FreeTown

by Beth Ann Bovino

September sent me to Scandinavia for work. Assuming that summer lasts through the ninth month, I arrived equipped for the beach. There was no beach and the temperature barely made it to 45 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, even colder at night.

With one sweater and a jeans jacket, I explored the city of Copenhagen, my last destination, wandering through the city streets, buying little, with except an occasional $3 can of Coke. I went walking one afternoon, started following some canals, and before I knew it I found the “FreeTown” of Christiania, Copenhagen.

I heard a bit of its story as it was recommended by friends. I was told that Christiana, also known as Freetown Christiania, is a section of abandoned warehouses and buildings that have been taken over by squatters. Christiania has established semi-legal status as an independent community (later, I learned that it remains in dispute). This little section of Copenhagen can’t help but be a culture shock for most Americans and a surprise to me.

I arrived in the evening, passing by many paisley colored buildings and walking down what I now know as the infamous ‘Pusher Street’. It is a dirt road with colorful signs, reminiscent of Woodstock. Numerous stalls had once been set up, selling marijuana in various modes of being. The stalls are no longer there, but the trade remains. A reviewer on Trip Advisor wrote: “Marijuana and Hash are prevalent everywhere and there are a few selections of Mushrooms, if that’s your trip.”

I stopped for a beer at an outdoor bar packed with dogs and men (the dogs were larger than the men). The picnic tables gave it a campground feel, and outside vendors sold food and/or gifts. But I also watched gangs of men shuffle in, make a deal, and leave. It seemed scary, filled with outlaws, and reminiscent of that bar in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo. The tables next to me each lit up cigarettes (not tobacco).

At a table across the bar, one woman sat alone. I walked over, introduced myself and asked to join her. She waved at a chair and looked away. But within a few minutes, she reached into her bag, took out a flask and offered me a sip. She started to talk. Her friend later sat down with a six-pack of beer.

They told me that they come to Christiana often. That you can bring anything into the bar, it’s all allowed. They said that Christiania is self-governing. (Wikipedia says that it is a partially self-governing neighborhood and covers 85 acres in the borough of Christianshavn in Copenhagen). They said they came here every weekend and felt quite welcome and at home. Smoking in public is allowed. So if you have ever wanted to sit at an outdoor bar, smoke a joint and drinking whatever you brought in, you are in the right place. I sat with them for a few hours and left to go to the big “Christiana’ celebration, advertised from a flyer. After a few unfriendly remarks, I didn’t feel so welcome anymore and decided to leave.

Coming back to the States, I wanted find out more about this little town. How is it that Christiania manages to be cute and edgy at the same time? Streets are lined by flowers and gaudily painted houses while little children play in a beautiful park. Just behind them, a group haggles their way through a drug deal. Every 20 yards, or so, oil barrels stood, loaded with discarded wood set aflame. There were no cars (they are not allowed). Neither are photos, which is enforced. One traveler wrote that, “I’ll smash your camera”, could easily be the start of a conversation on Pusher Street in Freetown. I took no pictures, but there are many on line.

Christiania began in 1971 when hippies, squatters and political activists invaded an abandoned military base in the heart of Copenhagen. This site was renamed the “Free Town of Christiania”. The authorities, surprisingly, didn’t storm the place. Instead, they humored them (the situation has changed recently, and police have started raiding the commune). The settlement was legalized and the Christianites were allowed to govern themselves. They even designed their own flag. Christiania is now the third largest tourist attraction in Copenhagen after the Little Mermaid and Tivoli.

Christiana is not a legal haven for the drug culture for which it has been associated with at times over the years from uneducated travelers. The use of hash is illegal in Denmark and possession is punishable. Moreover, the current government has repeatedly trying to shut the area down. The hash booths once considered a major feature in Christiana were removed by the beginning of 2004. Before they were demolished, the National Museum of Denmark was able to get one of the more colorful stands, which forms part of an exhibit.

The people in Christiania have developed their own set of rules, completely independent of the Danish government. The rules forbid stealing, guns, bulletproof vests and hard drugs. Marijuana was sold openly from permanent stands until 2004, though Christiana does have rules forbidding hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine. The region negotiated an arrangement with the Danish defense ministry (which still owns the land) in 1995. However, the future of the area remains an issue, as Danish authorities continue to push for its removal.

The inhabitants have fought the government’s attempts to eliminate them, often with humor. For example, when authorities in 2002 demanded that the hash trade be made less visible, the stands were reportedly covered in military camouflage nets. In early 2004, the stands were finally demolished by the hash dealers a day before a large scale police operation. They decided to take the stands down themselves instead of the police. Still, the police made a number of arrests in the following weeks, and a large part of the trade running Pusher Street was eliminated. However, the hash trade didn’t disappear. It was just relocated outside of the town and changed to being on a person-to-person basis.

In 2004, the Danish government passed a law abolishing the collective and treating its 900 members as individuals. A series of protests have been staged by Christiania members since the summer of 2005. At the same time, Danish police have made frequent sweeps of the area. In January 2006, the government proposed that Christiania would be turned into a residential community, which Christiania has rejected as it would be incompatible with its collective ownership.

Things have gotten worse. In early March 2007 downtown Copenhagen “looked like a war zone”. Over 690 were arrested after a confrontation between supporters of a Danish squat (Ungdomshuset) and the police who had just evicted the squatters. The conflict culminated with several parts of Copenhagen rioting simultaneously, from Nørrebro, where Ungdomshuset is situated, to Christianshavn, where Christiania resides. Jakob Illeborg wrote that police officers have been wounded, as have many protesters, members of the press have been beaten up and cars and houses set on fire. This hurt their cause. Ungdomshuset, the object of all the fighting was demolished. Sadly, the protestors have likely given the government more reason to close down Christiana.

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