17 December 2009

One Night in Christiania

A Report from the UN Climate Change Conference

The Bella Center sits on the edge of Copenhagen, kilometers from the city center, past a processional of Socialist-bloc apartments, car dealerships, and smoking power plants. It is here that the UNFCCC has been meeting for the last week, as frustrated negotiators try to hammer out a new international climate framework. Coming out by bus, one passes kilometers of gray, empty fields flanked by cranes and construction. The only symbol of the vaunted “green” economy is a cyclopean wind turbine that spins in the distance, Blade Runner-esque. Upon arrival, the canopied entrance of the complex makes one think of a trade show hall in Dayton, Ohio. Second-tier attendees like journalists and people from NGOs wait for hours in the bitter cold before being shuffled through airport metal detectors and eventually waved into the overcrowded conference center. 

The Danish police reinforce the EPCOT Center stereotypes that Americans hold about Northern Europeans—they are mostly tall, pale and imbued with a preternatural coolness, their charming accents somewhere between British grandmother and Swedish Chef. When I meet the grandfatherly police spokesman Henrik Suhr in the stone panopticon of Copenhagen’s cuddly-sounding Politigarden to talk about the $122 million police deployment for the summit, and the new American-style draconian street laws which give police absolute power of search, seizure, and detainment, I am charmed by his PR finesse. Suhr responded to many of my questions—Were they going to continue raiding activist spaces? Would they use the water cannon against protestors?—simply by giving a mischievous grin and saying, “I’m not going to tell you.” 

Suhr also told me: “You know, this is so much fun for us. All of us police here together, and oh, at Christmas time! We have a lot of hygge [a Danish word that roughly translates to ‘coziness’].” When we shook hands and said goodbye in the icy drizzle outside the Politigarden, Suhr touched my shoulder and said, “So nice to meet you. I really hope to see you again!”  

The Danes are painfully nice—in my first minutes in Copenhagen when I dropped a fifty-euro note, a woman rushed after me shouting, “Hey, you dropped this!” When I was having a violent coughing fit on a city bus, the elderly lady sitting behind me offered me some cactus-flavored antihistamine gummies, which helped. Lost in the city center one afternoon, I asked a blonde Danish woman for directions. After taking several minutes to direct me, she patted my shoulder. “I really, really hope you find it!” she smiled, before rushing away.


One of the first lectures I managed to attend at the Klimaforum, an alternative “people’s summit” to the official UN talks, was titled “Nordic Perspectives on Climate Change.” In a small conference room, a young Finnish woman gave a grammatically impaired PowerPoint presentation in English about her trip to Greenland, where she had witnessed firsthand “the climate changings” through the spread of an invasive flower species called lupine. When someone in the audience asked her about the benefits of lupine as a ground cover, she shrugged her shoulders and looked bored. “You can look at it many ways, really. This is just what I was taught.” 

This was followed by another PowerPoint presentation, by two young Inuit women from Greenland. They had interviewed young people across Greenland to ascertain their views on climate change. The presenters spoke slowly, repeatedly saying, “We have to respect The Nature,” like a mantra. As they clicked through their PowerPoint, it became apparent that the majority of the people they had interviewed believed that climate change was just a “cycle of nature.” 

“The climate changings, we think they just a part of The Nature. It’s not something we’re worried about. We also don’t think it’s our fault. since there are so few people in Greenland.” Everyone clapped politely. It dawned on me that these two women, speaking at the cozy indigenous-loving lefty summit, could become future stars of the climate change skeptics movement. I went to use the restroom. There was fresh graffiti in black pen on the tile wall that read, “Real Environmentalists are VEGAN!” 


I made my way across town by bus to the squatted village of Christiania, a city-within-a-city in Copenhagen. Christiania was a disused military barracks until it was occupied by hippies in the 1970s. Now it is primarily a place people go to get drunk, dance, and buy hash from sketchy guys in a little square ignominiously named “Pusher Street.” In the heart of Christiania, hundreds of people filed into a circus tent for a debate between Naomi Klein, Michael Hardt (coauthor of Empire), and Tadzio Muller, a representative from the direct action group Climate Justice Action. The muddy corral buzzed with international COP15 protesters: teepees were set up across the lawn and an outdoor mess kitchen spooned out hot plates of lentils and rice to the hungry, dreadlocked masses. 

Naomi Klein, who in the US usually speaks to a more facetious audience, was ecstatic to be in Christiania: “Let me just tell all of you how good it feels to be in the liberated zone of Christiania after being in the occupied territory of the Bella Center!” The panel speakers sipped beers on the rickety stage. The unruly crowd, looking like a wild ragtag gathering of the Rebel alliance before the attack on the Death Star, cheered intermittently. Klein continued, “I never thought I’d say this—I’ve always supported diversity of tactics. But I think in this case, we should make it clear that people who are violent aren’t with us on Wednesday. People are risking a lot to do the nonviolent civil disobedience to get into the Bella Center and hold the People’s Assembly. I’m not against militancy, but we can do better than just fighting the cops! We need to be smart!” 

Michael Hardt looked somewhat bewildered, as if wondering why he’d agreed to come. He spoke of the importance of having infinite demands like “We want everything for everyone,” and the need to conceptually distinguish between the two types of commons: the intellectual commons and natural resources. As Tadzio Muller expounded on their points, emphasizing the importance of remaining nonviolent when tearing down the fences at the Bella Center, members of the crowd began to heckle him. Someone in the back shouted, “Why should we be nonviolent if the police are violent?” and one person screamed, “Have you been asleep for the last four days?” The panel ended on a positive note, and the circus tent was quickly morphed into a wild rave, with a house DJ and The Wall-style video projections of riot police and tear gas playing behind him. 

After about half an hour, the music and dancing stopped and an announcement came over the microphone. “Ah people, I have to say something. People are rioting outside the walls of Christiania. The police are spraying tear gas. A little tear gas may come in here, but this should be a safe place.” I stepped out of the tent and walked past the trash-can fires around the corner to where police vans were facing off with hundreds of young people wearing black masks and throwing glass bottles. The police shot tear gas, and the protesters retreated back to the corral to grab more beer bottles and regroup for the offensive.  

As the police advanced forward, and clouds of noxious gas rolled in, my friend Ciara and I retreated across the lawn, where we found a big tent to retreat into. Inside, the tent was like stumbling into a scene from One Thousand and One Nights: arabesque carpets covered the walls and floors. People with their shoes off sat drinking chai and smoking hash, oblivious to the chaos outside. By the time we decided to leave, the police had invaded the autonomous zone of Christiania and were making sweeps of its dark streets with flashlights and dogs, like in a World War II noir. We tiptoed through the village. The old, rundown buildings and cobblestones streets of Christiania looked beautiful under the cold bright moon and stars, a whisp of white clouds strung across the black night like a necklace. Little groups like us scurried from place to place, trying to avoid the phalanxes of police, who were asking for identification and making arrests. 

As we walked down a tree-lined trail behind some houses, we encountered a woman with gray hair surveying the police. A resident of Christiania, she invited us into her house to warm up and have some tea. Sitting at her kitchen table, she seemed worn down by the squatter’s life. “Oh, there are riots here all the time. People are always setting fires, thinking that they are helping Christiania. The police come in here all the time. They can’t kick us out at that point, but they make it hell for us to live here.” She showed us in the direction of an exit—we thanked her, and edged past the bright headlights of the police vans, out of Christiania, back into the gray expanse of Copenhagen.

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