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Europe's last commune braces for battle

  1. Heretic.Ape.
    Postcard From Christiania

    EUROPE'S LAST COMMUNE BRACES FOR BATTLE

    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."

Comments

  1. Heretic.Ape.
    Another article on it.

    [h1]Copenhagen[/h1] [h2]'70s utopia soon to be just another brick in the wall[/h2]
    Rick Steves
    Sunday, July 22, 2007
    http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/07/22/TRGBSR3DNT1.DTL

    sfgate_get_fprefs(); I was strolling through the commotion of downtown Copenhagen, past chain restaurants dressed up to look old and under towering hotels that seem to be part of a different international chain each year. Then, as if from another age, a man pedaled his wife on a Christiania Bike -- two wheels pushing a big, utilitarian, rounded bucket. You'd call the couple "granola" in the United States -- they look as out of place here in Copenhagen as an Amish couple in Manhattan.
    Later that same day, I paused to watch a parade of ragtag soldiers-against-conformity dressed in black venture through the modern bustle of downtown Copenhagen. They walked sadly behind a World War II-vintage truck blasting Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." I never listened to the words until now. They're fighting a rising tide of conformity. They want to raise their children to be not cogs but free spirits. On their banner -- painted onto an old sheet -- was a slogan you see in their Christiania squatter community: "Lev livet kunstnerisk! Kun dode fisk flyder med strommen." ("Live life artistically! Only dead fish follow the current.") They flew the Christiania flag -- three yellow dots on an orange background. They say the dots are from the o's in "Love, Love, Love."
    In 1971, the original 700 Christianians established squatters' rights in an abandoned military barracks, just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. A generation later, this "free city" still stands -- an ultra-human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists and happy children (600 adults, 200 kids, 200 cats, 200 dogs, 17 horses and two parrots), even a handful of Willie Nelson-type seniors among the 180 remaining here from the original takeover. And an amazing thing has happened: The place has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.
    Christiania, which sprawls just behind the spiral tower of Our Savior's Church in the trendy district of Christianshavn, welcomes visitors (even offering tours daily through the summer). They've become a major part of the economy. Tourists react in very different ways to the place. Some see dogs, dirt and dazed people. Others see a haven of peace, freedom and no taboos. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates more than a quarter of the world's prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles ... or build more prisons.
    At the community's entrance is a sign announcing that you are leaving the EU (European Union). The main drag is nicknamed "Pusher Street" for the marijuana-selling stands that lined it before the recent police crackdown. Now the police drop in 10 times a day, and cafes post signs warning "No pot smoking." (Hard drugs have always been strictly forbidden.)
    As you walk down Pusher Street, you'll see Nemoland, a kind of food circus. A huge warehouse called the Green Hall (Den Gronne Hal) does triple-duty as a recycling center (where people get most of their building material), a craft center for kids and an evening concert hall. Nearby is a barracks housing Spiseloppen, a bohemian chic loft whose near-gourmet cuisine attracts smartly dressed professional types from all over town. Eventually Pusher Street takes you to the ramparts overlooking a lake lined with cozy, if ramshackle, cottages.
    While biking through the community, it occurred to me that, except for the bottled beer being sold, there was not a hint of any corporate entity in the entire free city. Everything was handmade. Nothing was packaged. And, of course, that will not stand.
    The current conservative government is feeling the pressure from developers to "normalize" Christiania. There is a take-it-or-leave-it "final solution" on the table for leaders of the commune to deal with. The verdict is that land (which no one wanted 35 years ago but is now in huge demand) needs to be developed. Much of it will be opened to market forces, and 1,600 outsiders will be allowed to move in. This will drastically change Europe's last and only surviving attempt at a socialist utopia dating from flower-power days.
    I recently received an e-mail from some traveling readers. They said: "We're not prudes, but Christiania was creepy. Don't take kids here or go after dark." A free city is not pretty, I agree. But watching parents raise their children with Christiania values, I came to believe more strongly than ever in this social experiment. Giving alternative-type people a place to be alternative is a kind of alternative beauty that deserves a place.
    Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020. © Tribune Media Services.



    Shame to see hegemony and materialism steamrolling humanity.
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