Mon, Jan 16, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Danish squatters in Christiania warily try ownership

In a move that contradicts the founding principles of the anti-capitalist community, Christianites made a pragmatic decision to buy the property

By Sally Mcgrane  /  NY Times News Service, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK

Police officers remove illegally built stalls in Christiania on May 13, 2011.

Photo: EPA

Last summer, the Danish state offered to sell a good chunk of the 32-odd-hectare former military base at the edge of downtown Copenhagen to Christiania, the alternative community whose residents had been squatting there illegally for four decades. For the residents, who fundamentally reject the idea of landownership, this presented an ideological quandary.

“Christiania has offered to buy it,” said Risenga Manghezi, a spokesman for the community. “But Christiania doesn’t want to own it.”

To resolve the contradiction, Manghezi and a handful of others decided to start selling shares in Christiania. Pieces of paper, hand-printed on site, the shares can be had for amounts from US$3.50 to US$1,750. Shareholders are entitled to a symbolic sense of ownership in Christiania and the promise of an invitation to a planned annual shareholder party. “Christiania belongs to everyone,” Manghezi said. “We’re trying to put ownership in an abstract form.”

Since the shares were first offered in the fall, about US$1.25 million worth have been sold in Denmark and abroad. The money raised will go toward the purchase of the land from the government.

Justifying the transaction still takes some artful semantic twists. “According to their system, you are not an owner of a house, you’re a user of the house,” explained Knud Foldschack, the lawyer for the community who negotiated the purchase. “You don’t own the area, you care take the area.”

But after a rocky decade under a conservative-led government, during which the carless, hashish-friendly community faced threats of expulsion and a Supreme Court ruling that said the squatters had no legal right to remain on the land, the residents made a pragmatic decision to buy the property — or, as many would have it, to “buy it free.”

“People were afraid, and we had to respect this fear,” said Allan Lausten, a handyman who took part in the negotiations despite an aversion to bureaucrats.

The Danish state made it easy, too. Not only did officials offer to sell the land for about US$14.5 million, a fraction of what it would be worth if sold commercially, but they also made several provisions to accommodate the Christianites’ way of life.

One sticking point was how to negotiate with a group run by consensus democracy, where a decision is made only if everyone who shows up at a meeting agrees. “Their system of government is very difficult to deal with from the perspective of the state,” said Carsten Jarlov, director of the Danish State Building Agency, who began working on the deal in 2004. “What do you do with all these meetings, where everyone has a say and no one is responsible?”

The solution was to create a foundation, with a board made up of five residents and six outsiders, to act as owners on behalf of the Christianites.

Because it can be difficult for people who reject basic tenets of capitalism to get a loan, the Danish state also guaranteed the bank loan. Further, Danish officials stipulated that the land must remain open to the public. Lastly, any profit from the sale of the land or buildings would immediately revert to the state. “This is a nonprofit zone,” said Foldschack, who called the deal “fantastic” and its eight-year evolution “Buddhistic.”

Jarlov said the decision had broad-based political support. “Danish public opinion is very ambivalent when it comes to Christiania,” he added. “If you ask if there should be space for Christiania in society, they say, ‘Yes, we love it!’ But if you say, ‘Is it a good idea to take over property you don’t own?’ they are against that. Every Dane has this split within himself.”

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