If you aren’t still angry about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, you probably haven’t been listening. For (perhaps international) readers who have not yet heard this story – the story of an inferno in a London tower block. The story of a hellish injustice, and it both starts and ends with inequality.
The fire at Grenfell broke out back in June 2017. The nation’s horror was bright, the smoke still choking our words, and the broken building breaking our hearts. And yet, in the wake of Grenfell’s black ashes, the nation’s indignation has been sparked by other tragedies. However, Grenfell has not been forgotten.
Allow us to go from the beginning.
The affluent borough of Kensington, West London, is known for hosting numerous high-end eateries and shops, alongside the famous Royal Albert Hall. On average a person will pay a cool £2m for a house here – which suits those who earn the area’s mean salary of nearly £123k, but perhaps not those who earn the median (which is about a quarter of that). Kensington and Chelsea reportedly the most unequal borough in the country.
Grenfell Tower is – was – a block of 129 flats. Within it lived young artists, working adults, older adults (some with dementia), people with disabilities, schoolchildren. It housed the whole colourful spectrum of life, from infancy through to retirement. Read about the residents. Learn their names; learn their stories. The Grenfell Action Group, established in 2010 to defend “the rights of the residents of Lancaster West Estate”, repeatedly warned that the building in which these people lived was unsafe.
The Grenfell Action Group did the best they could – created a community collective, campaigned, gathered evidence and shared stories. Nobody listened. The tower, built in the 1970s, received a “refurbishment” in 2014. Cheap combustible cladding was used to cover the outside of the building – largely reported as a way to improve the appearance of the tower, for wealthier local residents. Their home was airbrushed with death.
Leaked documents suggest that the cladding was deliberately downgraded (from fireproof to combustible) to save £300,000, at a time when the council was actually in surplus of around £2.74 million. They had also recently given the rich (who payed full council tax) a £100 tax rebate in their “overachieving efficiency drive”. The cladding material is banned in continental Europe and the United States – in late June, Chancellor Philip Hammond suggested it may even be banned in the UK.
The Grenfell Action Group tried, again and again, to bring fire risks to the attention of those with the power to spare their lives. That particular post ends with chilling prophecy: “ONE THING IS CERTAIN – THEY CAN’T SAY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN WARNED.“A fire risk assessment back from 2012 noted a range of out-of-date fire safety checks. The cladding was unsafe. Rubbish and waste blocked fire exits. Reports to the government dating back to 2000 suggested that non-combustible external cladding should not be used on buildings. It’s all there.
The fire started in a flat on the 4th floor, apparently due to a malfunctioning refrigerator, around midnight on the 14th June. Approaching 1 AM, the first call to firefighers came in. Eventually, around 40 fire engines with around 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze. Despite their best efforts, it was not enough. Of course, the cladding was not responsible for the onset of the fire. However, it accelerated the blaze phenomenally. It wasn’t until 5pm the next day that firefighters reached the top floor.
However, it cannot be understated how much the power of the Grenfell community shone through – from offering shelter, food and taxi rides, to supporting grieving and traumatised individuals, to helping each other escape from the tower itself. Humanity was not lost from the side of the residents and locals. It wasn’t lost from the rest of the public. The Grenfell community was always there. It was never a blight. It was home.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, initially suggested it would take three weeks for survivors to be found a new “home”. Later, this was recast as a promise offers that everyone would have offers of housing. As of 1st August 2017, only 45 “offers of accommodation” were made, with 12 families being rehoused. Some survivors ended up searching for private accommodation such as one man because his wife couldn’t leave the hospital until they had a home to go to. Others are now currently “bidding” for council housing.
As of the end of August, Freedom of Information requests have suggested that £4.2 million was spent by the council on hotels for survivors. And that’s not the only money in questionable status. Around this time, over half of the funds raised by charities after the fire were “available” for distribution. However, just over two-fifths of the money raised by charities to support survivors of the fire has actually reached the intended recipients. There was over a £16 million shortfall as of early August, but there have been some improvements since then.
The Metropolitan police have confirmed that the Grenfell Tower “tragedy” amounts to corporate manslaughter. Note how the “tragedy” is referred to as an “incident” or “disaster”, because heaven forbid we actually mention the people who created this situation.
Sir Moore-Bick, Judge presiding over the inquiry into the fire has suggested that his work will not give survivors the justice they deserve. The scope of the inquiry is only allowed to ask questions about the fire, but not the context of how flammable cladding was purchased for prettiness). Residents have not been consulted on the inquiry, and the – despite promises from the Prime Minister that they would be. So what now? How do we help?
We have the charity football match Game4Grenfell, the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” charity single with various celebrities and other public characters offering their support, condolences, and sympathies. We have empathetic stories about the futures missed, the A-levels passed, the art displays. We also have first-person accounts bluntly calling out what amounts to a context social cleansing which created this tragedy.
“I want to urge everyone in the media with the power to do it to give the individuals who work with and for you the space to do something, anything, in the wider community we communicate with.” – Journalist John Snow
What you are reading, then, is an article trying to harness media power. Firstly, it’s an article trying to prevent Grenfell’s ashes fading away in the wake of other, more recent tragedies and governmental abuses. Secondly, it’s an article to say: charity intervention is still not going to change the underlying causes.
When we do our post-mortem, we can’t just think about the specifics of the blaze. We need to include the socio-cultural fuel: poverty, inequality, contempt for the poor, an ignorance of people’s lived experiences. For example, the Grenfell Action Group documented first-hand what was going on, yet their stories which still has fewer views that mainstream second-hand sources.
Do we live in a country where tax rebates are paid for in blood money? Do we live in a country where we unashamedly let empty, million-quid houses lounge comfortably next to our crowded, deathtrap towers? Do we live in a country which still has nearly 230 other high-rise buildings at risk due to cladding?
Are you angry now?
Follow Grenfell Media Watch online, write to your MP, keep tabs on what the people in power are doing. Keep asking where the charity money has gone. Stop demonsing the poor, and/or immigrants, and/or people on benefits. Accept that, through no fault of their own, whole swathes of our society need a bit of a leg-up. If you hear other people doing the demonising, call them out. Read people’s own stories, in their own words, and believe them. Amplify the voices of people who are perfectly able to speak for themselves.
Grenfell is cold, but our hearts aren’t. Let us show more solidarity and support than just our sympathy and disbelief. Let’s continue to stand alongside each other.