On August 31, 2016, gunshots were heard in Copenhagen, Denmark.
They came from Freetown Christiania, a unique, semi-autonomous anarchist neighbourhood set up on the grounds of an abandoned military base, close to the city centre.
Two policemen on assignment in Pusher Street, the commune’s open cannabis market, and an innocent bystander were hit by those shots.
One officer and the bystander escaped with only relatively minor injuries, but the second officer was left fighting for his life in a critical condition after taking a bullet to the head.
It was the first police shooting in Denmark for 20 years and the incident sent shockwaves through the country.
The authorities were ready to come down on Christiania with force, but what followed instead was a perfect example of the values of this forward-thinking community and a brilliant demonstration of the effectiveness of people power.
“That meeting was very tense” says Risenga Manghezi, a business owner in the town.
We met Risenga in the office of his company, Christiania Bikes, an independent business that started and is still based in Christiania and makes cargo bicycles that are known all over the world.
Risenga told us how the community held a meeting to decide what action to take straight after the incident.
There currently more than 700 people living in Christiania, which is run completely democratically – decisions are only taken when all of the adult residents can all agree on a solution;.
This system has been in place since its founding in 1971, when a group of hippies and local residents broke down the fence of a recently abandoned military base and began squatting in the empty buildings.
They sought to make the land a free space for all, independent of the government’s rule and where the hippy ideology took centre stage.
When a decision about the community needs to be made, the whole community gathers in the neighbourhood’s equivalent of a town hall and debates.
Everyone has a chance to speak, everyone has a chance to be heard, no one is left out; it can be a slow and protracted process, but it is the way things are done in Christiania and they are proud of it.
In this case, the shooting brought the community to the conclusion that enough was enough and the cannabis market, known as Pusher Street, had to be shut down.
So, in the following days, residents came out with drills and hammers and dismantled the cannabis vending stalls that had been a trademark of their society for 45 years.
It was not an easy decision. Tolerance of soft drugs is one of the essential values of Christiania’s philosophy and the open cannabis market is the most prominent symbol of their autonomy.
Christiania has always been anti-establishment. The neighbourhood itself was founded as a protest against the poor living conditions in Copenhagen, a city that, at the time, was a shadow of the spotless model it is today.
The size of the squat meant that over the following years more and more people kept coming to the area and the lack of authority in the area meant that hard drugs were rampant and drug-related deaths were not uncommon.
It was around 1976 that the community began to organise itself into a society and define some rules, one of them being a zero-tolerance policy towards hard drugs and a policy of acceptance towards soft drugs like cannabis.
This kind of discipline and an ability to govern themselves independently is what prompted the Danish government to grant Christiania a special status as a ‘social experiment’ in 1978, meaning the authorities have very limited power within its borders.
Marijuana is illegal in Denmark, but the social experiment status meant that Pusher Street had to be tolerated for the most part.
“For a long time, frustration had been mounting about the way the cannabis market was run”, said Risenga. In the beginning, the stalls in the market were run by independent, small time vendors.
However, in 2001, a new government was elected and they decided to try and normalise Christiania – they slowly applied increasing pressure on Pusher Street until the small individual traders couldn’t survive any more.
The only people organised enough to withstand the added stress were criminal gangs, and as a result, over the last 15 years, Pusher Street became gangland.
The gangs brought the violence of the war over drugs to Christiania for the first time.
The authorities have never liked Pusher Street, but early efforts to shut the market down and evict residents were met with bitter resistance, so over the years, they began to leave it alone.
However, the scale of violence brought on by the gangs meant the problem could not be ignored.
Pusher Street was demolished in 2004 after a tip-off about an imminent police raid – the raid happened anyway and 20 arrests were made, but despite this, the market was back in action a few weeks later.
In 2005, a Christiania resident was shot dead and three others injured in a gang assault on the hash market after a dispute over territory between the gangs currently running it and another gang that wanted to move into it.
At the time, some Christianites saw it as a potential sign of things to come.
Then, in 2009, a 22-year-old man lost his jaw after it was blown off by a hand grenade that had been thrown into a crowded bar situated at the end of Pusher Street; several other people were injured.
The neighbourhood saw more fights and gang-related incidents over the years.
Pusher Street splits opinion amongst Christianites and continued to do so even after the events of August 31.
“Definitely there were people at the meeting who represent the pusher community who maybe thought it wasn’t a good idea to tear down the sheds; but the vibe against them was so strong that in the end they couldn’t really do anything and when the decision was made, there was no resistance against it,” Risenga told us.
“The night the policeman got shot there were police all over, pointing flashlights and guns at people’s heads, it was very intimidating, but the fact that we could do something ourselves against that whole vibe was important.”
The following days marked a new turning point in Christiania’s history; the decision to purge the community of its violent, criminal elements appeased the establishment.
There was no heavy police crackdown, no forced evictions and no rioting in the streets.
The community did have to concede to allowing the police to install surveillance cameras on Pusher Street, but these were only operational for around an hour before they were torn down by a crowd of Christianites.
However, the community had handled the situation itself and the authorities were satisfied.
“All the politicians were saying ‘Christiania has to take responsibility, Christiania has to do something’ which is quite unique because I don’t think you would see anywhere else where politicians ask the community to take responsibility for such a problem,” Risenga said.
“In a sense I think yes we did appease them but that wasn’t ever really our intention, we already had a really strong lead ourselves to take things forward and to change things.”
The belief in people power and compromise that these events demonstrate much better represents what a place like Christiania is about than a cannabis market ever could.
Even without the infrastructure that the rest of Copenhagen enjoys, Christiania manages to function smoothly and peacefully.
Before the government asked the community to purchase the land in 2004, residents ran their own tax and rent system, paying into a community fund that paid for maintenance, sanitation, kindergartens and so on.
The only people who didn’t pay rent were the cannabis dealers.
“I think this was a very wise decision” Risenga told us. “It meant that Christiania’s economy was not dependant on the cannabis trade, the attraction of the cannabis market brings people here who then buy other things, so there is an indirect contribution.”
Instead, most of the funds are raised through the many cafés, restaurants, shops, and music venues that call Christiania home.
On top of this, local businesses are big employers and most employees are not residents of the area.
“We are a social business”, says Risenga when asked about his own enterprise.
“We employ people who may not be able to easily find employment in the regular world. When people start here they might not be the most socially adapted or the best at getting up at eight in the morning, but we try to tolerate them and we try to use our business as a way to give people a chance to contribute from whatever point of departure they actually have.”
This type of social inclusion is the ethos that Christiania wants to promote, especially in the wake of the recent violence.
“The sad thing is that a lot of the stories about what happens in the other 98 per cent of Christiania get overshadowed by the cannabis market which is only a small part of Christiania.”
While there is still cannabis being sold on Pusher Street, official estimates put the trade at only a fraction of what it was before.
The community hopes that in the future, the street can be used for more than just cannabis dealing. There are hopes that the space can be used for things like a food market.
“Most importantly we would like to have a completely different atmosphere than we have had for at least the last five years. That’s what we really want to do away with.”
You will struggle to find anywhere else in the world where a neighbourhood can cause so much controversy but yet also be as loved as Christiania is.
Its eclecticism stands in contrast to the pristineness of the rest of the city, which offers the residents of Copenhagen something different and something genuine that is greatly appreciated by many.
Christiania is now the second biggest tourist attraction in Copenhagen, after the statue of the Little Mermaid.
Its cultural significance in the country is easy to see, with dozens of musicians, artists and activists drawing inspiration from the community and some, such as singer-songwriter Lukas Grahams, even calling it home.
This admiration was not garnered overnight, but has been 45 years in the making; but so strong is Christiania’s reputation that it is now almost too big to fail.
Freetown Christiania is living proof that human beings can succeed on their own.
For now, the place is a one of a kind.
But as the cost of living in Europe creeps up and gets further out of reach for more people, maybe societies like Christiania might become a more attractive option to people around the world.
Christiania’s evolution has not been an easy one, but it is now in the position where the elected government of one of the world’s most developed countries trusts it to govern itself independently and its residents live comfortably and peacefully.
When asked if he thinks a similar project could succeed in a place like London or another major city, Risenga said:
“I think we have to think more creatively today. In Christiania we do as much as possible by ourselves. When you take responsibility on as a community it gives you opportunities to define how you do things and the more independence you can gain.”
Featured image by Joe Skirkowski – video production by Alicia Streijffert