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On the 14th June 2017, a fire engulfed the Grenfell tower in West London, seventy-two people lost their lives and hundreds of others were left displaced and traumatised. To quote Phil Scraton, ‘national and local government failed immediately and spectacularly to respond’, the resonances of that failure are still being felt today. 

On the second anniversary of the fire, Phil Scraton, known for his work on the Hillsborough tragedy, recalls the disaster, situating it at the epicentre of a long history of violence enacted by government and corporations. This blog is extracted from After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response, out now and including contributions from Lowkey, Ben Okri, Phil Scraton, Daniel Renwick, Nadine El-Enany, Sarah Keenan, Gracie Mae Bradley and The Radical Housing Network. All author royalties and 10% of Pluto’s profits will go to The Grenfell Foundation

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Mobile phones have changed forever our shared experience of unfolding tragedy and disaster. In an instant and in real time, we bear collective witness to profound moments of suffering and death. I remember my first realisation of this – 5 February 2004, Morecombe Bay – the sea’s coldest month of the year. Out on the treacherous sands in the freezing cold were migrant workers, their shift work determined by the ever-changing tides. Mainly from China’s Fujian Province, backs aching and hands frozen, men and women living in the exploitative grip of ruthless gangmasters were trapped by the Bay’s notorious fast-moving sea. Desperate phone calls were made, their last, to relatives across the globe as they were overwhelmed. Twenty-three drowned. The sheer horror of those phone calls I could only imagine. Now, a decade on, most people carry phones with high-resolution cameras.

Reflecting on witnessing tragedy and death, the ‘ordeals of others’, Susan Sontag questions whether the ‘only people with the right to look at images of real suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it’. She suggests that the ‘rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be’. It was this stark reflection by a woman who had recorded and exposed the full brutality and brutalisation of war that resonated as I watched, live on television, the horror of Grenfell Tower unfold. The dawning realisation that whether looking on from nearby streets or far beyond, ‘we’ as observers shared a collective helplessness. We watched silhouettes at windows. People like us who just minutes before had been sharing conversations, watching television or asleep in bed. Now they were making their final calls to their loved ones.

Morecombe Bay, Hillsborough, the Marchioness, Lockerbie, Grenfell Tower – people just like us. Men, women and children living typically complex lives, with diverse personal histories. Grenfell, a community within a community enriched by diversity, united by humanity. A tower block in which difference – cultural, religious, social, political, economic – was celebrated in lives coming together under one roof by chance and opportunity. A community of mutual respect regardless of life histories, in which differences in age and background were recognised, accepted and celebrated. Within days, however, the full impact of loss – of life, of home, of possessions, of futures – was compounded by a fabricated, purposeful enduring stripping of identity.

In the immediate aftermath, those traumatised by death and/or survival were subjected to a condemnatory discourse that doubted their legality, their citizenship and their validity. Like Morecombe Bay, it was buoyed by racist politics that questioned the lawful status of those who died depicting an ‘enemy’ queuing at the gates, ‘aliens’ at the ports. Kensington and Chelsea, a Royal borough and one of Europe’s most affluent local authorities, revealed its binaries: of affluence and poverty; of inclusion and exclusion; of deserving and undeserving. At a moment of unimaginable pain, these binaries, both implicit and explicit, generated negative images of families and individuals who had lost everything including loved ones and friends. The questioning of the legitimacy and ‘genuineness’ of those who died was fired by a divisive Brexit-fuelled climate of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

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National and local government failed immediately and spectacularly to respond to the complex needs of displaced, grieving families. In marked contrast, the community and those beyond organised and provided for their own. This is evident, starkly and angrily, in Ben Okri’s profoundly personal yet collective cry of shared grief. In his poignant, angry words, power stands naked, stripped of the cloak of privilege. It is a telling response to the powerful, who stole legitimacy from the dead and dignity from survivors. The eclectic, interventionist collection that follows reveals their suffering and persistent marginalisation as an inevitable outcome of exploitation, privatisation, deregulation and the abdication of responsibility for safe, well-regulated social housing.

What should and could have been a containable, localised fire became one that engulfed the building. Within days, possibly hours, the devastating failures were starkly evident. The installation of combustible cladding and insulation panels together with ill-fitting windows were consequences of reducing costs to the lowest-priced options – trading safety and, ultimately, lives in an exploitative political economy. This is further evidenced by the structural failure to provide adequate means of escape for those living in medium- to high-rise blocks. No such compromises in the apartment blocks accommodating wealthy neighbours. That divide is well established throughout the chapters in this collection and has been exposed previously by critical analyses of housing policy and persistent privatisation – hallmarks of Thatcherism, adopted by New Labour.

They demonstrate the consequences of a political economy dependent on marginalisation and exclusion for its financial success, which, in working-class communities, purposefully and cynically has ignored local knowledge and personal experiences. In parallel, there has been the implicit, often explicit, dehumanisation of tenants as ‘outsiders’ fuelling a broader moral panic discourse regarding ‘illegals’. From the early 1980s, inner-city uprisings against institutionally racist policing to the explicitness of hate crime on today’s streets, neo-colonialist ideologies have sustained and nurtured a politics of fear, of dangerous places. What Grenfell demonstrates is that fear and danger are material realities; not of ‘the other’, ‘the outsider’, but the outworkings of a composite failure to provide and sustain safe, affordable homes for all.

Over a year on, these are early days in the long process of inquiry and investigation and it is difficult to draw informed conclusions regarding the full extent of private and public sector institutional culpability. In the first weeks of the public inquiry, however, deeply moving testimonies of those grief-stricken exposed the consequences – in lives lost and futures destroyed – of institutionalised racism in a class-riven society. Returning to Susan Sontag’s words, in bearing witness to the ‘ordeals of others’, we are reduced to voyeurism unless we ‘do something to alleviate it’. That is the priority. Grenfell Tower’s epitaph is ‘Change Must Come’.

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Phil Scraton is a widely published critical criminologist at Queen’s University, Belfast. His hugely influential book, Hillsborough: The Truth, is recognised as the definitive analysis of the Hillsborough disaster. Appointed to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, he headed its research and was primary author of its damning extensive report leading to new inquests and the verdict of unlawful killing.

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After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response edited by Dan Bulley, Jenny Edkins, Nadine El-Enany and including a preface by Phil Scraton is available from Pluto Press.