Hidey-high where police and dealers play cat and mouse
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Hidey-high where police and dealers play cat and mouse

Copenhagen:  When a phalanx of Danish policemen in bulletproof vests crosses the boundary into Christiania Freetown, the hippie commune in the centre of Copenhagen, many things happen at once.

Within seconds of the police’s departure, the bustling drug market in Christiania Freetown reassembles itself and business resumes.

Within seconds of the police’s departure, the bustling drug market in Christiania Freetown reassembles itself and business resumes.Credit:The New York Times

There is urgent shouting. Lumps of hashish and bags of marijuana disappear into black vinyl sacks, which are then rolled up and thrown onto roofs, hidden under floorboards and stuffed into ingeniously camouflaged hidey-holes — inside hollow propane tanks or behind mirrors. The dealers themselves scatter, sneakers pounding.

By the time police officers reach the open-air hash market on Pusher Street, pistols at their hips, the scent of hash has been replaced by the scent of cinnamon rolls, and half the population is missing. Police march through, poking ineffectually at the drug-dealers' empty stalls.

The officers, burly and heavily armed, survey the marketplace with their legs planted far apart, projecting dominance. But that is not the case. Within seconds of their departure, the bustling drug market reassembles itself and business resumes.

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This dance has taken place several times a day this summer between the government of Denmark and Freetown Christiania, one of Europe's longest-running utopian experiments.

The area was an abandoned military base in 1971 when squatters broke down the barricades and occupied 34 hectares of land, declaring "a self-governing society" of artists and freethinkers. Denmark has allowed the commune to exist for nearly half a century, in violation of property laws, planning laws and drug laws.

Police officers search for hashish and marijuana at Pusher Street in Christiania Freetown, the hippie commune in the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Police officers search for hashish and marijuana at Pusher Street in Christiania Freetown, the hippie commune in the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark.Credit:New York Times

Christiania is now one of Copenhagen's biggest tourist attractions, the subject of a vast number of academic studies and a kind of living monument to Danish tolerance.

"If it had happened in Germany or France, the military would have shut it down," said Jiesper Tristan Pedersen, an anthropologist and occasional resident of Christiania. "Danish policy back then was more gentle. They were irritated, they didn't know what to do, but they didn't want to use violence. A lot of people look at it this way, as Danish gentleness and politeness."

The mood in Denmark has swung to law and order, though, in recent years. Urban housing projects have become the scene of increasing drug offences and gang activity. And as anxiety rises, so does support for the anti-immigrant far right.

Conservative-leaning politicians have promised to shut down the Pusher Street drug trade, noting a jarring act of violence that occurred two years ago, when a dealer shot and injured two policemen. This summer has been tense.

"We hate, hate, hate the police," hissed Carsten, a hash dealer with a shaved head and a diamond earring, who requested that only his first name be used because he sells illegal drugs. "They've been in the gym for a week, learning techniques to take people down. They are just waiting to try them out on real people."

Men speak next to graffiti depicting Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, outside a bar in Christiania Freetown in the centre of Copenhagen.

Men speak next to graffiti depicting Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, outside a bar in Christiania Freetown in the centre of Copenhagen.Credit:New York Times

Christiania's full-time residents, who number around 900, have their own system of self-regulation, including a strict ban on violence and hard drugs such as heroin. The result is an uneasy equilibrium between drug dealers; residents of the commune, who have the power to expel the drug dealers; and their common adversary, the police.

Decisions are made by consensus — the assembled members clap to express support — at meetings that regularly stretch into five-hour marathons, since, by the commune's doctrine, everyone is allowed to speak.

One dealer who had the freckled, gangly look of an adult Huckleberry Finn rolled his eyes at the commune's hippie elders as if they were a geriatric chamber of commerce.

"We used to throw stones at the police," he said. "They tell us to throw flowers. They give us restraining orders. It's messed up, right? We say we are all criminals, how come we have so many rules?"

Danish authorities tolerate Freetown Christiania, a long-running utopian experiment with an open-air drug market. But tolerance has its limits, and the mood in Denmark is tilting toward law-and-order.

Danish authorities tolerate Freetown Christiania, a long-running utopian experiment with an open-air drug market. But tolerance has its limits, and the mood in Denmark is tilting toward law-and-order. Credit:New York Times

Another dealer, who introduced himself as Pat the Albanian, said self-regulation was quite effective. The threat of being ostracised, he said, was powerful — more so than the threat of being imprisoned by the Danish government.

"A lot of people here are outcasts from society, but if you follow the rules, you are welcome," Pat said.

He said it was a chilling sight to see people expelled, sometimes by a crowd of a hundred or so neighbours who escort them to the edge of the commune. "If you cannot follow the rules, you are not accepted by the flock," he said.

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After the policemen were shot in 2016, the drug market was dismantled by residents, but the pause was temporary, and the daily game of cat and mouse swiftly resumed.

"Only freedom is holy," reads the writing on a wall in the neighbourhood. Tibetan prayer flags form a fluttering, sunlit tent above the Pusher Street drug market, obstructing the view of police surveillance drones. The dealers go by street names — Rama, Manhattan, Seafood, Shoeshine Jimmy — and use elaborate evasive manoeuvres.

One rigged a model train in a below-ground cavity, so he could drop his drug supply through a hatch, punch a button and see it spirited away, said Simon Gabriel Laugesen, a computer programmer and resident.

"That's what happens when you play hide-and-seek for 30 years — you get very good at it," said Laugesen, a resident who has organised video surveillance of police patrols.

One reason the police cannot carry out more forceful raids, Laugesen said, is because they do not want to shock the crowds of tourists who come to gawk, and buy.

"These people would actually get mad if the police totally locked down Christiania," he said. "It's not so much that they have accepted it," he added, referring to the authorities. "It's that they cannot do anything about it."

But the stress of constant vigilance takes its toll.

Pedersen, whose master's thesis was titled "We Have Time for a Cup of Coffee Before the Police Arrive", said many drug dealers he met in Christiania had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, like soldiers returning from a war. Some sleep with baseball bats beside their doors, or change their phone numbers regularly, or do not use phones at all, he said.

One recent morning, when a middle-aged woman took a photograph of Pusher Street, a young man confronted her and demanded she delete the photo. The police, he explained, routinely scan social media for photographs that can be used to make arrests.

Are you at war? he was asked. He was, he replied, cheerfully.

"It's been going on since 1971," he said. "And they're still losing."

New York Times