A year has passed since the Grenfell tower fire. Survivors are yet to be re-homed, a public inquiry has only just begun and still there are no arrests. Grenfell was public murder, the fault of a government that favours outsourcing and violent austerity measures, over its citizens. In this blog, we remember Grenfell one year on.
On 14th June, alongside other activist groups, Justice for Grenfell will mark 12 months since the tragedy with the Grenfell Silent Walk. The walks are a monthly opportunity for the community to remember, mourn and pay tribute to those affected.
Our new book on the disaster, After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response, is out now and includes 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.
Struggle before and after the fire
One thing we rarely talk about when we talk about Grenfell, is what happened before Grenfell. The years of struggle, open letters and banging on doors of uninterested councillors and landlords. The Grenfell Action Group – part of the Radical Housing Network – is one of many community groups organising around the shameful state of housing Britain pushes its working classes into. For a decade, the Group fought for dignity: not just demanding basic fire safety, but resisting the imposition of a disruptive and expensive re-development that made their housing conditions a ‘living hell.’ Fighting back against private contractors eating up public space with flashy projects that nobody can access, and nobody asked for. Fighting for the rights of their kids to play in parks, and to live in conditions that don’t make residents ill. Mobilising community members for national anti-austerity demos. A blog post on the Group’s website, dated 20 August 2014 was titled: ‘Is Grenfell Tower a Firetrap?’ Reading it is enough to make any sentient being quiver with desperate rage.
Gayatri Spivak once said that ‘having voice’ requires two things: 1) the ability to speak your conditions, to resist, to form collectives and make political demands and 2) access to infrastructure that can make good on those demands. Grenfell residents were not passive victims. They understood what was going on, why it was happening and what needed to change. They spoke and fought. It was the utter disdain for and disposability of working class lives, by an elite loyal to nothing but the cannibalistic ideology of profit that made this mass ‘corporate manslaughter’ inevitable. It was the deliberate and entitled refusal to make good on working class demands, driven by a firm belief that whatever happened they could get away with it: because they do. Indeed, the disturbing irony of this is the Grenfell Action Group are still speaking without a voice: their demands for an appropriate inquiry into the fire are being religiously evaded.
It is enraging therefore, to hear professional commentators and politicians project their fantasies of ‘the working class’ as if they were nothing but a rhetorical weapon. We are led to believe the working class is uniformly ‘white’ and motivated by nothing but bigotry. The reality on the ground is inconvenient here. It’s a tower block of people – documented, undocumented, white, black, brown, queer, disabled – living under the same roof, articulating the same political demand for dignified conditions, and trying to sever the hellish pact between a neoliberal state and corporate power. What an indictment it is of our current system that they only became visible when the home they shared was engulfed in flames.
no one was supposed to die like this.
each day the pain lingers, the debris falls
and the echoing screams grow quieter, as the
few remember, the world forgets.
you walk by carrying your shopping,
drive your car to your weekend getaway
you look up, see a memorium for the dead;
a standing coffin, never laid to rest.
Grenfell Tower, 2017
‘We will expect justice’
Lucy Masoud, Fire Brigades Union, London Regional Official
One year has passed since the devastating events that took place fire at Grenfell Tower. 72 lives lost on that tragic night and 12 months on we seem to be no closer to finding justice for those victims. Shockingly, half of the households made homeless by the fire are still yet to be permanently housed, and this government appears to be numb to the suffering of the victims and the community local to Grenfell.
When I woke on the morning of June 14th and saw the horrific sight of the tower ablaze, I assumed I must be watching an image from a third world country. Fires like that do not happen in the U.K. Little did I know, that not only was this tragedy taking place in my own country, the 5th richest country in the world, but was taking place in Kensington one of the richest boroughs in the country. How could a fire of this magnitude rip through a building, killing so many? It didn’t take long for the world to realise that this fire was completely avoidable and serious safety breeches had taken place.
There is now a public inquiry taking place, and hopefully the victims, the locals community and the British public will get the answers to why this tragedy took place and what or who is to blame. Answers may not be enough for the victims’ families however. They want and deserve justice.
I have spent hours sitting at the Grenfell Inquiry listening to the heart-breaking testimony of the relatives of the victims. Hearing them speak about how their loved ones are dearly missed and how the fire has shattered their lives. Stories of how families’ bodies were found huddled together in flats, with the only solace being that those dear souls died in the arms of their loved ones.
Right now, the victims and the community have a blanket of sadness wrapped around them, and perhaps being able to commemorate the victims at the inquiry will be a moment of relief for some. But once the commemorations conclude, we will expect justice and if that is not properly delivered then our sadness will turn to anger, and then to rage. As well it should.
Grenfell and the Academic Gaze
I am conflicted about writing about Grenfell at this time, cognisant of media outlets’ role in exploitation, misrepresentation and re-traumatisation of survivors. I will focus here on setting out a critique of academic responses to the fire that exceptionalise it as an object of study and argue that we must not lose sight of its structural causes. It was only a matter of days after the Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June 2017 that an academic call for papers analysing the fire emerged. It ignored race as a factor in what made the victims of the fire, the majority of whom were racialised as non-white, disproportionately vulnerable to premature death. I responded by writing a blog piece about why we cannot ignore the racial and colonial dimensions of the atrocity. Since the fire there have been multiple academic events across the country about the fire. The tendency in the neoliberal academy to define ‘new’ research areas and to engage with topics attracting a high level of media attention has led to the exceptionalisation of the Grenfell fire as an object of study which results in the hindrance of our understanding of the causes of the fire that lie in structural violence.
The Grenfell fire embodies a double meaning of atrocity. It was not only a sudden, terrifying occurrence, its roots lie in slow violence. Slow, or structural, violence is more difficult to identify than the sudden violent spectacle. Yet, in the case of the Grenfell fire, the violence and disintegration that preceded the horrifying spectacle of the fire was perceptible. It was perceptible to its eventual victims and survivors, but they and their calls for help in making their homes safe were marginalised, silenced and ignored until it was too late. Crises tend to be declared, and action called for, when white middle class people are affected. What would it mean for times of ‘crisis’ to be declared, attention paid and preventative action taken when people racialised as non-white are at risk of harm? In the designation of last decade’s financial crisis as being ‘of 2008’, for example, erased was the moment of violence for predominantly poor black Americans who saw their houses repossessed across Southern California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida in 2007. David Harvey thus locates the crisis for capital as beginning in 2008, but describes the 2007 spate of housing repossessions as being ‘the primary epicentre of the crisis’. We might similarly ask when the violence of the Grenfell fire began? Was it the night of 14 June 2017, or can its origins, its causes be located further back in time?
I would argue that the epicentre of the fire is located in European colonialism and transatlantic slavery. Ideas of race and racial inferiority served to justify practices of profit-induced exploitation, subjugation and control, with disastrous and ongoing consequences for enslaved and colonised peoples and their descendants. Many of the Grenfell residents and their ancestors suffered the dispossessing effects of European colonialism. They lived and fled not only the lasting material consequences of colonisation, but also the economic decline caused by global trade and debt arrangements that ensure the continued impoverishment and dependency of Southern economies on those of the North. Understanding the violence of the Grenfell Tower atrocity demands a historical and contextualised analysis. Opportunist academic attempts to exceptionalise the fire as an object of study distract from this point and prevent us from addressing the root causes of the fire.
 R. W. Gilmore , Golden Gulag : Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (California , University of California Press , 2006), 28.
 David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time (American Sociological Association Meeting, Atlanta, 16 August 2010) Available at http://davidharvey.org/2010/08/the-enigma-of-capital-and-the-crisis-this-time/
‘We want to know what happened, why we were living in a death trap.’
As the inquiry into the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower last June unfolds, the survivors, local community, and wider society are still reeling from the loss of seventy-two lives and the institutional indifference that followed and preceded it. Only last week, emails from RBKC council released through FOI show one unnamed worker’s deeply racialised view of the tower’s residents: in the days after the fire, one author complains about ‘language problems, lack of education and understanding how anything works’ and suggests parts of the community have a ‘territorial’ nature apparently comparable to ‘gangs’.
But residents knew enough about how things work to have chosen fire resistant cladding during a 2012 consultation on the tower’s refurbishment, ultimately dropped in favour of a £5000 cost saving. The smoke ventilation system failed eight days before the fire, with a proposal to fix it for £1800 ignored, and no maintenance contract in place. And almost a year later, two thirds of affected households from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk remain without a permanent home.
Race is the modality in which class is lived. Grenfell Tower was home to families from countries all over the world, including many from north Africa. It takes its name from nearby Grenfell Walk, itself named after Francis Wallace Grenfell who fought numerous colonial wars there on behalf of the Crown.
While many residents had secure immigration status, some did not. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, an impromptu campaign for an immigration amnesty gathered pace. Health workers and legal representatives found that some people with precarious immigration status were too afraid to present to the emergency services and other officials, fearing that any contact with the state would be used as a pretext to detain and deport them under the auspices of the government’s ‘hostile environment’.
A route to settlement was eventually provided for some but it is no amnesty. People face three rounds of applications over five years and may still be refused and deported as the government sees fit, depending on their perceived ‘character, criminality or associations’. In the meantime, family members wishing to attend the inquiry from overseas, and ascertain precisely what happened to their loved ones, have been unable to obtain visas.
One year on we are now living through a further state-enabled cruelty that has ripped another set of working class communities apart: the Windrush scandal. While this scandal may be less visibly fatal, the effects of a ‘hostile environment’ cannot be ignored. Windrush citizens were denied healthcare, and lost jobs, homes and welfare benefits, because they were undocumented by the state; their proof of long residence suddenly inadequate, and protection from deportation quietly repealed. Those Windrush citizens made destitute can only have been made poorer and sicker as a result. Dexter Bristol’s mother has attributed his death to the stress he experienced in trying to prove that he was entitled to an immigration status that had always rightfully been his, and which should never have determined how he lived and died. ‘This is racism, he was a victim of their policies.’
At a time when racism is increasingly flattened into a container marked ‘individual racially discriminatory acts or unpleasant views’, or, occasionally, ‘hate crime’, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of it is particularly pertinent: ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.’
The catastrophic events of Grenfell and Windrush lay bare the sometimes lethal intersections of race and class while at the same time demanding that we interrogate them. The courage and dignity of the communities affected as they struggle for justice make the same demand. As one survivor, Mouna El-Ogbani, puts it: ‘We want to know what happened, why we were living in a death trap.’
‘This tragedy had its roots in a broader culture’
Members of the Radical Housing Network
A year ago today we witnessed Britain’s deadliest fire in living memory.
The morning after Grenfell Tower burned, it came to light that multiple warnings about fire safety from residents had been ignored. From council cost-cutting, to government scrapping ‘red tape’ safety regulations and companies hawking unsafe building materials, contempt prevailed. The result: 72 people dead and the heart ripped from a community.
This tragedy had its roots in a broader culture – one of political disregard for social tenants and managed decline of public housing. Our estates are being demolished while public assets are sold off – meanwhile 80% of new homes built in London are affordable only to the richest 8% of the city.
The community around Grenfell had seen – and fought – planned demolitions of nearby housing estates and community facilities. They saw Kensington & Chelsea council move families out of the borough while luxury flats sprang up around them. Meanwhile leaks, mould and fire hazards remained routine.
After Grenfell, many argued that the atrocity should signal a turning point in housing policy. Nearing a year on from the tragedy, we have yet to see any substantial commitment to such a turning point.
On the national stage, we hear that cladding like that used at Grenfell – the equivalent of coating a building in petrol – will not be banned. Indeed, it took 11 months for Theresa May to commit £400m to remove such existing cladding from tower blocks. Even this modest and long overdue announcement was revealed to be a kind of policy blackmail: the £400m was to be pinched from affordable housing budgets. No homes or unsafe homes, then.
At Lancaster West, as all over the UK, resident campaigns, community members, groups and activists have been confronting these issues on the ground for many years. Their tireless work has saved lives, homes, families – and won wider victories like toppling the Haringey Development Vehicle and winning ballots on regeneration schemes.
This year, like last, the political class should listen to these residents. Our need for investment in safe, secure, genuinely affordable public housing is beyond urgent. We need properly enforced safety standards and a housing system where tenants are listened to. And we need housing policy that’s driven by public interest and not the dictates of the market.
14th June 2017: An Act of Violence
Vickie Cooper, the Open University and David Whyte, University of Liverpool
Have we witnessed a more devastating and extreme public act of violence than the Grenfell Tower fire in living memory? Yet it is remarkable that the decisions that produce disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire are still not readily described in popular discussion as ‘violence.’ ‘Violence’ is something that remains largely understood in popular consciousness as an interpersonal phenomenon, and as the result of a deliberate attempt to cause harm. Violence is generally understood in law as something that is committed between autonomously acting individuals.
The Grenfell fire represents a rare moment in which the violence of contemporary capitalism comes into full view, for all to see. But in the aftermath, we need to think about how Grenfell is the product of a much larger complex of institutional violence that we are in danger of taking for granted. At the level of policy, the ‘bonfire of red tape’, the sustained attack on social housing and the demonization of the tenants of social housing as the undeserving poor, were undoubtedly significant factors that led to the fire. The public inquiry is beginning to uncover the series of decisions by key public officials and corporate players who cut corners and used cheaper materials.
The mundane decisions and targets set by government and administered at institutional level are rarely thought of as violent, but they are. Although the Grenfell Tower fire was an exceptional display of extreme violence, the series of events that led to the fire were routine and mundane: the driving down of construction costs, undercutting health and safety measures and the systematic refusal to listen to tenants when they warned of the deadly risks they faced. Precisely the same experiences of institutional violence can be found across the country in countless communities. This is why Grenfell Tower has become such a powerful emblem of austerity Britain.
The individuals at the highest levels of government, in local authorities and in private construction firms who made the decisions that led to the fire can be identified; and many knew the likely consequences of their actions. It is unlikely that any will be held accountable for a violent offences, but we must demand that those who authored and implemented ‘bonfire of red tape’ policies and housing policies that are designed to drive communities out of their homes, are now held to account.
Grenfell Tower: A Place Where Contempt Lives
Steve Tombs, The Open University
One of the most devastating aspects for anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower is the fact that this mass killing was the result of a conscious decision by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This level of contempt which Grenfell residents had ‘endured … for years‘ – described as ‘a real disdain for people lower down the social order‘ – must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that residents in and around the area will find nard to shake off.
The contempt was evident in what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the ‘failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most‘. It was evident, too, in the lies, half-truths and broken promises which have characterised central and local Governmental responses over the past year. These included:
- the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to undocumented residents;
- the ever-shifting commitments to, and failures of, rehousing Grenfell residents;
- the series of struggles around the make-up and terms of reference of the Public Inquiry.
Constantly being lied to, spun half-truths, being treated without sensitivity – all must surely arouse feelings of mistrust, of being treated as contemptible. These were the same characteristics which defined how residents felt they were treated prior to the fire (notably by the TMO and RKBC council), and, more, how their concerns about safety in the tower were dismissed. In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire was maintained and reproduced after the fire. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, ‘We’re dying in there because we don’t count‘. It seems that for the powerful, the survivors still don’t count.
Find out more about Justice for Grenfell’s work here: https://justice4grenfell.org/
Find out more about the 12th Grenfell Silent Walk on 14th June.
Find out more about the to march for Grenfell justice on 16th June.
Click here for Pluto books, 10% of all web-sales will go to Justice For Grenfell.