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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

How free is Freetown Christiania? The ‘sovereign’ Danish community is once again on its barricades

Since 1989, Christiania — a small, creative, and consensus-based community built on mutual reciprocity — has claimed formal independence. Now the residents face a fundamental decision that has implications for its sovereignty.

CHRISTIANIA, Denmark (CN) — “The parole of Christiania is that each individual deserves complete freedom. As long as that freedom does not limit other people.” 

So said Kim Bekker, a proud Freetown resident for more than 35 years. He agreed to do an impromptu interview at Grotten, one of the more spacious and neat cafés in the center of Christiania at the end of Pusher Street.

Christiania is also called “Freetown” or “staden” (the city). It is a 17-acre area in Denmark´s capital Copenhagen encompassing a lake, small forest areas, and an extraordinary culturally vibrant community.

Here, all political decisions are made jointly at monthly meetings. Instead of paying rent, the residents pay a “user fee” to the local finance office, which distributes the means to communal infrastructure, building projects and social development activities.  

The streets are filled with colorful houses, numerous collective workshops, and the distinct smell of cannabis. Chill residents walk around and greet each other amidst the constant influx of curious tourists who want a sneak peek of the old “hippie town”.  

In 2022, Christiania is a well-established tourist attraction. Frequent police raids aside, the residents live in orderly juridical agreement with Copenhagen municipality which controls their buildings and stores on a running basis.

But back in 1971, it all started with a deserted military barrack area. An area that around 150 young, free-minded, and restless youngsters decided to occupy. They broke down the woodwork barriers and started remaking the old buildings.

The movement was quickly disputed by politicians. Not least because Christiania was seen as a provocation against the establishment, and the place soon became a hub for drug dealers. In 1975, the government decided to tear it down. Yet that never happened.

Inside Kim Bekker´s apartment in Fredens Ark. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

Instead, small companies and production sites started appearing as Christiania became a hub for popular cultural events. After numerous problems with violent police clashes and dangerous gang fights, the town´s residents got the gang members to agree not to carry patches and weapons.

That happened in 1985, the same year Bekker moved in.

“Back then, Christianshavn was a slum, and no one wanted to live there. I moved to Christiania during Christmas in 1985. I knew a few people and got a job in the kindergarten. For 10 years, I lived in a collective but then switched to my own apartment,” he said. 

Bekker has seen Christiania grow over the years in terms of local businesses, houses, and the number of visitors. Around 10 years ago, he did 15 months of jailtime (partly in isolation) for selling weed on Pusher Street.

The punishment for selling drugs in Christiania has always been harsher because it is automatically considered part of organized crime. Today, the drug industry still contributes to the community’s economy, but it isn’t easy to document the exact extent.

However, Bekker said Freetown’s unique qualities have nothing to do with drugs. It is about creating an alternative way of living where you have more space to find yourself.

“This is a place where you can test your life in ways only possible in a few other places in the world. And then in the middle of a capital! You can live on a shoestring if you want. Most people here never graduated from anywhere. They just lived their lives 24 hours a day and naturally learned certain skills. We give each other full freedom,” Bekker said.

The big turning point for Christiania´s journey toward formal independence from the rest of Denmark happened in 1989.

Here, the government signed the so-called “Christiania Law”, giving residents the juridical right to live in their properties. The caveat: the Ministry of Defense can — at any point — ask people to leave.

A wood workshop in Christiania. The Freetown is full of workshops, where the residents make things together. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News Service)

Sune Klinge, assistant professor in constitutional law at Copenhagen University, Centre of European and Comparative Legal Studies and a former judge, gave an overview of the formal agreements with Christiania.

” The law from 1989 was the first form of regulation. The government chose to close 40 open cases of illegal building activity and legalize the existing settlements, under the condition that they would comply with basic rules and security standards,” he said.

“But in 2011, a new and more ambitious agreement came to replace the old one," Klinge said. "Christiania took over the administration of more buildings and areas through a fund structure while the state continued to rent out others to its residents. In addition, supervisory responsibility was moved from the Ministry of Defense to Copenhagen municipality.”

The Danish state contributed funding so Christiania residents could buy back their land, Klinge said.

The agreement gave Christiania a new level of autonomy. The Freetown has its own fund, a board with 11 local members who officially take ownership over several of the on-site buildings and full responsibility for maintenance of roads, supply and lighting.

However, the state continues to act as owner and Christiania as a tenant when it comes to central areas such as the forest and “the Blue Caramel,” a residential neighborhood on the slope around the lake. 

And that relationship has created tensions. In the autumn of 2021, the Social Democratic government launched a national plan to connect the countryside and cities better and make more “mixed” areas accessible to everyone. Part of that plan included the creation of 161,000 square feet of affordable housing at Christiania. 

The finance office at Christiania. Every resident pays for the right to use Christiania, and the collective means are distributed to infrastructure, housing, and different social and cultural projects each month. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse)

Since then, Christiania has been offered to instead buy that area back for 67 million DKK, about $8.5 million.

“Imagine that you have own half of your land and rent the other half. You’re informed that the rental agreement ends if you don’t repurchase it by allowing public housing. Housing where you have no say in who moves in,” said Klinge.

If you ask Bekker, this is a detrimental moment in Christiania´s history. And it is a choice between two evils that residents have stayed up late for weeks to debate. Because at Christiania, you need full consensus to make a decision, and the minority must recognize the majority.

A process that usually works smoothly, but this time it has created camps within the otherwise close and consensual community, Bekker said.

“Now, we need to make a decision before Aug. 29, and it is incredibly tough. I am deeply affected. This dilemma has made us talk to each other in ways that can be difficult to forget immediately afterwards," he said.

Before now, it has always been up to the residents of Christiania to welcome and accept newcomers based on an evaluation of agreement with the values of shared responsibility, freedom, and joint decision-making.

“If we say yes, we risk having someone here who does not want to contribute to the community. Residents who would pay someone out in the town, and then the whole idea of user rights payments disappear. It would be a catastrophe. It is truly a battle for our existence that goes on right now,” Bekker said.

Fredens ark is 7,500 m2 and the biggest apartment building at Christiania. The planned public housing is going to be twice this size. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News Service)

It is not the first Christiania has had to defend its sovereignty, and it probably won't be the last. Back in the day, it was with barricades and protests, and today it is with juridical housing decisions. But the Freetown keeps trying to hold its ideals intact and resist loosing too much sovereignty to the “outside world.” Not always an easy task when fundamentally subjected to the Danish welfare state.

Categories / Government, International, Politics

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