As a community mourns Grenfell Tower has become a monument to deep inequality and the possibility for a community awakening
I spent my childhood playing football under Grenfell Tower. Kensington Leisure Centre had astroturf extending under the block and Westway Sports Centre only had concrete pitches at the time. I grew up in the block between the two sports centres, as part of the burgeoning Latimer Road community, a multicultural hub housing the poorest of society in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs. As an inferno gripped Grenfell in the early hours last Wednesday, the days that followed brought me back to my youth for the first time in years, on the streets and in the community centres, in the videos and anger that have surfaced.
The facts around Grenfell have been incredibly patchy. The contrast between eyewitness accounts and media reporting continue to muddy the waters. Amid the conflicting messages, several communities have launched their own social media appeals for help, as centres were inundated with donations within hours. It was a beautiful show of community spirit, but as a coordinated disaster response it was chaotic. And yet as the donations piled in, the victims didn’t. Three days on the ground at Westway Sports Centre saw perhaps a dozen victims – 400 beds were prepared and yet there was a hollow emptiness to the converted tennis courts. Official efforts were erratic: police prioritised securing access to the area, ambulances raced about without staff and the council seemed to be absent. Volunteers took on the burden of coordination, but this was not enough. In Emily Maitlis’ interview with Prime Minister Theresa May, she rightly retorted that in all other such significant matters, the army would have been brought in. Where were they? Where was anyone? And throughout, Grenfell burnt for 36 hours. Questions have yet to be answered and a creeping death toll does nothing to explain the hundreds not yet accounted for. Over all four hospitals, less than 50 casualties were admitted, many of whom were children. Where, ask the people, is everyone else?
The reaction has been one of anger which has led to the mobilisation of an entire community. Prominent artists who also grew up in this area have come out and spoken, among them Akala and Karim Dennis, more commonly known as Lowkey. I spoke to Karim regarding his thoughts. “Frustration is massive,” he told me. “People are not being provided with answers and this is leading to expressions of rage that may seem random to others. But people feel betrayed in many ways.” He referred to the illegal cladding, the councillor’s dual role as a property developer, and fears that this disastrous incident is to be instrumentalised by the council for further social cleansing. “This will lead to people in other blocks being told, ‘you don’t want this to happen, let us knock down your building,’ then they will be moved out of this community maybe forever.” He spoke also of the media furore, referring to the way that the area has been converted into a ‘media circus’. “It’s trauma tourism… and people still haven’t been given the chance to grieve. They still don’t really understand what happened.”
Some residents say that rather than be harassed by the media they would prefer to have some clarity about the number of people who died. “I think people want the media to support them, and to go interview those who should have prevented this, like Robert Black [Chief Executive of KCTMO who own the buildings],” continued Lowkey. “To doorstep them the way they doorstep people accused by the Sun for benefit scrounging. Make their lives living hell, put them all over the front pages. They built buildings which were unsafe and people burnt to death and died because of it. That’s what people want to see – they want them to put pressure on power rather than put pressure on people in the public who are striving for the better good.”
What then of its wider implications? Grenfell Tower has become intensely symbolic as a product of austerity and the legacy of the Conservative government. But this does not fully encapsulate the importance of individual responsibilities. Focusing on general Tory policy acts to shift the blame away from the persons involved in each step. Achieving change in such a flawed system, which may produce a further four years of austerity, will rely on individuals within the party acting to halt such policies.
Yet clearly this is also a systemic issue of both Tory policy and wider neoliberal housing practice. A Panorama documentary exposed the murky backstory to a building where health and safety claims were dismissed four times and when the Tory party voted as a bloc against making such places fit for human habitation. It is outrageous that blocks in one of the wealthiest cities in the world don’t have appropriate emergency preparations. The fire has exposed a stark schism in society in which the bubble created by elitist, corporate society has burst. There is now a gulf between an establishment which values profit over human life and accumulation of capital in the short term over the interests of the people or long-term sustainability.
There will be more uprisings. Raw pain still engulfs the neighbourhood. Despite outspoken crowds chasing out Theresa May and unleashing their rage through protest, there has still been a sense of hopeless silence. “People have been traumatised in a way not many communities in London have been, and we have a long way to go yet in terms of psychological healing,” Karim told me.
And so Grenfell stands as a complex monument to social marginalisation, governmental failures and human emotion. Yes, it was an enlightening community effort, and we do not need a tragedy to be told that we are a good community and we have come together. As humans, we are vigilant of fire; if fire touches us, it burns. We are not vigilant of carbon monoxide fumes that accompany fire, a silent and prolonged killer. The underlying premises that led to Grenfell are the insidious changes to our economy and social structure, as well as the spread of toxic beliefs, which has ultimately caused the longest-term damage. So in the coming days the community spirit must be harnessed into an awakening. In years to come, the social shift we are seeing may lead to the very necessary social justice we need – and that is the only hope that stands with Grenfell one week on.
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