A year on from the Grenfell disaster, Julie Al-Hinai reminds us that whilst our grief can be silent, our anger must be clearly audible
Marking the first anniversary of the horrific fire at Grenfell, the country has experienced numerous vigils, demonstrations and protests to remember those 72 souls lost in the tragedy, including a national 72 second silence to remember them.
While communities lit up in green, parliamentarians donned green garments, and the media commemorated the losses at length, the question being raised on the streets is what is actually being done to support the survivors and to hold the corporate culprits to account?
Thursday 14th June saw the largest ‘Silent Walk’ so far take to the streets of Kensington and Chelsea, but on Saturday we saw the people on the streets again; this time in full voice. Not before time and most likely not for the last time.
A year on from Grenfell, the message of "no justice no peace" rings as potently true as it did last June. Saturday 16th of this June saw some 2000 people in parliament square calling for such justice and for the truth of the circumstances that led to the tragedy to be revealed.
Saturday’s rally was particularly significant in the extent to which it was supported by the Fire Brigade Union, with branches from all around the country, including Northern Ireland, turning out to show support, not only for the victims of the tragedy, but for their colleagues who are now, it seems, to be taking the brunt in the current establishment narrative. This is a situation that cannot be allowed to happen and was the main message of many of the speakers at the event. Joe Delaney, a Grenfell survivor, making this most clear in his stirring speech and John McDonnell doing the same in paying respect to the outright heroism of the firefighters on the night. McDonnell did however suggest that Tory cuts to the fire service may well have hampered the response of the fire service.
After all, the Grenfell fire that devastated a whole community by the loss of the 72 lives and leaving hundreds more homeless, can hardly be called an accident. It was a direct result of government policy over the last thirty to forty years. Starting with de-regulation of the Thatcher era, the ‘Right to Buy’ policies that furthered the commodification of homes, the financialisation of the property market, the ongoing regeneration, or more aptly, policies of ‘Social Cleansing’ under the watch of councils of all colours, and as of yet, no meaningful change to the building regulations that could prevent a similar event, determines this to be a fight for all communities.
This was endorsed by Paula Peters of DPAC, who also reported that even just a few days ago, a disabled man, along with many other tenants of his housing block were locked in or out by a faulty door entry system for a period of 18 hours despite numerous desperate calls to their management team. Thankfully there was no fire that time but is indicative of the negligence of housing management companies.
Emma Dent-Coad, Member for Kensington and Chelsea and author of a report on the inequality of the borough, reinforced her message of support and confirmed she will not let the government off the hook, even though she has been prevented from bringing about a back-bench debate by Tory MPs, who she says hypocritically wore green on Thursday. Reinforcing the message of her report which stated,
Kensington and Chelsea, where I was born and bred, is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong in our country in the past few years,” and “It is a place where inequality has become a gross spectacle. Where childhood poverty, overcrowding and homelessness live cheek by jowl with opulent second homes, palatial apartments for the mega-rich and vast outflows of rent to corporate landlords.
The entirely preventable atrocity at Grenfell Tower has revealed the extent of inequality in Kensington and Chelsea, and the years of poor political decision-making and financial mismanagement.
She promised not to let the matter rest until justice is achieved.
The matter of inequality, class and race oppression was the message of Shabbir Lakha of the People's Assembly in a rousing speech that raised massive noise and applause. This fire he said “was not an act of God, no freak of nature: it was a result of austerity and deliberate negligence, and was entirely preventable”. He went on to speak of the heroism of the firefighters on the night and why it is so important that this demonstration was co-organised by the FBU. Whereas, he said, in the immediate aftermath of the fire the government was fawning the bravery and 'singing the praises' of our firefighters, since then it has kept them on a 1% pay cap and now trying to shift the blame to them. He compared this to what is happening in the NHS and how all these concerns are connected. He called for people to take to the streets to save our NHS, to stand up to Trump and show the government that we are not going to accept trade deals that put our services under threat of privatisation in American hands. Grenfell, he reminded the demonstrators, was the ultimate sacrifice to inequality and corporate greed.
No doubt the silent walks will continue, the vigils will be held, but maybe, just maybe, Saturday’s event proved that sometimes the silence must be broken if we are ever to see justice achieved for Grenfell because as reported just over a year ago in the Washington Post,
…the economic factor can’t be ignored — especially when disasters like today’s fire in London show that ingrained inequality can be a matter of life or death.
As Paula Peters was heard to say recently “we are not voiceless, it’s just that we are not being heard.”
Not being heard is the subject of another grievance of the Grenfell community. Andrew O’Hagan in his recent 60,000-word essay entitled 'The Tower', released in the week the trial started, claimed to challenge the narrative surrounding the fire by collecting eye-witness accounts of those involved. However, after winning the confidence of many of the community and listening to their testimony, O’Hagan seems to have betrayed them unashamedly.
Misrepresenting and misquoting many of those he interviewed, or whose work he referred to without consent, blaming the response of the fire service and by showing sympathy to the council that the community holds entirely responsible, he has left many appalled and angered. Their grievance has been taken up by Potent Whisper, spoken word artist and community activist. Having released a powerful and comprehensive interpretation of the causes of the fire and a plea for justice in the immediate aftermath, 'Grenfell Britain' has today published a response to O’Hagan in a new spoken word piece entitled 'You’ll Never Edit Grenfell'. Once again we have a powerful voice of the people challenging the narrative of the establishment.
As the week of remembrance and protest ends it must be remembered that although the grief can be shown in silence, the anger must be raised in voice.