Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Unfree Town of Christiania

The Unfree Town of Christiania, or: What Happens When a Movement Gets Its Way

Freetown Christiania , (“Fristaden Christiania” or “The Free Christiania” - Det fri Christiania, in Danish) in Copenhagen has a very interesting history. Like many other areas adjacent to the royal palace, it was a military barracks – among other things used (between 1946 and 1950) to punish those accused of collaboration with the Nazis. The Danish Navy, however, decided in the late 1960s and early 1970s to shut down some of its bases and the compound remained deserted. In 1971, a group of five people squat the forsaken base, with the symbolic purpose to use the space as a “free” town, independent from Copenhagen and its rules, free from the conventions of the Danish society. The new inhabitants hailed an anti-consumerist ideology, free usage of drugs, ban on violence and stealing and so on. Their mission statement read “"The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted." The hippy movement has found its neighbourhood in Copenhagen, where some 850 people want to live like in Hans-Christian Andersen fairy tales: free and happy ever after.

Part of the protest was because of housing shortage, a common problem in the European cities since the 1960s, which encouraged the development of the squatter movement in several areas, including Berlin, London and Amsterdam. The beginning, nevertheless, was all but easy.

Conflicts with the Government
Like most revolts of the counter-cultural movements, it encountered bureaucratic and ideological opposition and the consequential hardships. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to state, that the main ideological rival was, in fact, the Danish bureaucracy. Squatting is illegal, and squatting to state property, deserted military barracks, is of no exception. On the other hand, the squatters were linked with several movements and ideologies, which found their circle of sympathisers beyond the small group of “pioneers”. The area is still owned by the Danish Ministry of Defence, and Christiania reached an agreement with the ministry in 1995, regarding its status.

Take for example their insistence on an “auto-free” zone. The authorities opposed the idea, claiming that the ways to Christiania must remain open, for fire safety reasons. Inhabitants claimed that they have already arranged means of rescue with the fire department, and that the authorities really want the area open, because they want to get the police in the “Freetown”, which was also free of police presence. Roadblocks were constantly removed by the authorities and restored by the Christianites.

Another issue (and some libertarian anarchists would say: the main issue) was taxes. The inhabitants of Christiania, unlike most Danes, refused to pay municipality taxes. According to their own narrative, they are not part of the Copenhagen district of Christianshavn, but a free-town. However, starting 1994 they “succumbed” to the municipality’s demands and began to pay their taxes.

At least legally, one should ask for building permits before building or reconstructing. This, naturally, hasn’t always happened in Christiania. Some of the buildings or shacks have been built in a nature-preserved area, and the currently right-wing government in Denmark has announced that it would attempt to demolish those, a decision that caused natural resistance in Christiania.

Naturally, a main point of conflict was drugs. Christianites supported the free use of drugs, a policy which is prohibited in Denmark, and not surprisingly, caused many conflicts with the police.

The current Danish government (since 2001) is especially hostile towards Christiania and decided in 2004 to stop treating the squatters as a collective, and treat them as individual criminals. Police enhanced its activities in the neighbourhood, which causes resistance among the inhabitants. The government proposed in January 2006, that Christiania’s houses would become private property, a proposal which was rejected by the collective. Just recently, one of the real-estate companies involved in the plan has come out with a new plan that might preserve the uniqueness of the neighbourhood: building “experimental rental apartments and homes in line with Christiania's own laws”. The company has “has offered to buy all the building grounds at Christiania with the exception of Røde Sols Plads (Red Suns' Square), amounting to 12,000 sqm of residential rentals. The state will convert Røde Sols Plads into 7400 sqm of rental and co-op residential buildings.” The residents insist that no deal has been reached with the government, but some have expressed support of this new plan. The plan would in fact legalise Christiania, while maintaining some of its original features. However, “Christiania as a closed-membership club is done. In the future anyone will have the possibility of finding an apartment there” [Source: Copenhagen Post - “Saving Christiania: One of Denmark's most popular tourist sites may be saved by investors from unwanted state intervention“ January 9, 2007]

In other words, paradoxically, the right-wing hostile government is the one, which would legalise Christiania through these deals, and reach an agreement with its current inhabitants. Sort of Nixon paradox , only with a social movement.

Internal Conflicts in a Consensus-Based Community

Problems also arose from within: drugs, violence and controversies among the inhabitants, not all adhere to the same line of thought and not all “agree to disagree”. Decisions must be accepted in consensus, which means that many conflicts in the neighbourhood remain unsolved. The open sale of soft drugs (until January 2004, when this was ceased by a police raid) was at the centre of controversy not only with the government, but also caused internal conflicts.

Hard drugs also stood at the centre of controversy, as several inhabitants died of overdose and several spots, especially a building called “Arc of Peace”, were the centre of junky activity. In Winter 1979, inhabitants placed a siege on “The Arc of Peace”, to drive hard-drug dealers out of the neighbourhood. Christianites claim success in eliminating hard drugs in the area, and the event was mythologised by the movement, part of the neighbourhood’s founding myth of independence from the authorities on one hand (the police, after “betraying” the Christianites previously on the matter, was not let in), and lifestyle according to an internal set of rules on the other.

There have been several other violent internal conflicts in Christiania, where the inhabitants attempted to keep their own internal rules and spirit, without involving the authorities. In 1984, a growing problem was violent biker gangs that also tried to control the soft-drug market (which was, as mentioned before, still active until 2004). The violent conflict between the “veterans” and the newcomer bikers culminated in a murder; soon afterwards community meetings decided that the bikers must remain outside.

Drug related violence did not cease after the closure of the official market in 2004. In April 2005 conflicts between rival pusher organisations (a Christianite one and one from Copenhagen) escalated into full scale violence: On April 23rd, Christianites pushers opened fire at the Copenhagen drug-dealer, who came to their turf; On April 24th, his gang returned fire, killing one Christianite and injuring three more.

Aging Population, Unchanging Values?

Some things, by the way, are considered way more harmful than drug-dealers by the Christianites. As Wikipedia reports of a TV show placing a stand in Christiania: “The journalist was violently threatened to make himself scarce. Other residents, however, took the time to peacefully explain Christiania building rules. Later, journalists set up a stall attempting to sell 'non-politically correct' products such as Coca-Cola and Israeli oranges, arguing this was no worse than selling cannabis to minors. “

An interesting example of the change in Christiania’s original population was the “baby boom” it experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The young squatter couples, who decided to have children have apparently changed their priorities and with it, also pressed for more infrastructure suitable for children. The baby boom was not popular on all fronts, as some old-timers resented the fact that instead of “freedom”, babies now demanded new types of commitment from the community (see: Kjaergaard, K. “Babyboom in Christiania”, Sygeplejersken, March 21, 1990, 90 (12) p. 8).

Another might be the issue of Christiania being an auto-free zone, a decision that hasn’t changed, despite the fact that some elderly or handicapped inhabitants might require now more mobility than in their youthful biking days. In fact, one in eight Christianites owns a vehicle (quite a lot, if you consider that this statistics include minors and others who cannot drive anyways). There is only one parking space in the compound, which can host 14 cars, 10% of the cars owned by Christianites (who park outside the neighbourhood, in Copenhagen). Despite the requests by Copenhagen, Christianites have so far declined to make room for further parking spaces within their neighbourhood. Christiania, by the way, used to run a nationally famous bike fabric, which is now ran more efficiently from outside the small “free town”, and like in ordinarily capitalistic business fashion.

The aging citizens also face “clash of cultures” with other countercultures. For example, between 2002 and 2003, there has been tension between Christianites and a group of artists who actually came to the neighbourhood to support them, but, according to Wikipedia, brought complaints from neighbours who “disliked Dunst's loud parties, their contemporary electro-punk style music being described as techno”

The Unfree Town of Christiania?

Did the movement for Christiania succeed? Between 1971 and 2007, there is a continuous settlement of a collective in the town, with relatively free usage of drugs and free lifestyle. If this is an indicator for a squatters’ movement success, then Christiania is a success – despite its constant clashes with the government, and despite the fact that Christiania keeps fighting for breath, it is still alive.

On the other hand, its “free” lifestyle came with a price. Christiania is full of commercialisation in every corner: from the heavy smell of dope everywhere, suggesting that some drug dealer is making nice profits, to the stands selling all kinds of semi-Hippie trash made in China or India for the tourists: batik dresses, Bob Markey shirts, plastic or glass bongs. Some sweatshop workers in China or Vietnam are probably really proud of those Danish freedom fighters. Bored and doped Lebanese teenagers are walking between the stands, trying to push drugs, not looking very hippie. Market economy has already digested Christiania, despite the protests of its veteran inhabitants.

As the TV article mentioned before suggests, in order to get into the exclusive Christiania club, you’ve got to know people in it. Just like in the “real” world, the Christianites have developed their own internal rules – members of the community are not just “free” to do what they want, and should conform to certain ideals and moral conduct. According to the Christiania moral code, it seems, buying oranges made in Israel is much worse than buying bongs made in China. In general, in order to succeed, countercultural movements, too, have to develop their own rules of membership in the sub-group and conduct in it, and one would be a fool to think that Christiania would be different. It could be only assumed, that after February 1st, when Christianites decide whether to accept or reject the government's offer, new tensions and internal rules would emerge.

One should not however dismiss the success of the Christianites in receiving legitimacy from wider groups in the public, passing on their political message and in giving voice to a counterculture and to subgroups that have been dismissed in Denmark beforehand.

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