“REFFEN” a living state of optimism | Joen P. Vedel | 2008

It all started on Saturday 31st of May 2008, when more than eight hundred people walked from the inner city of Copenhagen to Christianshavn, under the parole: “THEY TEAR DOWN, WE BUILD UP!”

After the eviction and demolition of Ungdomshuset (the Youth House) in March 2007 and the growing pressure for a ‘normalization’ of Christiania (our right-winged government is seeking to close it down and transform it into a paradise for the property owning class), this looked like yet another demonstration for “Flere Fristeder” (“more free spaces”), but something was different.

As the demo reached Refshalevej, which runs along the water behind Christiania, we found big piles of materials and tools distributed at the side of the street, free for all people to use. Euphoric in the summer-heat people began building; houses grew up between the reed and on platforms in the water, a stage and a kitchen, an info-board, a bar and several roadblocks, bridges and tripods. At the same time people in tents and caravans came to set up camp in order to be a part of it all. Quickly it began to look like what we wanted; a NEW ‘free space’ full of people in all ages and from so many different backgrounds.

This was NOT a part of Christiania, not a new Ungdomshus, not a guerilla-garden, but a fresh element in our struggle to keep and expand these places, this was something new and more or less un-planned, a project or an action carried out in the ‘here and now’. Instead of dreaming of and planning for the future, we were building in the present. Instead of always defending our ‘old free spaces’, a much more diverse group of people/activists came together to be offensive at a time of huge pressure. The means were a flat structure with direct democracy and common assemblies as the ruling power. There was no hierarchy and no closed groups, but mutual respect, shared interests, great weather (important!) and support and love from our neighbor and biggest inspiration, Christiania.

The time and place for the whole thing was perfect. Christiania was/is deeply involved in negotiations with the state regarding their future - and possible riots just outside its gates was not what the police were looking for. Furthermore, we were in a grey zone between three different authorities: the state, the harbor and the city council. None of them approved of what we doing, but neither could they figure out who should act on the squat. For once it seemed that we were benefiting from the bureaucracy, since nothing could be done before the three administrations had reached an agreement. In the meantime we continued to build and bring in huge amounts of materials from dumps and building sites all over Copenhagen.

The number of houses and constructions in the street and on rafts in the water was increasing, as was the number of people that took up residency. Every night there was free food, a film screening, a band performing, a circus show or a quiet guitar by
the fire. The diversity of people had never been so great for a squat action, and it took some time to find out how and when we should meet and talk. This was also evident in the many different names the street had, depending on who was talking: “Reffen”, “Vejen” (the street), “Haveje”, “Frikommunen” (the free commune), “Kommunitetet Refshalevej” (the community of Refshalevej), “D. I. Refshale. Y”. We never did find a common name. In the press we were mostly known as the “Constructors”. The focus for all was to build and the more stuff we could get onto rafts the better, the underlying idea being, that we could always move on using the Copenhagen waterways. Many people came to see what we were up to, including the press, architects, city planners and authorities. The police also showed up once in a while with cameras to document what was going on, a few times by helicopter. They saw that a new kind of ‘building boom’ was started and it was moving fast.

Each day on Refshalevej was a victory to us - no one ever thought that we would be able to take it as far as we did. Sometimes while hammering and dreaming, one could even get the feeling that the City of Copenhagen approved of what we were doing, that the Municipality saw the potential in our process-based approach, that they suddenly understood that not all architecture and public space has to be designed for specific segments of the population with specific behavior and a specific profit-orientated wallet. BUT then one morning we woke up to the first notice that an eviction would take place if we didn’t clear out. This was in the first place ignored while the community continued to expand. A second notice came nine days later and this time a lot of people left. Some now expected the police to turn up in riot gear and we could only emphasize to the public and some worried residents from Christiania, that we were engaged in a “a non-violent living-experiment” and that we would not defend it by force or aggression.

And so it happened: In the early morning on 15th of July the police blocked both ends of Refshalevej and workers from the municipality demolished the houses and rafts with big cranes. At the time they went in there were only a few residents in the houses; most of them left voluntarily.

This was the end of a temporary anarchistic zone, a one and a half month long living state of optimism for a future in which we can all participate, a showcase to politicians, architects and city planners of the different ways one chooses to live, a direct intervention in the world at a time where most things we say and do are silenced or ignored. The ideological basis may not have been all rock-solid or agreed on by all, this was something to be developed, but we gave it our best through participation, improvisation, collaboration and most important; a great joy in the moment of creating.