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Denmark's hippie haven faces shutdown

Christiania has flown its own flag for decades now, but the Danish government and real estate interests say, Enough!

By Patti McCrackenContributor / February 17, 2009

To be or not to be: That is the question before Danish courts considering the right of the Freetown of Christiania – a 40-year-old hippie squatter commune – to exist . (Patti McCracken)

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Copenhagen, Denmark

COPENHAGEN, Denmark

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The whole thing started with a hole in a fence around an abandoned military barracks in central Copenhagen.

Parents in the neighborhood tugged at the hole to widen it. Soon it was big enough for their little kids to scramble through to play in the grassy open spaces within.

Not long after, squatters cut a large patch out of the fence and commandeered the whole barracks for their own use. They named the area “Christiania,” stuck out a flag, and declared themselves free from the rule of Danish law. Nearly four decades later, the flag is still flying.

This derelict army depot’s run as a makeshift playground was short. But it has had a long and often troubled run as a refuge for Copenhagen’s fringe society. And now the Danish government, which has been listing right in recent years, has given up on clemency for the collective. It appears determined to finally dissolve the self-governing community of nearly 1,000 in what it calls “normalization.”

But Christiania took a preemptive strike late last year and filed a couple of lawsuits, which are now being heard by Denmark’s Eastern High Court. Decisions are expected at the end of this month.

The first suit cites as precedent a 1973 agreement that briefly allowed the commune to exist as a “social experiment.” The second is, in essence, a class-action suit filed by the residents, claiming a right to live on the site without eviction, because they have now possessed it into the third generation.

In October, police evicted residents from a house on the rim of the commune, setting off a six-hour showdown.

Christianites lobbed beer bottles and Molotov cocktails at police, and were answered with sprays of tear gas. Danes caution that if the court rules against Christiania in either case, more widespread rioting is a given.

The situation is more farce than tragedy, but Denmark is once again the stage for a pondering first posed 400 years ago by Hamlet: To be or not to be.

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For Danes, the question is a fiery one, igniting on one side deeply held principles about freedom, nonconformity, and tolerance. A great number of Danes look to Christiania as the alter ego of the nation, and its right to exist is robustly defended. “In Denmark, everything is occupied and controlled. There’s not much space left in the cities, but Christiania is a kind of asylum. People feel more freer there than in the rest of the society,” says Rene Elley Karpantschof, a sociologist at the University of Copenhagen. But those opposed are fed up with the deeply rooted drug use, the land occupation, and the snubbing of laws. “It has been made a haven for criminals from neighboring countries, like Sweden or Norway,” says Jesper Nielsen, a cultural historian at Denmark’s National Museum. “So you could say they accept a criminal form of control within Christiania, but they resist control from without.”

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