Already, the inquiry has shown that the word is too passive to explain what happenedby Maya Goodfellow / June 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
As quickly as Grenfell became national news, it disappeared from view. Now, almost a year since the blaze engulfed the tower block in west London and killed 72 people and injuring many others, the Grenfell Inquiry has brought it back into public consciousness. Where it belongs.
It remains to be seen if this public examination sufficiently lays out all of the realities of events surrounding the fire, and survivors should be the final judges of its effectiveness. But even before the inquiry is over, you only need to listen to the people who were repeatedly ignored before this preventable atrocity happened to understand the deeply political nature of what happened at Grenfell.
For days, survivors and the families of people who had been killed gave moving, painful testimony. “I understand acutely the pain of those speaking out about their loss,” Doreen Lawrence, who spent years campaigning for justice her son Stephen, said.
“Sitting in a public inquiry day after day, talking about your own grief while the world watches, is a very difficult thing to do. I know it really took its toll on me.”
Having to bear witness through testimony is an important way of remembering the people who were killed on that night—people like Mary Mendy and her celebrated artist daughter, Khadija Saye, and Fathia Ali Ahmed Elsanosi, a teacher who came to the UK seek asylum. But it also a comment on the society that allowed this to happen.
As well as the unimaginable horror of that night, these painful testimonies were offered to a system that ignored people who raised concerns. Some of the people who were remembered last week were those who were demanding change: Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair are thought to have been called troublemakers for campaigning to make the block safer. It was only when they were killed that residents finally began to be heard.
Edward Daffarn, who co-authored the Grenfell Action Blog that gave the chillingly prophetic warning that a scandal like this might happen months before it did, predicted of the inquiry: “Every single link in this chain is going to be found to be rotten and cancerous.”
He pointed to each layer of government that had turned its back on residents, from the national government not putting in place recommendations that came after Lakanal House fire in 2009—but finding the time to side with rich landlords over tenants—to the local council Kensington and Chelsea apparently refusing to properly scrutinise the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). When 90 per cent of residents signed a petition asking for an investigation into the TMO’s incompetence, the council refused.
And then, four days after the fire had burnt people alive in their homes, the council didn’t provide consistent help to survivors, leaving volunteers from all over London to plug the gaping holes. “It’s the same indifference which too often sees dismissive landlords protected by a system that allows them to ignore social tenants’ fears and concerns,” Lawrence said.
“Think of a typical landlord relationship with responsibilities, duties and care and forget that,” Daffarn said, “It was either adversarial or hands-off. I can’t begin to express the level of contempt they had for us residents. We were the barrier to the big pot of money.”
Already the inquiry has heard of “a culture of non-compliance” at Grenfell and of proposals to fix the broken smoke ventilation system, made eight days before the fire, which were ignored.
But whatever else the outcome of the inquiry, we know Grenfell wouldn’t have been possible without decades of profit-driven decision making that turned homes into commodities, unaccountable power structures and political elites that care little for people it’s happy to exploit and demonise at the same time.
Many of those who called Grenfell their home were people who have been systematically denigrated by our politicians and press. Working-class people dismissed as scroungers; people who have migrated to the UK dehumanised and wrongly accused of causing low pay; people seeking asylum branded as fundamental threats to the nation.
These are groups disenfranchised by the state, the human beings who are routinely stripped of their humanity in our popular discourse and they were people who were fighting to demand basic safety only to be ignored.
Grenfell was not just a “tragedy.” That’s what we might call natural disasters or freak accidents. But this feels too passive, too simple a word to explain the events on that night in June last year, what followed, or the many, many decisions that were taken and warnings ignored that allowed it to happen.
“I don’t see it as a tragedy”, said Hisam Choucair, who gave testimony for the six members of his family who were killed that night, “I see it as an atrocity.” And it shouldn’t be ushered away from national view again.