capital.

If closed down – or ‘normalized’ as it is euphemistically termed – Christiania would likely be replaced by soul-crushingly ordinary housing estates with sky-high mortgages and supermarkets. Perhaps there would be a small museum or plaque amidst all that inoffensive uniformity, informing passers-by that here used to stand one very concrete expression of the values that Denmark used to regard as the most essential to its national character.

In the end, the residents themselves put it most succinctly:

The free-town Christiania is “The canary in the coalmine.”   We warn Denmark: The oxygen in the society is about to run out.

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