No Justice, No Peace on the Third Anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Fire

14.6.20

The Grenfell Silent Walk on December 14, 2017, commemorating those who died in the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London six months earlier, on June 14, 2017. The Silent Walks took place every month until the coronavirus lockdown hit.

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Since the very public murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis three weeks ago, there has been a welcome and understandable resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that first surfaced back in 2014, after a spate of police murders of unarmed black men and boys in the US.

Today, as we remember the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, which occurred exactly three years ago, the resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement seems entirely appropriate. 

72 people died in an inferno that engulfed the 1970s tower block they lived in in North Kensington, an inferno that was caused, primarily, because the structural integrity of the building had been lethally compromised by a re-cladding operation designed to make the tower look more “attractive” — not only had existing windows not been repaired or replaced to make sure that they were fireproof, but the re-cladding involved holes being drilled all over the tower that, on the night that the fire broke out, allowed it to consume the entire tower is an alarmingly short amount of time.  

Also unaddressed in the refurbishment was the internal situation in the tower — including the neglect of the fire doors necessary for the compartmentalisation process designed to contain a fire within any flat it broke out in for an hour, allowing sufficient time for the emergency services to arrive. 

The Grenfell Tower fire should never have happened, and the fact that it did is the responsibility of those who were meant to ensure the safety of those who lived in it, but who completely failed to fulfil their responsibilities — the Tory government, which was obsessed with cutting regulations to facilitate profiteering and cost-cutting, local government (Kensington and Chelsea Council), the private company (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) to which control of the borough’s social housing had been outsourced, and all the various contractors involved in the business of turning structurally sound buildings into death traps. One of the most startling revelations of the fire was that dangerous flammable cladding was actually legal, and that nowhere in the broken chain of command of a neo-liberalised social housing programme was there anyone prepared to point out how wrong — and potentially lethal — this was.

So why did this all happen? Well, the bottom line is that those who live in social housing are regarded as, at best, second-class citizens by those in power. It is arguable that the provision of social housing — rented housing at genuinely affordable rents — has in general been led by people with little regard for their tenants. In the 19th century, god-fearing men taught to believe in looking after those less fortunate than themselves also saw the chance to make a profit out of creating housing for low-paid workers, and the great council house building projects of the 20th century can be seen less as projects that arose spontaneously than as responses to two great national calamities — the First World War and the Second World War, both of which exposed how returning soldiers were faced with chronic housing shortages. Along the way there have undoubtedly been episodes when government, local government and architects all believed in the provision of genuinely affordable housing for low-paid workers,  and also designed that housing with vision.

Unfortunately, since Margaret Thatcher began dismantling the notion of the state providing genuinely affordable rented housing — for life — to those in need of it, there has been a concerted effort to demonise those who live in social housing, and particularly on housing estates, with the mainstream media complicit in portraying them as unemployed and/or criminals, a shameful pattern of owner-occupier-led black propaganda that has been disgracefully successful, and that has led to a steady reduction in the availability of social housing, a commensurate increase in the profit-making opportunities for private landlords, and an entrenchment of a society-wide notion of those who live in social housing as second-class citizens.

Three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, this dark propaganda continues to pollute the discourse around this preventable disaster. It is no wonder that, today, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is being discussed with reference to Grenfell, as many of the tower’s residents were indeed black.

But, in addition, we should also recognise that ‘Brown Lives Matter’, that ‘Refugees’ Lives Matter’, and that ‘Working Class Lives Matter’, as the tower’s inhabitants were a mix of people of diverse backgrounds, but all, crucially, were not part of the ruling elite or those it rules for — primarily itself, but also, to a negotiable degree, the middle class.

Also worth thinking about are the victims of Margaret Thatcher’s drive to sell off council housing — those who lived in flats in Grenfell Tower that had been bought under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme and were paying market rents to private landlords. 

Back in 2018, the Guardian published a memorial to those who died — accounts told by their families and friends — and, in an introductory article, explained how “[t]he makeup of the people who died shows how diverse, open and tolerant Britain has become in the past 30 years (more than half the adult victims had arrived in the country since 1990)”, adding that “[t]here were few white-collar workers among the victims and only seven white Britons , indicative of how the disaster disproportionately affected minority ethnic communities.” 18 of those who died were children, while the oldest victim was 84.

As the Guardian also explained, “There was an Afghan army officer, a Sudanese dressmaker, a British artist and an Italian architect. There was an Egyptian hairdresser, an Eritrean waitress and a Lebanese soldier. There were taxi drivers and teachers, football fans and churchgoers, devout Muslims, big families and working singletons. People whose lives were complicated by health issues or love or both. Neighbours on nodding terms, and friends for life from the flat next door.”

Three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, as we remember those who died, as we remember that, despite an ongoing official inquiry, no one has been held accountable for what happened on June 14, 2017, and as we remember that, up and down the country, 56,000 people are still living in buildings with dangerously flammable cladding, we should also remember, as with the resurgent ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, that a broad coalition of all those oppressed by a majority-white elite — on the basis of race and class — are still let down, or actively stigmatised, belittled or oppressed by those in charge, and that, fundamentally, the lives of those who live in social housing are still regarded as disposable by our leaders and those responsible for our safety.

Below is ‘Grenfell’, which I wrote after the fire, and recorded with my band The Four Fathers, featuring, and produced by Charlie Hart.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Today marks three years since the Grenfell Tower fire, which led to the deaths of 72 people, and which only occurred because those responsible for the safety of the residents put cost-cutting and profiteering before their lives. Three years on, shamefully, no one responsible has been held accountable.

    As the anniversary resonates with the resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, following the murder of George Floyd three weeks ago, I point out how those failed in Grenfell, and who lost their lives as a result, include other groups oppressed, dismissed or maligned by the state; as I put it, ‘Brown Lives Matter’, ‘Refugees’ Lives Matter’ and ‘Working Class Lives Matter.’

    As I also describe it, “the tower’s inhabitants were a mix of people of diverse backgrounds, but all, crucially, were not part of the ruling elite or those it rules for — primarily itself, but also, to a negotiable degree, the middle class.”

    Three years on, those in social housing are still regarded as disposable, as they were when Grenfell Tower went up in flames, and the establishment has done nothing to persuade anyone that it has any interest in addressing issues of race and class that still plague British society.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Wendy Stevenson wrote:

    Thank you for your remembrance of the people affected by this most tragic of tragedies. Forever In Our Hearts.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Wendy. As with so many crimes these days that involve governments, the position seems to be that they have worked out that as long as they can sit things out, everything ends up being forgotten – and in a world of rolling 24-hour news and compromised attention spans across the entire population, it seems to be easier than ever to keep people in a state of permanent distraction. Just looking at the last month, for example, what happened to Dominic Cummings? And now how long will Black Lives Matter stay in the news?

    And, of course, if it’s a colossal crime like this, then an official inquiry is set up, which drags on and on, and ultimately doesn’t actually hold anyone accountable. It’s such a disgrace.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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