On the barricades: Trouble in a hippie paradise

It was set up in the heart of Copenhagen as an antidote to the selfish society. But Europe's most famous commune is under threat from a right-wing government determined to 'normalise' this relic of the 1970s. Cahal Milmo reports from Christiania
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The Independent Online

There is something new in the air over Christiania. Along with the wafts of cannabis smoke that linger over Europe's oldest hippie commune there now comes the stench of burnt tyres, charred rubbish and traces of tear gas.

The cloying odour rises from blackened barricades at the entrance to the 36-year-old self-declared "Fristaden" or Free Town in the heart of Copenhagen. These festering blockades stand just feet from gaudy graffiti advocating "eternal peace" and posters advertising products from yoga workshops to organic lettuce. A few feet further, teenagers carry on business as usual by smoking joints of hashish bought on Pusher Street - the ramshackle thoroughfare where marijuana dealers still hawk their wares sotto voce despite a prolonged police crackdown on the trade.

This stark contrast between love and war bears testimony to difficult times for Copenhagen's 800 Christianians, residents of the commune who fear their free-wheeling idyll in a disused naval barracks dotted with lakes and overgrown with woodland is about to be claimed back in what Denmark's right-wing government describes in Orwellian terms as "normalisation".

For two long nights this month the commune has been hit by one of the worst spasms of violence in its history as dozens of youths clashed with riot police in streets immediately outside Christiania's "border", marked out by two totem poles declaring "Welcome to Christiania" to incomers and "You are now entering the EU" to those leaving. Such is the fervour with which residents hold on to their self-declared autonomy, they even have their own flag - three yellow discs on a red background.

An attempt by the authorities to clear the burnt-out remains of a house in part of the 85-acre site that has been earmarked for a public park led to more than 90 arrests earlier this month. Black-clad youths launched cobble stones and bottles at the riot squads after setting fire to the barricades of furniture, cars and rubbish bins. The police replied with baton charges and tear gas as the rioters turned on a nearby school and damaged a library. There were unconfirmed reports that residents were also attacked.

Jens, a 23-year-old art student wearing the Christianian uniform of batik trousers and ripped T-shirt topped with a beanie hat, took part in the disturbances. Sitting in the garden of the Moonfisher Cafe, which has been raided by police so often that the air once thick with hash smoke is now perfumed only with coffee, this would-be class warrior said: "This is war. If the police want to come in and rip down our homes they will get what they deserve. It's simple really - how would you react to an organisation that wants to destroy your way of life?"

This sounds a long way from the founding spirit of the Scandinavian beatniks and working- class Copehagenites looking for affordable housing who first annexed the disused military base in 1971, extolling residents to "emigrate on the number eight bus route" and build homes to be owned by the collective in a community governed by meetings. As the original mission statement put it: "The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community."

The vast majority of Christianians denounced the recent violence when The Independent visited in the aftermath, pointing out that at least half of those arrested - a figure confirmed by the Copenhagen Police - were youths from other parts of the city using the commune as an excuse to confront the authorities.

But the riots served to highlight a far more fundamental question about whether the "self-governing society" admired by Scandinavians for a generation is a thriving entity of which Danes should be proud or if it has become a closed community for privileged beatniks living cheek-by-jowl with a grubby cannabis trade, albeit one where hard drugs have been successfully eschewed for almost two decades.

At a time when Denmark is tempering its liberal traditions with a lurch towards conservative values - the governing coalition includes the ultra right-wing and anti-immigrant Danish People's Party - Christianians believe they have become the front line for a crackdown on tolerance. The authorities have shifted their focus after clearing out the Ungdomshuset or Youth House, a squat in another Copenhagen district used by leftist radicals and drop outs. The police action in March prompted the worst rioting in the Danish capital for a decade.

As Karsten S, a husky-voiced artist and social worker who has lived in Christiania for 29 years, put it: "They want to make us like any other part of any other European city. They want to make Christiania fashionable and gentrified. Everyone must own their house and pay their taxes. Well, that's not going to happen. We are obliged to preserve something that is unique."

Indeed, a stroll around Christiania, less than a mile from the Danish royal family's palace, reveals a place that is far more complex and structured than the 85-acres of unruly cliché that is Pusher Street, with its stalls selling Che Guevara t-shirts and Bob Marley CDs, might lead visitors to believe. It is largely governed by eight eclectic but inviolable rules: no cars, no hard drugs (after a disastrous flirtation with tolerating heroin addicts in the late 1970s), no guns, no violence, no selling property, no stealing, no bulletproof vests, and no biker colours (after a biker gang infiltrated the marijuana trade and the dismembered corpse of a rival was found under the floor boards of a house).

Instead of cars, people get around on contraptions known as Christiania Bikes, a sort of back-to-front tricycle with a large box on the front to carry anything from groceries to children. Accommodation is a mix of large 19th-century warehouses divided into flats and dozens of self-built houses, some accomplished feats of eco-engineering and others little more than garden sheds.

Christiania boasts its own kindergarten, health clinic, vegan restaurant, health food shop, book shop and the Gra Haus, a fully-fledged concert venue where recent performers have included the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

It is in this tranquil hinterland that the real Christiania emerges. Children ride their bikes up and down apparently unsupervised, neighbours help each other install wiring or plumbing while artists sit on terraces completing their latest painting or sculpture. In this cleanest of Scandinavian capitals, there is even a squad of volunteer street cleaners to keep the place spotless.

Each house has a name rather than a number - Blue House, The Hot Potato Girls House, Big Cigar House, The Banana House. Rubbish has been sorted and recycled since long before it became the norm elsewhere and teams of volunteers conduct periodic clean ups of public areas. Tourists stream through the area, making it the second biggest tourist attraction in Copenhagen after the Tivoli Gardens, with more than 500,000 visitors a year.

Away from the main drags, people like Concertino live their lives. Sitting in a hammock slung between two silver birch trees, the 56-year-old German with fabric flowers braided into his beard has lived in the commune for four years and describes himself as a "citizen of the outdoors". All his worldly goods stand in an airport-style trolley which he keeps beside his hammock and he earns a living by busking in central Copenhagen. He said: "I have walked and hitch-hiked 500,000 kilometres around Europe and always I kept coming back to Christiania. A lot of people tried to set up communes all over Europe in the Sixties and Seventies but only one has survived. They must be doing something right."

Quite what that something is, is unclear. Although it calls itself a commune, the true extent of communal living is limited. Few of the houses are run as shared living space as almost two-thirds of the population are families living in self-contained properties.

But, nonetheless , the enclave remains distinct in its model for owning property (or rather not owning property). It is arranged into 14 separate districts with the rights to each home ultimately residing with the community. The result is a culture of meetings, often lasting long into the night, to decide everything from who should be allowed to move into a vacant property to whether the grass verges should be cut. Among the meetings held last week was a gathering to decide whether one resident accused of repeatedly playing music too loudly should be asked to leave the area.

But while Christianians have long accepted paying taxes for public services such as schools outside the commune and have started to pay a monthly rent to the Copenhagen municipality of about £200 - significantly below the market rate - the authorities want faster and greater change. Under a three-point plan agreed this January, the government, led by the right-wing Liberal Party, wants to build privately owned homes for 400 new residents, tear down 50 existing homes to create a public park and make the remaining residents individually accountable for the property they occupy, either as private tenants or shareholders in a co-operative.

To most Christianians this is anathema, leading to a deadlock between the commune's negotiating committee and the government, which is threatening to take an increasingly hard line with what it considers to be a gang of spoilt utopians.

Christian Wedell Neergaard, spokesman on Christiania for the Conservative Party, part of the governing coalition, told The Independent this week that unless its residents rapidly reached an acceptable new structure for the commune, one will be imposed. He said: "There has been a prolonged process of negotiation with the residents and an agreement. Yet nothing has happened in terms of the changes to the types of ownership that have been agreed among other things.

"Now we are at the point where we keep the door open for action by the residents to apply the law or we are left in a position where we would have to enforce the law. There will be normalisation of Christiania.

"We are 35 years after Christiania was formed. Our society has changed a lot in that time but it has not. There is a huge problem with the drugs trade, both for residents in Christiania and outside it. I'm afraid it is Christiania itself which has made us make these changes."

Copenhagen Police estimates that around £100,000 of business is done in the cannabis market every day and seizures of large quantities of the drug, which is imported, are a frequent occurrence, although the days when the drug was sold openly from gaily painted stalls advertising differing strengths of hash have long since passed.

Flemming Munk, a police spokesman, said: "We have taken a more obvious stance. We patrol five or six times a day. In a sense, it is not too surprising. Teachers take their pupils to Christiania to teach them its history and the same pupils come back to buy what they've seen on sale."

Critics of the commune have complained that it is heavily subsidised by the cannabis dealers, who must all live in the enclave to be allowed to trade. But The Independent was told that any donations to communal coffers from known dealers are rejected. One senior resident added: "We actually have several large supporters in Danish business who provide money for things like the kindergarten. They like to remain anonymous but we have no need for drug money. The cannabis market is allowed for reasons of doctrine, not finance."

Unsurprisingly, the Christianians beg to differ on other criticisms from the government. So far, 700 residents have laid down lawsuits challenging the legislation which seeks to abolish co-operative ownership in the enclave. There is also another class action seeking to claim the equivalent of squatters' rights on the site, which is still owned by the Danish Defence Ministry.

They also insist that the commune is far from a living museum of outmoded dogma. To a large extent, flower power has been swapped for solar power, wind power, composting and whole host of other eco-friendly innovations. A method of filtering sewage through reed beds, which means water coming out of Christiania is as clean as that coming out from the rest of Copenhagen's treatment plants, has helped the commune be shortlisted for a pan-Scandinavian award for ecological living.

Ole Kristensen, a press spokesman for the commune, said: "We have a government that does not want to listen. Christiania serves a purpose to Danish society; we are Danes and proud of that. Our way of life is important. Whatever you might think of the cannabis trade, it does not bring trouble. It allows kids to experiment safely.

"Christiania is a thermometer for the rest of society. It tries things out, tests them and reveals what is good and useful and what is misguided and does not work. Why not leave it alone to get on with the work, man?"

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