2&6 Journalist: Chris Kelly
2&6 Photographer: Joe Burkinshaw
As originally Published in Amsterdam Alternative Augusts Issue.
The 14th of June 2020 marks the third anniversary the Grenfell Tower disaster in the West London Royal Borough of Kensington. On that day, 72 people, including 18 children, lost their lives in a devastating fire. It was a scene the whole world witnessed and soon quickly forgot about as global attention turned toward the impending crisis of Trump, Brexit & Corona Virus. In the wake of the hellish events at Grenfell, the surviving residents began a dogmatic pursuit of justice for the lives of those lost. Over the last three years, their focus hasn’t waned for a second.
Every month, all remaining survivors & loved ones of those who died meet in masses to walk in silent remembrance of the 72 people who died. While the whole country began to blindly debate whether a disaster was looming on the horizon, the residents of Grenfell where still stood amongst the rubble asking why the government & public were so quick to forget about a very real and non-politicized disaster happening only a few tube stops from Buckingham Palace.
The progress, or lack thereof, that has been made since 2017 to fix the atrocities caused by the capricious and greed fuelled decisions of the London City Council, has been nothing short of criminal. Too many unanswered questions remain about the most basic responses to the trauma.
On the 14th June 2017, it took 25 minutes for the blaze, caused by a faulty refrigerator, to climb 20 story’s high. The reason behind the devastatingly rapid spread of the fire was due to a series of recently installed plastic panels that skirted the outside of the entire building. These panels contained a highly flammable cladding that had been flagged to local officials as being dangerous to residents over a year in advance of the fire. During the first shambolic inquiry into the causes of the Grenfell tragedy, Watch Manager Michael Dowden, the initial incident commander for the London Royal Fire Service, gave a heart wrenching testimony in which he laid bare the confusion that ensued as a result of the combustible cladding, stating: “I admitted that I had been unsure how to respond when the fire began climbing up the side of the building”. The flammable material had been installed behind a water resistant ‘rain screen’, meaning the fire service were unable to target any of the cladding from the ground. It was this abhorrently negligent failure and short-sightedness on the part of the City Council that sentenced over 70 Londoners to choke to death in their homes. Given the nature of life in London, one can only imagine what the real death toll would amount to if they included non-registered and unidentified victims in the total mortality count.
Where is all the money?
Today, thousands of Londoners continue to live in tower blocks clad in the same flammable material. In 2019, the government pledged £200 million in aid funding in response to the tragedy. The largest portion of the fund was to be used to replace the cladding in all London tower blocks with the same flammable material as that present in Grenfell. 400 buildings were identified as having the same aluminium composite cladding system as Grenfell and around 184 of those were privately owned. The Government initially refused to pay the costs of those in private ownership, feeling as though they should not have to cover the costs alone, making it unlikely that they will ever be changed by private landlords. After a disgusting length of time, the government offered to pay for only half of all private reconstructions. At the time of writing, out of the 97 buildings they promised to fix, only 15 have actually been replaced and another 25 have begun the process. Therefore, today over 17000 households are still unsuspectingly in the exact same set of circumstances that the residents of Grenfell were in before the fire. So, if it wasn’t spent on replacing the cladding in all 400 identified buildings, where is all the money for Grenfell?
After the costs for building renovations and extractions of the cladding, the largest component of the relief money was to be used on finding and purchasing new and suitable housing for all of the residents that survived. The total number of former Grenfell residents that survived the fire added up to 203 households, meaning a more than achievable minimum of 203 houses had to be purchased by the government to replace those destroyed. Of these, 101 have either accepted an offer of a permanent home or have accepted but are yet to be moved in. Of the 102 who are still not in permanent homes, 52 are in temporary accommodation and 68 are in emergency accommodation. It seems today that the UK Government governs in halves. More than half of all residents are yet to be given a new home, much like how only half of buildings with flammable cladding will have it removed by the government. Is this a two-way system? If we all decide to only pay half of our annual taxes as we do not feel like we should bear the financial burden alone, would our discretions be so easily forgotten by them?
If we are to think of the harsh realities that Grenfell survivors are currently experiencing, especially in the socio economic context in which we all find ourselves today, we must realise the position of privilege from which we currently gripe & grumble. We are all too happy hiding behind our comfort and complaining that we must stay in our homes for months on end. Now imagine what it must be like for those who watched their home burn to the ground, listened to a nation as it promises to do right by them, only to be still searching three years late for some closure and recompense, as the rest of the world cries about being confined to their homes with their loved ones.
In response too the question, ‘where is the money for Grenfell’ the answer is: nobody knows.
The struggle against distraction
So, why has no progress been made? The answer to this is in essence the same reason as to why little to no progress had been made on the issues of police brutality until the brutal assassination of George Floyd. The people who hold the power and make the decisions as to how distressed and grieving communities live have absolutely no skin in the game. It doesn’t affect them or the people that they know and love so they pretend it didn’t happen so that they can continue living in the same status quo of racial oppression and white privilege that keeps them fat and rich. Amongst the communities who live around Grenfell, it is talked about, remembered and protested with the same frequency and heavy heartedness as the days and weeks that followed. Rather it is the rest of us, those who feel and forget with the tides of whatever disaster mainstream media shoves in our faces, that forget the anger and outrage we felt at the time. Distraction has always been the main weapon of politicians, we just used to call it ‘spin’.
Since then we Londoners, including Grenfell’s survivors, watched as the global plutocracy rushed to the aid of Notre Dame, with some fashion houses pledging billions to restore the uninhabited church so that they could have their names associated with the restorations. Yet no political body, independent corporation or notable figure came to the rescue of ordinary people. Where were all those well-wishers and clout seeking philanthropists when teenagers waved white t-shirts in desperate pleas for aid while the floor collapsed from underneath them. Was Grenfell not fashionable enough? Not internationally known enough for it to justify them parting with their millions. Or was it simply just not important enough to white people for them to want to help.
How can an uninhabited building, especially one that belongs to one of the richest organisations in human history, be more deserving of international sympathies and fundraising than the homes of over 800 living & laughing Londoners. One appeaser worth mentioning for their compassionless response to their own neighbourhood burning, was the Royal Family, who could unquestionably see and smell the smoke from the gold encrusted dining rooms in which they hid.
So, what can we do for those remaining residents now? The Government hopes and prays that, if enough time passes, our attention will dwindle, and our outrage will become overshadowed by our anger at the next injustice. The reason why ‘White Silence is White Privilege’ became a powerful motto for the Black Lives Matter Movement is that it perfectly articulates both the systemic injustice that surround us but also how we can fight it. The racist system relies on us common white folk to be complacent as the system serves us ok. Corruption and prejudice sets in where complacency and privilege meet. The Government thinks we’re lazy and selfish just like they are. It is time to show them that we do pay attention, we do remember and were done being used as a tool of their oppression.