Britain’s 9/11 and Cannibalistic Capitalism: The Grenfell Tower Fire, Seven Years On

Remembering the 72 children, women and men who died in the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017: a graphic produced by Grenfell United and posted on X.

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You might be thinking that’s an outrageous analogy. Apart from the visual similarities between burning towers, how can I compare an attack by a foreign entity on the tallest buildings in New York’s banking centre with an unfortunate accident that befell the inhabitants of a tower block of social housing in a historically deprived area of west London?

The reason I make the analogy is because the Grenfell Tower fire, on June 14, 2017, wasn’t an accident, as such; it was the inevitable result of a system of deliberate neglect, and the deliberate erosion of safety standards, for those living in high-rise housing, which came about because of the deliberate creation of what I believe we’re entitled to call cannibalistic capitalism; or, if you prefer, economic terrorism, knowingly inflicted on civilians by politicians and almost the entire building industry.

Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political or ideological aims, and at Grenfell, seven years ago, 72 people died because, over the previous four decades, a system of providing safe and secure rented housing was eroded and largely erased, replaced with a new ideology that, under Margaret Thatcher, sought to eliminate the state provision of housing, selling it off via the notorious ‘Right to Buy’ policy, demonising those who still lived in social housing, portraying them as shirkers and scroungers and reclassifying them as inferior, or second-class citizens, cutting funding for maintenance and repairs, and transferring as much of the remaining social housing as possible to less accountable, or, seemingly, completely unaccountable public-private entities.

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Grenfell Six Years On: Still Crying Out for Justice

Posters on Bramley Road in North Kensington, close to Grenfell Tower, June 14, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Six years ago today, on June 14, 2017, I watched in horror on the news as an inferno engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block of council flats in North Kensington, in west London.

London — and the UK as a whole — would never be the same again.

Compelled to visit, as a photo-journalist covering London for my project ‘The State of London’, I cycled from my home in south east London on what was, objectively, a radiant sunny day, through a city that was going about its everyday business as though nothing had happened. It was only as I got closer and the charred, still smouldering skeleton of the tower finally rose up, make me feel slightly queasy and, disturbingly, rather ghoulish, that the enormity of what had occurred struck home.

On the ground, the local community had gone into overdrive to help the survivors, donating vast amounts of food and clothing, and seeking to do all they could to help, but, throughout this heartfelt humanitarian effort, it was clear that they were alone; no one in a position of authority was anywhere to be seen.

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Five Years Since the Grenfell Tower Fire, No Justice for Survivors, and No Safety For Hundreds of Thousands of People Trapped in Unsafe Flats

A tree decorated in memory of the 72 people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, located close to the tower itself, on June 14, 2022, the fifth anniversary of the disaster (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Today marks five years since the Grenfell Tower fire, a disaster that led to the deaths of 72 people, when an inferno engulfed the 24-storey tower block in North Kensington that was their home.

The disaster was foretold by those who lived in Grenfell Tower, who had found themselves ignored until it was too late by the organisation responsible for their safety — the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which had been given control, by Kensington and Chelsea Council, of all of its social housing.

In post after post on the website of the Grenfell Action Group, residents had repeatedly warned that the KCTMO was “an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the everyday management of large scale social housing estates.”

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Celebrating 1700 Days of my Photo-Journalism Project ‘The State of London’

The latest photos from Andy Worthington’s ongoing photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

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Today marks 1,700 days since I first began posting a photo a day — plus accompanying essays — on ‘The State of London’ Facebook page; photos that were either taken on the day, or were drawn from the photos I’d started taking on bike rides throughout London’s 120 postcodes five years earlier. For anyone keeping count, that means that it’s now 3,526 days since I first set out on my bike to capture the changing face of London.

In the last 1,700 days, my ability to take photos has, I think, improved in general (largely because of the upgrade to my current camera, a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mk. II, in February 2019), and I have also, increasingly, devoted much more time to the essays that accompany each photo. I’m gratified to see that the project has steadily been gaining support, so that I recently welcomed my 5,000th follower.

As I have delved deeper into London’s history on my journeys, and in the research for the photos, I have come to recognize how resilient London is as a city, despite having lost so much in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and in the German bombing raids in World War II. Nevertheless, as I realized as soon as I began the project in May 2012, it has also recently been invaded, not by fire, or by a wartime enemy, but by predatory transnational capital, building huge new towers of offices in the City of London, and high-rise residential towers in Canary Wharf and in numerous former industrial sites across the capital (the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, for example), all eagerly facilitated by conniving politicians and generally supine architects.

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Four Years After the Grenfell Tower Fire, It’s All About Profit and No Accountability As Millions Still Live in Buildings With Similarly Flammable Cladding

Grenfell Tower illuminated on the morning of June 14, 2021, the fourth anniversary of the fire that engulfed it, leading to the loss of 72 lives (Photo: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard).

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Four years ago, when Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in west London was engulfed in an inferno, leading to the deaths of 72 people, it became apparent that everyone with responsibility for the safety of the block’s residents had failed to fulfil their obligations.

Those with blood on their hands included the Tory government, obsessed with cutting “red tape”, and failing to implement the lessons learned from previous tower block fires, and the local council, Kensington and Chelsea, which, in common with councils across the capital and the country as a whole, have largely neglected the maintenance of their social housing, content to subject it to “managed decline”, despite receiving millions of pounds in rent, in a manner that resembles nothing less than the behaviour of slum landlords.

The process of “managed decline” eventually enables councils to claim that estates need to be demolished, even though they are responsible for their dilapidation in the first place, at which point developers magically appear with proposals to ”regenerate” the estates with a mix of private properties for sale (generally at least half of the new housing), along with other forms of housing described as “social housing” or “affordable housing”, even though, in reality, they tend to be dubious “shared ownership” deals, or rented properties that are much more expensive than those that have been demolished.

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Radio: I Discuss London’s Housing Crisis and Covid’s Impact on Business Rents with Andy Bungay, Plus Three Four Fathers Songs

A deserted Piccadilly Circus on Christmas Day, 2020, an unpublished photo from Andy Worthington’s photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

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Recently I spoke to Andy Bungay of Riverside Radio, a community radio station in Wandsworth, for his show ‘The Chiminea’, which was broadcast on Boxing Day, and is available here on Mixcloud.

Andy and I have been speaking for several years, and it’s always great to talk to him.  Our 50-minute segment of the two and a half hour show began just under 21 minutes in, when Andy played ‘Fighting Injustice’, the first of three songs by my band The Four Fathers, which has long been a live favourite, and whose chorus is something of a mantra of mine — “If you ain’t fighting injustice / You’re living on the dark side.”

We then began our discussion by taking about my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, which I began in 2012, and which involves me cycling and taking photos on a daily basis throughout London’s 120 postcodes, and, since 2017, posting a photo a day, with an accompanying story, on Facebook.

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

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.  

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Two Years On From the Grenfell Tower Fire, A Growing Anger at the Way Those in Social Housing Continue to be Treated as Disposable

A photo of Grenfell Tower, lit up with a green light, and bearing the message ‘Forever in our hearts’, on the eve of the 2nd anniversary of the fire that killed 72 people on June 14, 2017, for which no one has yet been held accountable (Photo: Tim Downie on Twitter).

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Two years ago, I switched on my TV and watched in horror as flames engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West Estate in North Kensington, in west London, leading to the loss of 72 lives.

To anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the safety systems built into concrete tower blocks, it was clear that this was a disaster that should never have happened. Compartmentalisation — involving a requirement that any fire that breaks out in any individual flat should be able to be contained for an hour, allowing the emergency services time to arrive and deal with it — had failed, as had the general ability of the block to prevent the easy spread of fire throughout the building. Instead, Grenfell Tower went up in flames as though it had had petrol poured on it.

It took very little research to establish that what had happened was an entire system failure, caused by long-term neglect and a failure to provide adequate safety measures (in particular, the tower had no sprinkler system fitted), and, more recently, through a refurbishment process that had turned a previously safe tower into a potential inferno. 

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Radio: I Discuss Guantánamo and the Tidemill Campaign on Wandsworth’s Riverside Radio, Also Featuring Songs by The Four Fathers

Andy Worthington at a previous radio appearance, discussing Guantánamo in Northampton, Massachusetts in January 2015.

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On Saturday, I was delighted to be visited by Andy Bungay, from Wandsworth’s Riverside Radio, for an interview broadcast on Andy’s evening show on Sunday, in which we discussed Guantánamo, which I’ve been covering for the last 13 years, and campaigning for its closure, and the housing crisis in London, which I’ve also been involved in challenging for the last few years. I was on Andy’s show back in September, and it was great to have the opportunity to talk again.

The full show is here.

Our interview starts about 1 hours and five minutes into the show, with a discussion of Guantánamo, and, in part, the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, whose release in October 2015 I campaigned to secure, initially working with the Save Shaker Aamer campaign, and, over the last year of Shaker’s imprisonment, via We Stand With Shaker, a campaign I set up with fellow activist Joanne MacInnes. This involved creating a giant inflatable figure of Shaker, a PR stunt that might have been widely ignored, but that, instead, led to a hundred celebrities and MPs being willing to have their photos taken with the figure, and to call for his release.

At 1:22, Andy played ’Song for Shaker Aamer’, a solo version of The Four Fathers’ song, used as the campaign song for We Stand With Shaker, which was recorded live in Washington, D.C. in January 2016, where I played it at an event calling for Guantánamo’s closure on the evening before the 14th anniversary of its opening, with lyrics amended to reflect Shaker’s release. The part about Shaker being “back in London” got a big cheer from the crowd!

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500 Days Since the Grenfell Tower Fire, The Four Fathers Release New Single ‘Grenfell’, Remembering Those Who Died, and Calling for Those Responsible to be Held Accountable

The cover of 'Grenfell' by The Four Fathers, featuring a photo taken in North Kensington on December 14, 2017 on one of the Silent Walks that take place on the 14th of every month (Photo: Andy Worthington).Listen to the single here on Bandcamp, and please buy it as a download. All takings will be donated to Grenfell charities. The recording was produced by acclaimed musician and producer Charlie Hart, who also plays accordion on it.

Exactly 500 days ago, Britain changed in a way that has haunted me ever since, as 71 people died in an inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower, a tower block in west London (one other survivor died in January this year, taking the death toll to 72).

This was a disaster that should never have happened, and that only occurred because those responsible for the structural integrity of the tower, and the safety of its residents, had decided that cost-cutting and profiteering was more important than people’s lives.

Those responsible include the Tory government, which failed to enforce recommendations after the Lakanal tower fire in Peckham in 2009, and actively worked to cut “red tape” when it came to housing regulations, Kensington and Chelsea Council, which abdicated responsibility for its tenants, handing their safety over to Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), an organisation that, although responsible for all of the borough’s social housing (consisting of more than 10,000 homes) repeatedly ignored explicit warnings by tenants’ representatives that they were living in a potential deathtrap.

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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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