Pubdate: Mon, 23 Jul 2007
Source: Time Magazine (US)
Section: Edition -- Europe; Vol. 170, No. 3
Copyright: 2007 Time Inc
Author: Christopher Thompson

Postcard From Christiania


There is something different in the air at Christiania these days the 
usual spicy aroma of marijuana smoke now occasionally mixes with the 
smell of tear gas and burning tires. That's because, more than three 
decades after Europe's oldest and largest commune was established as 
an antidote to "selfish society," Danish authorities are moving to 
close it down. More than 90 people were arrested a few weeks ago 
after groups of youths fought running battles with police, throwing 
bottles and cobblestones and burning homemade barricades. The riot, a 
rare occurrence in this normally placid Scandinavian country, was 
prompted by police arriving to demolish a shelter deemed unsafe by 
the authorities.

"There is a radicalization between young people and police in 
Copenhagen that we haven't seen in years," says Henrik Bang, 
professor of politics at the University of Copenhagen. "And the 
conflict will get worse."

Since 1971 the commune's 800 residents, inspired by the ideals of 
peace and free love, have maintained a free-wheeling idyll in this 
former navy base  an overgrown woodland spotted with lakes and 
pretty redbrick and wood houses that provides a retreat for artists, 
musicians and free-thinkers of all stripes in a self-declared "free 
state" that flies its own flag and does not pay market property tax rates.

But Christiania sits on prime real estate in Copenhagen's upmarket 
Christenhaven neighbourhood, and Denmark's conservative government 
wants to reclaim the territory for an ambitious housing project.

"I think ordinary Danish people just think it's a little odd," 
explained Bang. "People are living in houses worth $5 million, the 
land has big recreational possibilities  so why should they be 
allowed to govern [themselves] outside Danish society?"

Traditionally, the commune's friction with local police has been over 
drug policy. Pusher Street, Christiania's ramshackle main 
thoroughfare, allowed cannabis dealers to display their wares in 
glass-topped cabinets, graded according to strength  until a police 
incursion in 2003. Still, the authorities claim, some $200,000 of 
marijuana is still bought and sold every day in Christiania, and 
critics charge that the commune long ago sold out its ideals.

"The original idealism has long since evaporated," says Jens 
Sorensen, a Copenhagen-based political consultant. "Christiania is 
now home to an 'alternative' elite."

Still, the old hippie idealism still shapes many of the rules that 
govern the commune: Selling property is not allowed, and instead of 
cars  also banned  residents use bicycles to ferry everything from 
groceries to children.

At the day care center set on the shore of the commune's wooded lake, 
minder Richard Lonsdale has just put on a movie for children after 
finishing school classes. "I've been here for five years and it's 
changed a hell of a lot," he says. "There's been a general hardening 
of attitudes [from the police]  they think we're the enemy, but we 
don't teach our kids that."

As well as the kindergarten, Christiania also boasts a health clinic, 
a book shop, a vegan restaurant and a concert venue, which gets 
transformed into an impromptu dining hall once a year when residents 
organize a Christmas party for the city's homeless.

But the clashes with the authorities has brought about changes in the 
attitudes of a traditionally tolerant Danish society. The current 
conservative government, for example, rules in coalition with the 
openly anti-immigrant Danish People's Party. In response, a new 
political party  dubbed the New Alliance  was set up in May, 
electing its leader, Syrian-born Nasser Khader, as the country's 
first-ever member of parliament from the 8% of the population whose 
origins are foreign. And, in the seven weeks since the Christiania 
riots, the New Alliance has become Denmark's third largest party, 
boasting 20,000 members and polling 15 percent of the popular vote.

"Danish society used to a be a consensus society," says Khader. "But 
in the last few years Danish politicians [have] forgotten the centre. 
We want to go back to the middle of the road."

But even a New Alliance surge in elections expected later this year 
could be too late for the communards of Christiania. As they make the 
most of the long summer evening on a recent Tuesday, the conversation 
among the gardeners, painters and barbecue chefs can quickly turn 
tense. "The government is taking the temperature of how it's going to 
be when they clear the whole place out", says Marco Malcopes, the 
25-year old manager of the commune's Info Cafe. "If that's their 
intention we showed them what will happen  we have to defend the 
places we live in."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman