Going Up in Smoke 

Going Up in Smoke 
Posted by CN Staff on February 21, 2004 at 18:26:06 PT
By Andrew Anthony 
Source: Observer UK
When Christiania, the world's best-known commune, first opened in 1971 there were no rules. It was an anarchist's dreamland that attracted hippies, artists, drug addicts, criminals, idealists, down-and-outs and anyone else who thought there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. One of its early mottos was 'Black sheep from all classes unite!' Then gradually the rules came.The first was no violence. Then there was no hard drugs. Then following battles between drug gangs, who appeared to ignore the first two rules, another rule outlawing weapons was added. After continued problems, residents were forbidden to wear bullet-proof vests.
Eventually another five cardinal rules also came into operation, all of which are detailed above the door in the Moonfisher bar on the main square of the 34 hectares that make up the Copenhagen 'freetown'. Also in the bar, tucked away in the corner, is a pool table, and next to it on the wall is a polite notice, listing the local regulations for the game - for example, only the person who wants to play can chalk his or her name up on the board.At the end of the list is a warning: anyone breaking the rules will be banned from playing pool in the bar for one month.'To live outside the law you must be honest,' Nils Vest, a filmmaker and veteran of the commune, tells me, quoting Bob Dylan. The problem, of course, is that even outlaws are not always honest. And so Christiania, which likes to see itself as an independent state beyond Danish law, has had to make up more and more of its own laws.For some members of the 1,000-strong commune, there are already too many restrictions, but as far as the Danish government is concerned there are still not nearly enough. Next month a report is due to be published that will advise the government on how to 'normalise' and 'legalise' Christiania.Jacob Heinessen, the chair of the committee producing the report, says that one option under review is that the inhabitants of Christiania should be cleared out and the land sold to property developers. Another option is that the commune will be allowed to form a co-operative to purchase the land themselves. Either way, many residents - or Christianites - fear that it is the end of an alternative way of life that dates back over three decades.The threat of closure is not a new one. It's as old as the commune itself. Countless initiatives and recommendations have come to nothing at the 11th hour. But this time there seems little chance of reprieve. For most of Christiania's history, Denmark has been ruled by a social democratic government. On the whole, despite various action plans, it took a passive line on Christiania.In 1973, in exchange for agreeing to pay for electricity and water, the commune was conferred with the status of 'social experiment'. But two years ago, in a sharp lurch to the right, the Danes returned a coalition that was determined to close down this living laboratory. In particular, the conservative government wants to put an end to the pharmacology department in Pusher Street, Christiania's flourishing hash market.The Christianites are proud of their long struggle for survival. Children in the nursery school are taught songs which celebrate the commune's resistance. A sort of cross between Soviet anthems and hippie poetry, these utopian hymns make up in hubris what they lack in humour. One example is the 'Christiania Battlesong', whose lyrics run:'Christiania men and women Now let us show them what we can do As long as the sun is shining We intend to fight for our country.'Situated in the heart of Copenhagen, Christiania occupies an old army barracks that was squatted when it was vacated by the military in the early Seventies. The land is still owned by the Danish Ministry of Defence - not even in the most far-fetched sitcom have landlord and tenant been so mismatched. The buildings stand on the site of a 17th-century fortress that was constructed to keep out the Swedes. For the past three decades it has been a fortress designed to keep out society.The high-walled perimeter buildings look away from the city and inwards at an extensive open space which includes a moat-lake and patches of woodland. In a largely treeless city, Christiania is almost an oasis of countryside. There are no cars, no tarmac roads and very little by the way of streetlighting. In the height of summer, masses of tourists visit the main square and it can all seem a bit like Camden Lock, or even Covent Garden. But in midwinter, there is a ghostly otherness to the place that makes it feel quite separate from its surroundings. As if to underline this partition, at the main exit there is a sign that reads: 'You are now entering the EU'.During a recent visit to Christiania, I recalled the words of 'The Battlesong' with a frozen smile. It was not the conceit of sovereignty that proved amusing, so much as the meteorological optimism of the phrase: 'As long as the sun is shining'. Clearly, that was a line written in summer. On a bleak afternoon in January the temperature was six degrees below zero, and a mop-grey sky swept so low it seemed to wash the colour from the streets. Not even the most militant anarchism could survive these conditions.And while there was much talk about the expected showdown with the police, it's fair to say that many Christianites have indeed lost their appetite for rebellion. There are growing divisions between the residents, the most notable being the disagreement over whether or not Pusher Street should be allowed to continue.The outside world has changed almost beyond recognition since the days of the peace-and-love idealism that gave birth to the commune. The communism of the Soviet Bloc is long dead, European socialism is on life support (or an EU grant) and the free market now reigns supreme. Even the New Age culture that absorbed the hippie movement has become a huge commercial operation. No walls can withstand the siege of history, and the commune has had to adapt, even at the risk of falling apart. Right now, Christiania seems uncertain of what it is, or why it is. At the age of 33 - the age at which its namesake met his end - has its dream of total freedom matured into an existential crisis?'Sometimes we need to get a kick up the behind,' says Peter Vestergaard, who is known in Christiania as Peter Post. A wiry character in his mid-fifties, he wears a grey beard and baseball cap that do nothing to hide his forlorn expression and downbeat delivery. He radiates an air of Strindbergian pessimism, but his hope is that the question mark over Christiania's future will inspire its inhabitants to become better organised.Outside, in what he calls 'Denmark', he used to be a postman and a left-wing activist who became disillusioned with the working class. 'They didn't care about the environment,' he laments. 'They like video, TV, cars and comfort.'So, back in the Eighties he gave up the class struggle and moved to Christiania. He is firmly committed to the way of life, as he puts it, 'out here'. He estimates that in the normal course of events he steps outside the commune's walls only once a fortnight. 'If you want something done here,' he says, 'you can't call an electrician or a plumber. You do it yourself or find a friend to help. I came to Christiania because I wanted to become responsible for my own life.'There is no TV in his small, self-built wooden house. Post is not a person who hungers for material advance. 'I'm a meetings man,' he says. By his way of thinking, every problem, however big or small, ought to be resolved by a meeting. He tells me that when a Christianite was raped on the commune, he was disappointed that the victim went to the police instead of calling for a meeting.The previous night he'd been up till 2am at a meeting, and he looked tired and hungover. 'I'm convinced the real fight is going on now,' he says, with a strange mixture of resignation and zeal. 'Most Christianites are not aware of that. They think the fighting will start when the bulldozers move in. We have to realise there are going to be changes. And that's a problem, because we don't like changes. But we must change.'Normally at this time of year he would be in India or Nepal - 'I'm interested in Buddhism and trekking' - but such was the gravity of the situation at the commune that he chose to stay at home.Christiania is run on the basis of consensus. All major decisions, and even quite minor ones, are subject to communal agreement. The principle is that everything should be talked through until everyone is in accord. The advantages of this approach are that all Christianites can have their say and people like Post are never short of a meeting to organise or attend. The disadvantages are that a determined minority can prevent decisions being taken that may benefit the majority, and that a kind of political apathy, a meeting fatigue, begins to afflict those who do not want to air their views into the early hours.Many Christianites simply prefer to get stoned. The dense aromatic fug in the cafes and bars (even at 10am) bears pungent testament to the fact that hash plays a central part in commune life. After drinking two coffees in the haze of the Moonfisher, I began to experience vague feelings of paranoia. Another half hour and I would have been punctuating my sentences with the word 'man'.In any community there will always be schisms and arguments, but perhaps the one thing that united the disparate groups that originally settled Christiania was a shared belief in the beneficent powers of marijuana. Yet for some time hash has also been the cause of Christiania's most bitter disagreement.Pusher Street is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are stalls displaying 'Super Skunk' and 'Ice' and every other type of hashish and marijuana the discerning pothead could wish to purchase. In winter the dealers congregate around burning oil drums in an attempt to stay warm. Sullen-faced men, dressed in black, unwelcoming dogs at their side, they strike a truculent pose: ready for business, ready for trouble. At night, the scene, with its dirt road and ramshackle bars, is reminiscent of a Wild West town, or some lawless backwater of Dickensian London.The largest - perhaps only - open hash market in Scandinavia, Pusher Street is estimated by the police to bring in a daily revenue of 100,000. But lately the trade has been diminished by a series of police raids at the behest of the government.'The main problem,' I am told by Ulrik Kragh, a deputy in the centre-right Venstre party that forms part of the government coalition, 'is that they are selling hash so openly on Pusher Street. It's like candy in a candy shop. I believe this openness creates more users.'No one accepts this argument in Christiania. They tell you that if Pusher Street was closed the business would simply go underground, where young people could more easily be introduced to hard drugs. Their answer would be to allow markets like Pusher Street across Denmark.But as that is not going to happen in the near future, the majority opinion in Christiania is that Pusher Street should either close for business or deal only to fellow Christianites. Many residents are simply fed up with the bad publicity it causes, the constant commercial traffic, the ill-feeling it engenders among the commune's neighbours, the ongoing police presence, and, most of all, the fact that it offers the government an unmissable target. A young woman called Liv, who works in the commune's hardware warehouse, articulates a widespread attitude towards the drug dealers. 'They're twisted,' she says. 'I can't see what they're doing. They're addicted to the money.I wish they'd just go.Liv has spent her whole life at Christiania and is now one of the few Christianites of her age (26) who has not had to move out to find a flat of her own. Peter Post had told me that he thought of Christiania like a hippie Israel. 'Every Jew can go there. Every hippie can come here.' Except there is no room for more hippies. There isn't enough room for the ones already there. A chronic housing shortage, the result of an agreement with the government not to build any more houses and the reluctance of older Christianites to move out, means that young people have to leave the commune when they leave home.Liv believes the dealers have little interest in the communal life. She says that they have arranged for themselves the largest apartments, often knocking together smaller apartments that could be given to someone else. There is a commonly expressed sentiment that the drug dealers have become a separate class at Christiania.No dealers would speak to me, let alone show me their capacious living quarters. Instead, they suggested I talk to a woman called Pernille Hansen, who is neither a dealer nor a Christianite, but is an articulate defender of Pusher Street and spends much of her free time there. A small, intense woman with a playful smile and the ironic delivery of a barrister, she dismissed the rumours of dealer largesse.'It's all hearsay. Of course they have nice flats; they make a lot of money. Anyway, it's the same argument that the rest of Denmark uses against the whole of Christiania: "Why should they be allowed to live so well, so cheaply?"'There is, though, no doubt that the dealers have maintained a veto over internal attempts to reform or abolish the hash market. In January, after repeated calls, they finally agreed to dismantle the elaborately decorated cabins that had for many years provided the postcard image of Pusher Street. It was largely a cosmetic gesture as far as the police were concerned, as the dealers continued their business on makeshift stalls.Post said that the commune had also extracted from the dealers an agreement to go quietly when the police finally come to close them down. Hansen was less definitive. 'I think the pushers might go on holiday for a couple of months,' she said, a knowing glint in her eye.She protested that no split existed between the dealers and the majority of the community, but then she seemed to change her mind. 'The pushers feel the rest of Christiania are kidding themselves,' she said, pointing out that the ban on hard drugs would not exist without the enforcement of the dealers. She also claimed that the dealers' presence lowered crime. 'At the moment you don't have theft and violence at Christiania. But the old hippies won't go out and patrol the place 24 hours a day.'The real division, she argued, is between those who mistakenly thought Christiania was a democracy and those who upheld its anarchist ideals. 'It's not a little ecological garden,' she said, heaping opprobrium on the greenish tendency. 'It's occupied land.' According to Hansen, the dealers remain true to the commune's origins, but at the same time they are not stuck in the Seventies. They had inhaled the free market winds of the Eighties and, as a result, were filled with the entrepreneurial spirit that Hansen felt so much of the rest of Christiania lacked.To be a dealer on Pusher Street you have to be a resident of Christiania. There are around 100 'licensed' dealers, but Hansen claims that up to 25 per cent of the commune relies on the drug economy. Many people, for instance, are paid to stash the dealers' products. Wishing to keep its hands clean, Christiania accepts no contribution towards communal funds from Pusher Street, a position that Hansen says the dealers would like to change.'Look,' she said, 'the truth is the pushers give plenty of money to Christiania. When 100,000 kroner (10,000) was needed to refurbish the metalworks, suddenly it appeared in a box. Last year, when there were financial problems with a music concert, the pushers supplied what was needed.'She laughed at the idea that Christiania could go it alone and buy the land. 'None of them would have the money to pay the tax. They'd last a year and then they'd be out.'The irony, of course, is that among the few people who could afford the tax would be the dealers, but they have no wish to be 'normalised'. Hansen insists that the dealers will do nothing to jeopardise the survival of Christiania, but when I asked her what the dealers thought of attempts by some in the commune to reach a compromise with the government, she replied: 'It's better not to lay down before you get shot.'Britta Lillesoee looks like one might expect someone to look who has lived for three decades on a commune. She has a mass of theatrical red hair and her face is made up with heavy eyeliner. Her dark roomy trousers make few concessions to current fashions, and her hands and arms are bright with rings, bangles and bracelets.She and her husband, Nils Vest, invite me to lunch at their spacious, comfortable house in a leafy corner of Christiania. Both were in flight from bourgeois values when they came to the commune, and both still retain an avant-gardist distaste for conformity. But on the surface it would be hard to imagine a more bourgeois scene: married couple with two grown-up sons (both departed from Christiania) in a book-lined living room, with a smorgasbord of appetising food set on a sturdy dining table.Lillesoee first began squatting in 1965, when she was a beatnik who wanted to ban the bomb. She recalls the period with rosy affection. 'It was wonderful,' she says. 'We painted the houses in different colours and the workers joined with the students.' An actress, she helped form the Solvognen theatre group, Christiania's very own agitprop troupe that specialised in situationist scenarios. Once, during a Nato summit in Copenhagen, they stormed the main Danish Radio station dressed in Nato forces outfits.She reminisces in a stream of consciousness, broken by apologies for her English and her nervous state. She is upset by a report that criticised the lack of cultural events at Christiania. 'It's absurd, so wrong,' she complains. 'Nina Hagen came here last year.' In fact, musicians as famous and diverse as Bob Dylan and Blur have performed in the Grey Hall at Christiania.According to Lillesoee, it was the local working-class families of Christenhavn, looking for a playground for their children, who first broke into the Badsmandstraedes army barracks. But it was when a local countercultural newspaper ran a story with the headline, 'Immigrate with bus No 8: the direct route to Christiania' that hordes of hippies began flocking to the site. The living conditions that greeted them were rudimentary. Only 15 per cent of the houses had plumbing and sewerage. Now the figure is more than 95 per cent.When Christiania opened, Denmark was undergoing something of a sexual revolution. Pornography was legalised and many people believed an open attitude to sex and the human body was the key to true liberty. Photographs of Christiania from this period show that the inhabitants embraced this philosophy with naked abandon.In A Short Guide to Christiania, a book by Pernille Lauritsen, almost every photo seems to feature women - but no men - who have unburdened themselves of the oppressive weight of clothing. 'Yes,' recalls Lillesoee, 'at first we went around without anything on, but then we got fed up with the tourists who would come to stare at us.'Perhaps the only legacy from this period is a communal bath house.Vest, a handsome man with an almost aristocratic bearing and impeccable English, runs through the key moments of Christiania's history. By the mid-Seventies, heroin had become a problem. The Copenhagen police encouraged junkies to take their habit to Christiania, and consequently they colonised one of the central buildings. In 1979 the community got together and organised a 'junk blockade' in which the addicts were offered treatment and the dealers thrown out. Years before sports officialdom got in on the act, Christiania introduced random urine tests.It was, says Vest, a defining moment for Christiania, but it also amounted to the commune's 'loss of innocence'. He observes that in the Seventies there was no unemployment to speak of in Denmark. There was plenty in the Eighties, and it prompted the arrival of new people to the commune from what Vest calls a 'lost milieu'. Chief among them was a gang of bikers that went under the no-nonsense name of 'Bullshitter'. Using heavy-armed tactics, they muscled in on the drugs trade and made a nuisance of themselves around the commune. If that wasn't destructive enough, Bullshitter took the decision to go to war with their rivals, the Hell's Angels - presumably not a measure agreed at a communal meeting.Not long after, a member of Bullshitter and a Christianite were killed outside one of Christiania's bars. Then, in 1987, police discovered a dismembered body of a man buried under the floor of the Bullshitter bike workshop. At that point the police ousted the bikers, the gang was disbanded and another rule was introduced at Christiania: the wearing of biker colours was forbidden.Even during this period, says Vest, Christiania was still a great place to bring up children. 'Kids love it here, they know all the characters.' A number of Christianites who had spent their childhood on the commune say the same thing. There's no sense of stranger danger or the parental anxiety that is commonplace elsewhere in urban Europe. What's striking about this social ease is that the freetown has always been a magnet to drunks and people with psychiatric problems.The weird co-existence of these two worlds - the utopian and the dysfunctional - was brought home to Vest one day when he could not open the stage door of the theatre. 'The door was blocked by a dead Greenlander,' he recalls. 'I thought, "This is ridiculous. Here I am rehearsing a play and there's a dead man lying at the door."'A programme to help Greenlanders, who suffer from a high level of alcoholism, was put in place with the help of Copenhagen council. 'Denmark is a society of associations,' Vest told me. 'We have a saying: "Whenever two people are together they form an association."'Whatever its faults or self-deceptions, Christiania displays an impressive level of association. It is without doubt one of the few locations in the western world where a policy of care in the community actually works. Ulrik Kragh, of the Venstre party, acknowledges as much. 'The social network is very good at Christiania,' he says. 'They take good care of their people.'There is a great deal of concern among the Christianites that recommendations in the forthcoming report may lead to the exclusion of the commune's more vulnerable residents. 'We demand that the poor, the weak and crazy people can stay,' Post said.Both Heinessen and Kragh insist that the plan was not to move out those with social problems. 'This is not about developing a new residential area for rich people in Copenhagen,' said Kragh. 'We have to find a solution for all the people living there.' Heinessen promised that even the most radical option in his report would offer protection to the social and cultural institutions in operation at Christiania, though he stressed that ultimately it is in the government's hands.As our lunch came to an end, a passer-by mentioned that the police had arrived. About 100 officers in riot gear had sealed off Pusher Street and were searching houses and apartments. They climbed roofs and sent sniffer dogs into bars. In their blue paramilitary-style uniforms, they looked disciplined, efficient and well-drilled. They also looked like an occupying force.The Christianites are not the only ones with a battlesong. These are the words of an old ditty from the Copenhagen police force's fourth precinct:'Clear out Christiania Take the shit down They will never, never ever Smoke a joint again.'Christiania used to receive these visits, on average, once a month. But now, under government pressure, the police are conducting them two or three times a week. Inspector Lauridson of the Copenhagen police force told me that it was necessary to go in with such large numbers to prevent a violent reaction. 'They come along to throw rocks and bottles,' he said.Although the dealers have lookouts to warn them of raids, the police claim to seize around 10-15kg of hash on each search. Inspector Lauridson claimed that Christiania is a haven for stolen goods, and there was violence related to the drug trade. 'Normally,' he said, 'it has to do with money not being paid.'I mention that some Christianites had told me that the raids themselves were provoking violence, because dealers whose goods were seized were left in debt and at the mercy of criminal gangs.'That's ridiculous,' he replied. 'The people dealing hash out there are very serious criminals. They are related to the biker gangs and are high up in the criminal hierarchy themselves.'About 10 years ago, Peter Platt, a longtime Christiania resident, returned to his home to find that a dealer had hidden some hash by his house without asking permission. As he had young children, who could easily have found the package, Platt was annoyed and threw the drug away. When the dealer discovered that he had lost his stash, he left a mocked-up tombstone outside Platt's house, with his name and date of death: that year.It turned out to be one of the younger dealers, and his elders decided to make recompense. 'They brought me a bottle of whisky and apologised,' recalled Platt. He hasn't had any further trouble, but he said it was still a problem for Christiania.The Danish police have built a small replica of Pusher Street at their training facility, where they act out scenes of conflict. Inspector Lauridson said they are preparing for what he expects to be the imminent and final showdown with the dealers. Copenhagen will be the scene of a royal wedding in May and the word in Christiania is that the government wants Pusher Street closed down before the nuptials take place.Christiania is not really a commune. There is no central stock of brown rice. Accommodation is not shared, but divided. The family is the most important social unit. There are communal services such as refuse collection - Christiania is only slightly less spotless than the rest of Copenhagen - but essentially, notwithstanding the many informal bonds that have developed over the years, it's each to his own. In other words, a benign version of life elsewhere. Furthermore, over two-thirds of Christianites either work outside or receive state benefits. Aside from those of nursery age, the children of Christiania go to school outside. The social programmes are state funded.In a sense, the one unique self-generated experiment is Pusher Street. Without the dealers, Christiania could easily be mistaken for a gated community, albeit an unusually progressive one. In terms of image, the dealers, for all their ruthless self-interest, are as intimately associated with Christiania as the ravens are with the Tower of London. As such, they may prove a little more difficult to banish than the recalcitrant pool players in the Moonfisher. Whatever happens, it looks like there will be some new editions to the anarchic freetown's rule book.Note: It has its own laws - no hard drugs, no weapons, no bulletproof vests - its own battlesong, and its own Pusher Street. But now after 33 years of uncomfortable co-existence with the rest of Denmark, the anarchist commune of Christiania may finally be forced to join the real world, reports Andrew Anthony. Source: Observer, The (UK)Author: Andrew Anthony Published: Sunday, February 22, 2004Copyright: 2004 The ObserverContact: letters Articles:Denmark Enclave Tears Down Hashish Stands is Nigh for Commune That Kept Dream Alive Lay Siege To Copenhagen Hippies 
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Comment #1 posted by rchandar on February 22, 2004 at 09:59:52 PT:
this is so sad--but i wonder how long this government in denmark will actually last. it would be better if they were simply voted out of office and denmark developed a coffeshop policy like the one in the netherlands.--rchandar
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