Christiania, the Copenhagen community symbolized by a red flag with three yellow dots, is a fascinating and controversial place. Hailed internationally as a model social experiment, it is scorned quite a bit domestically as a haven for hippie lawless freeloaders.
Though it’s notorious for its openness to soft drugs, the community itself strictly prohibits hard drug use.
I’d been looking forward to checking out the community, when I first went to Copenhagen, in September 2005. I spent some time wandering around getting a feel for the place and asking people about taxes, heat and other realities of living there.
It surprised me the number of police that were involved in checking people in the cafes for little bags of marijuana. I counted 16 officers. The dislike between the police and the community at large was visceral.
A woman with a shop there said that police patrols come through about twice a day. There have been flare-ups between police and the community, she said, with violence on both sides. One had been the previous week.
A few days later I went back to Christiania again. When the police came, a man with a video camera appeared. He began speaking to me in Danish. In English, then, he said that they now document incidents, for evidence. As the police left the open-air cafe and began to cross the courtyard, the hissing and murmuring and words against them could be heard burbling around. As soon as they had crossed the courtyard, a megaphone hooked up outside to an amplifier came to life, blasting something in Danish which made police look furious. Suddenly there was shouting and commotion ahead, and the man with the video camera went running toward it, and I went curiously along. I remembered that my cell phone had a sound recorder function, and I was interested to tape what was happening so I could later learn, in English, what was being said. The police had seized a woman, pulled her from her bike, and were beginning to pull her away. The people around her fought back. There were about a dozen police, and very quickly they had formed a retreating line, backing up, with two officers behind them pulling the woman. It was perhaps 300 meters or so to Christiania’s entrance and on to the police van. At the van, the people and the police line sort of squared off. A clown appeared, shouting and pleading with police. I kept recording, and taking pictures, of course being able to understand nothing at all. The line remained, but then I noticed there was a police van with the back open over a hedge in someone’s driveway, and some of the police were moving quickly, stripping to underwear and bras and then into what looked like riot gear. To face the community? Or had they received another call? No idea. At this point I had to leave to start heading for a flight.
The next day I received an email from a colleague in Sweden. She said the day after I’d been there, police had moved in and bulldozed the less-safe settlements, and arrested about 100 people.
To get my recordings translated, I posted a note on Craigslist asking for Danish-speaking volunteers in my community. I didn’t tell them what the audio contained, as I recall. I did get responses, and emailed the audio files, only to shortly get a nervous note back saying “it sounds like an exorcism”. The most interesting thing for me in all of this was about human communication and how flawed it can be. In my mind, as the events were unfolding, I was making assumptions of the kinds of things that were being said. I felt absolutely certain that Clown and friends were yelling about police violence, that the woman hadn’t done anything, pleading for her to be let go, pleading for police to leave the community alone, that they only wanted peace. I felt absolutely certain, but at least for the portions that I got on tape, I was dead wrong.
Apparently the majority of the audio was racist slurs against an officer once encountered, who they believe stole a video camera. They wanted it back.
This community which was supposed to be a model of tolerance and acceptance of differences and cooperative living, saying things so racist? I confess I was disappointed; it didn’t fit into the myth I had created in my mind, about this grand social experiment of Christiania. It is a complicated issue, and it is easy to romanticize or judge it as a foreigner.
The community has existed since 1971 when people began crawling through the fences of the old military compound. Now, about 700 adults and 250 children live there. The open-air hash markets it was known for no longer exist. Those who want Christiania residents gone argue that they have a vast amount of land, and it is prime waterfront, and that all residents of Copenhagen are not being treated equally. In January, Denmark announced that it will be clearing some of Christiania to make room for condominiums.
Relations between politicians / police and Christiania continue to be stormy. Opinions on the issue are quite polarized, and felt very intensely.
Christiania continues its fight in Denmark’s politics and the news. Some say its days are numbered, some say it will never disappear.
Christiania’s own website (click on the UK flag top right for English)
How their current self-management system works. [link no longer available in English]
One style of bike seen all over Copenhagen.