Christiania’s 50th birthday parade
Insights into the governing of the narcotic city of Copenhagen
by Anders Lund Hansen & Louise Fabian, October 22 2021
Musically accompanied by Mitch Miller’s “The River Kwai March”, a woman dressed in Christiania’s girl guard uniform shouts into a megaphone (in Danish): “1, 2, 3, 4. Right, right, right, right…” And then they finally get going. There is dazzling sunshine, it is 20 degrees and a little after three o’clock in the afternoon on 22 September 2021. Christianites have staged a symbolic wedding anniversary between “Mrs. Christiania and Mr. Denmark” on the occasion of the freetown's 50th birthday a couple of days later on 26 September. Specialists in political performances as they are, the Christianites have chosen to let the party start with a kaleidoscopic procession through the streets of Copenhagen from Christiania to the Danish parliament, Christiansborg, further on to the Ministry of the Interior and Housing, and finally to the town square, Rådhuspladsen.
In connection with Christiania's 50th birthday parade - the girl guard of Christiania was (together with thousands others) parading the streets of Copenhagen.Alfred Lund Freudendal-Pedersen
Culture as mediator
Christiania’s legendary girl guard is the first feature of the parade – right after the van with representatives from Kulturforening (the culture association of Christiania). And they are all there: the opera on the theatre van, the Santa Claus Army, the free hash movement, the Sundhedshuset (health house), the horses, the Bøssehuset (LGBT+ culture house), Børneengen (children's meadow), Christiania's Frie Natur (Association for the conservation and development of Christiania's free nature), the Galloperiet (art gallery), the Karma Cannon, the Fakir school, Sølyst (afterschool children hangout place), Stjerneskibet (association for Greenlandic people) and many, many more. Above the windshield of the front van are signs symbolizing the 50-year wedding anniversary.
The first stop is the Danish parliament. Here, Mrs. Christiania (a.k.a. Britta Lillesøe, from Kulturforeningen) delivers the first message in the form of the reading of a letter “written by the main character in the drama about Christiania's marriage to Mr. Denmark in 1971; former Minister of Defence, Keld Olesen” (Ugespejlet, p. 31. Own translation). After an account of the Minister of Defence’s experiences of the events in the early 1970s, the letter ends as follows: “When the bourgeois parties had given up on clearing Christiania, they changed their tactics. Now the area had to be normalized; they did it not succeed. Christiania was not normalized, but several of the thoughts and attitudes that grew out here took root among especially young people outside. And now 50 years have passed. And as you approach the next 50 years, it is vital that the ideals that characterized the pioneers continue to be the vital foundation of your future” (ibid. Own translation). Blasting from the loudspeakers of the theatre van, Christiania’s popular signature song “I kan ikke slå os ihjel” (You cannot kill us) serves as a musical greeting to the politicians, Denmark and the world, before the procession leaves the parliament. The lyrics in the song continue: “You cannot kill us, since we are a part of yourselves” (1).
The colourful parade continues down along Thorvaldsen’s Museum. The next stop is the Ministry of the Interior and Housing, where Mrs. Christiania presents the minister, Kaare Dybvad, with a wish list. Britta Lillesøe reads out the content: “In connection with our upcoming wedding anniversary, I have two burning wishes. First of all, I want more freedom to let my new ideas flourish without too many obstacles. That is why I want a special legislation so that I – and other areas – can be recognized as ‘Experimental Zones’. The second wish is a legalization that consider the usefulness of the cannabis plant. Furthermore, that my experiences in this matter, good and bad, will be taken seriously” (Ugespejlet, p. 32. Own translation). The parade continues down past Copenhagen’s city court. Carrying signs with statements like “Action leads to transformation”, “Cannabis is medicine”, “Humans before money” and “A city is soft as a body”, the crowd moves towards the last stop. At Rådhuspladsen, the central town square, Lord Mayor Lars Weiss speaks: “... from the beginning, it was not a marriage where both parties gave their consent ... It has not been a marriage without sparks. … However, I cannot imagine a Copenhagen without Christiania… I wish you all the best of luck for the next 50 years. At least” (Weiss 2021). Applause. “We are being loved to death”, says an elderly gentleman to another who is also standing in the sea of people – clapping.
Does the older gentleman have a point? Can a utopian freetown be integrated into the “normal” society? Has Christiania become normalized and toothless? What has happed to the rebellious place of autonomous free thinkers who decades ago were sending a “Santa Claus Army” to fight capitalism in Copenhagen, and let a “NATO Army” occupy DR’s (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) and other strategic targets in relation to a NATO summit? We will explore these questions in the following through reflections Christiania’s history in relation to the urban political and economic context.
Urban political and economic context
Christiania's anniversary parade can be seen as an important symbol of Christiania's proactive struggle for its ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre 1967). His book The Urban Revolution is a diagnosis of how urbanization has become both a worldwide process and a driving force in line with the previous industrial revolution (Lefebvre 2003). With this, Lefebvre identifies a new phase in the capitalist mode of production. At the same time, the book is an analysis of how the processes of urban transformation give marginalized social groups the opportunity to claim the right to the city through (urban) space struggles.
There are two very different versions of the concept of the right to the city in circulation. First and foremost, property rights have been the most dominant right to the city throughout the history of capitalism, and these rights were at the heart of the ‘neoliberal revolution’ launched by political actors such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan four decades ago. Cities across the globe have become important arenas for the rent-seeking behavior of financial interest and property capital. Cities are governed as if there were no alternative to the global neoliberal inequality-creating growth agenda (Brenner 2019; Clark, et. al. 2015; Harvey 2005; Mayer et. al. 2016). This is also the case in Copenhagen, where Christiania fights against normalization and for their own version of the right to the city (Lund Hansen et. al. 2001; Lund Hansen 2011). From the initial squatting of the area to today's fund organization, Christiania has been struggling for collective rights to land and housing. For five decades, Christiania has thus practiced, and been an exponent of, a completely different right to the city. What started as an occupation of an eighty-five-hectare abandoned military area in central Copenhagen has developed into a home for almost nine hundred inhabitants. But Christiania has also developed as an urban area. Through continuous struggles, Christiania continues to be a laboratory for new forms of urban design, democracy and social and environmental justice. It remains an innovative urban social experiment. By continuously experimenting with ecological buildings, biological wastewater treatment systems, alternative energy, a car-free city policy, recycling stations, composting systems, use of rainwater, etc., Christiania seeks to create a more ecologically just city.
Since the area was occupied half a century ago, the surrounding city of Greater Copenhagen has experienced a tremendous transformation. As in many other major cities, urban slums produced by economic restructuring and disinvestment characterized the inner-city areas of Copenhagen in the early 1970s. Today, that context is very different. Copenhagen has become a very rich city with a focus on business and ‘people climate’ – as well as ostensible creative, green and smart urban solutions – that has attacked regional and global attention and investments (Lund Hansen et. al. 2001; Ramos 2021). Even if elements of Copenhagen’s green (and pink) (washing) strategies draw on some of the same ideals as the ones developed in Christiania, the area’s development has followed a very different trajectory – a trajectory based on joint ownership and consensus democracy. Yet Christiania is also the free harbor for a contested and illegal open-air cannabis market in one street: Pusher Street.
Governing of the narcotic city: the push
“Housing affordability is decreasing at a record pace. The local working and middle classes have become unable to afford housing in major cities across the world. London, New York, Hong Kong, Toronto, Tokyo, Valparaiso, Sydney, Melbourne, Caracas, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm… the list seems endless. People are being pushed out of their very own homes – because living in them has become unaffordable” (The Push 2019).
Not surprisingly, Christiania was a primary target of the “Kulturkamp” (cultural battle) launched by the right-wing government when they came to power in 2001. The government's plan was to “normalize” Christiania. The central objectives were to close the cannabis market, register and legitimize the building stock and abandon the principle of joint ownership of the land in favor of individual leases and private property rights. The Danish government's “war” against Christiania in the 2000s was clearly linked to a stigmatization of the whole area as a “criminal” drug place (Mylenberg 2003). As a key part of the parliamentary foundation of the government, the far-right party, Dansk Folkeparti (The Danish People’s Party), demanded “the free city to be closed down promptly” (ibid). These kinds of struggles – as Lefebvre remind us – do not only take the form of violent street battles, police force, visitation zones and demolition of buildings (which certainly still are a very real part of the governing of the narcotic city – also in Copenhagen). Nevertheless, they are also being fought on a more subtle political and economic level. As one Christianite put it, “They [the state] are aware that using bulldozers is not a good idea. Bureaucracy is good: it works! And suddenly it [Christiania] becomes a nice area – and damn boring. I cannot stand neatness!” (in Guldbrandsen 2005. Own translation).
Christiania's struggles for the right to the city are multifaceted. One of the big battles of the past decades was Christiania’s lawsuit against the Danish state. Christiania argued that they had earned squatter’s rights to the area. They lost the case in the Supreme Court in February 2011. However, they managed to drag the case out so that the government's gentrification strategy was ostensibly averted. The final agreement with the state became relatively edible for Christiania: collective fund ownership of the area – via a newly established Christiania Foundation. Christiania entered into an agreement with the Danish state which initially ensures its survival, but which at the same time limits their autonomy. For example, it is Christiania’s responsibility to renovate and demolish a number of buildings, forcing them to take out expensive loans – tying them closely to the capitalist space economy that they oppose. The structural roots of Christiania's struggles can be compared to rent strikes, struggles against urban renewal and gentrification, the environmental justice movements and struggles against the repression of use rights to the commons. Seen through this prism, the struggles can be linked to the David Harvey's concept of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2003) or Tom Slater's emphasis on how an urbanism rooted in “vested interest” is a barrier to social justice (Slater 2021). The fight against forces that push people out of their homes and away from their livelihoods is thus something that Christiania shares with many of the participants in the global environmental and social justice movements.
The production of Christiania: pushing back?
Christiania is not one unified entity; here we find a wide range of ideas related to “freedom”. The freetown of Christiania has thus been organized from the beginning around both collective and individualistic ideals. Christiania was founded in “the pursuit of a self-governing society, where people can freely unfold while remaining accountable to society” (Christiania.org). In contemporary neoliberal times, however, the concept of freedom is often associated with free market logic; private property rights and growth logics trump all other versions of the concept of rights imaginable. In Christiania, as in the rest of our society, we find elements of this logic represented. Furthermore, the protection of “human rights” is often a key element in today's political and ethical answers to the question of how we can achieve a better world. Frequently, however, these rights are linked to individual and (often) property-based rights. They often do not challenge the hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logic and associated legal governance structures – the structures that Christiania traditionally has been engaged in. Historically, however, there are examples of alternative concepts of freedom and human rights based on collective ideals. For the past 200 years, labor movements, civil rights movements, women's movements, anti-colonial movements, etc., have had a global influence on the development of rights discourses and practices based on collective rather than individual ideals. Freedom was thus also sought through collective principles and practices. Key elements of Christiania’s efforts in relation to achievement of the “right to the city” are also rooted in this tradition.
Lefebvre (1991) was preoccupied with the emancipatory potentials associated with the intersection of the material, ideological-institutional and symbolic-affective processes behind the production of space. Christiania’s five decades of struggles can be read in relation to these processes. In this story, we took our point of departure in the symbolic-affective expressions revealed in Christiania’s 50th birthday parade, and we used this as a steppingstone to shed light on the material and ideological-institutional (economic and political) background and context of Christiania’s battles in order to push back against the hegemonic logics of state and capital. In other stories, we will look more explicitly at the symbolic-affective (cultural and social) processes behind the production of Christiania.
(1) The song was written by Bifrost's Tom Lunden in 1976, and recorded with the voices of Anisette, Sebastian and Povl Dissing. The song was on Christiania Planden (The Christiania Record) from the same year. It has not only become Christiania's signature song but also a popular cultural phenomenon I Denmark. Furthermore, the song has been assumed in the Danish Folk High School songbook.
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