Currently in my role as Senior Community Development and Engagement Officer at KCSC, I have been wondering if there is a clear, "working class" analysis of where the community of North Kensington is in the period since the fire. Through a conversation with Susan Rudnik of Latimer Community Art Therapy, this excellent article was brought to my attention. This article is not endorsed by KCSC but is intended to stimulate discussion around matters of class in the area as many see it as an impediment to long-term recovery.
Organising on mute
The role of the nation-state changed from that of a mediator between a national capitalist class and its labour force to a transmission line between global capital and a local population. (Kundnani, 2007)
Power concedes nothing without a demand, Frederick Douglas famously said. These words were echoed in the wake of the fire by community journalist and film-maker Ishmahil Blagrove, as he addressed a rally at the end of the first silent march (see Blagrove, 2017). They were again stated on the steps of North Kensington Library by Lowkey, as the council conceded to the demands of the community, and kept the building a public asset and library after community campaigns. It took the fire for them to bend to community demands. Despite the gains made in the wake of the fire, the compassion and humanity, the green heart and all it represents, a politics of contempt remains at the heart of governance, at a local and national level. Demands made before the fire were muted, after the fire they were not understood. An abandoned community, aghast at how poorly treated they were by the state, were used and instrumentalised by a universe of interlopers, who sought to make Grenfell an object of their struggle. Narratives framed Grenfell. Pre-established political paths were proscribed. What so many could not comprehend is that “there is a politics in stories told truthfully,” as A Sivanandan once said.
When the re-development at Grenfell Tower began, residents organised to be heard. A community, ballasted by a proud local history, pursued “truth and justice" in creative fashion. They were rational, genteel and inclusive. The Grenfell Action Group had already formed, due to long-standing issues. After the re-development began to blight lives and angered residents, a larger group began to have meetings. They formed Grenfell Unite (not to be confused with Grenfell United, the group for survivors and bereaved formed after the fire) a group composed to fight for the rights of residents of the tower. They fought both through and against the local Labour Group. Their activism got them a meeting with their MP of the time, the Conservative Victoria Borwick, who forced the group to become a compact, a subsidiary structure to represent the interests of the tower, under the Lancaster West Residents Association (LWRA). They lobbied local power. Vocal residents blogged and held the council (The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, RBKC), and their landlord (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, KCTMO) to account. They called for an independent investigation into the tower’s re-development, by organisations with no links to RBKC or the KCTMO. They were rebuffed. The TMO investigated themselves. The council reviewed the re-development through the scrutiny committee, their conclusions were careless, commending the contractor Rydon and seeking to mitigate the “inconveniences” of the refurbishment for residents (Johnson, 2016). Organised residents had petitioned for a professional body to assess the works, a document that now haunts. If their voices had been heeded and proper health and safety work undertaken, not a single life would have been taken. Instead, at least 72 people were killed.
The chair of the tower’s compact was David Collins, a white professional, who works to advise large organisations around health and safety. Even he faced the structured prejudice of class contempt as he met with authorities. His appeals, protestations and demands were as muted as the rest, who were not voiceless, rather, preferably unheard and unseen, as Arundhati Roy so eloquently put it. So to make themselves heard, some broke conventions and confronted those who they felt were not listening. There was humour in their resistance at points. On one action where the community confronted the deputy leader of the council, protesters donned chicken suits. But the spectacle couldn’t break through. Fateful decisions were made against the community, for the community. And the media did not care to report what was all too local, until it became global.
The callous contempt of institutional indifference can be found at all levels in the task of analysing Grenfell and the events around it. The fateful and deadly redevelopment of the tower came with the building of a school for North Kensington, the Kensington Aldridge Academy (KAA). Many saw the school’s construction as a cynical attempt to circumvent the huge catchment of North Kensington at Holland Park School, a school that has been “gentrified” according to former student Reis Morris, who recollects with a wry smile how rowdy the school was, and how he contributed to that environment. Whatever the decision making around the procurement process was - and there is no denying how broken the chain was, given three project managers oversaw the work - KAA’s development was not the same as the tower’s. The tower was fatally underfunded, while the school’s construction and evacuation procedures were, and remain, first rate (FDS Consult, 2018).
The first bone of contention for residents of the estate and wider area when the developments began was Lancaster Green being eaten up. The green pitches, infamous in the area as a meeting spot and a place to kick ball for free, were also swallowed. Locals were not consulted about the development, nor were their wishes catered to. When refurbishment of the tower began, it was an inconvenience. Shoddy workmanship became obvious, though its consequences were not. Residents felt like objects in the place they lived. When they objected, they were treated as irritants and impediments. Some felt bullied (Grenfell Public Inquiry, 3 October 2018), others were sent legal documents warning them to desist or face defamation proceedings. Where once there was space around the tower, there was no more. The tower’s vehicular access was greatly diminished, while the disastrous decisions that were putting them at increasing risk were hidden behind a facade. Not all residents were as disturbed by the council and TMO as others, but all spoke up on their concerns and pressed to be heard.
Any discourse of preventability around Grenfell hinges on the voices of truth speaking and those in power acting. Yet, for all of the contrition and guilt expressed in the wake of Grenfell, most famously articulated by Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who spoke passionately on his desires to amplify local voices in the future, this struggle has not been undertaken in earnest. Thousands across the country are at risk, in similar conditions to Grenfell Tower. They remain on mute. We may see them block a road on London Live or read of their activism in Manchester Evening News, but we don’t hear their voices on national media, nor the politics forged by the expression of their truth. The logics that bred Grenfell doggedly persist, both in the state, and the battle for justice.
Building with petrol - callous indifference and the market state
The raw matter that collided to create the disaster of Grenfell still crashes around, threatening life in ways that cannot be quantified, belying the statistical analysis of state, which read the decrease in deaths from fire to be due to fire safety standards. Grenfell showed there to be no such standards. Many across the country now know viscerally that the market state doesn’t fulfill its duties and they are at risk.
Almost 500 public buildings, amongst them hospitals and schools - but mostly homes - are wrapped in the equivalent of solidified petrol in England and Wales (Tobin, 2018). None are in Scotland. An ambiguity in a housing regulation let business do its own safety tests, away from any labs. These "desktop studies,” coupled with a disintegration and privatisation of the regulatory frameworks, led to a huge public health crisis, that portends a far deeper political crisis. Not only is there a huge risk of infernos at a national level, there are the long-term health effects of the toxins released when insulation and plastics burn.
Austerity alone does not account for Grenfell. The very nature of regulation in the era of neoliberalism must be questioned, as Inside Housing’s ‘Paper Trail’ demonstrates (Apps et al., 2018). The coalition government’s statement in 2011, One in One Out, puts it simply. The government pledged to “remove or simplify regulation that impedes growth,” while promising to only regulate as “a last resort” (HM Government, 2011). Cracks in the system were bred by design. With regulation seen as anti-business, rolling back regulations and the state’s control was taken as good economics. These attitudes antedate the Tories being in power. It was a small change in phrasing in fire regulations, put into wording by New Labour, that allowed for desktop studies, which was exploited by private sector. Flammable cladding was sold by the ton, under the watch of both sides of the House of Commons. Once applied to blocks, structurally sound buildings - some new - became death traps. When after the fire at Grenfell forensic tests were conducted on the materials clad to buildings across the country deemed potentially dangerous, there was a 100 percent fail rate (Sparrow, 2018).
Despite thousands of people being at risk of death, power could not see, hear or feel the extremities before Grenfell burned. The London Fire service did not consider cladding and insulation to present significant risk. They knew of fires in the UK and abroad spread through cladding. Consequently, duties to perform fire safety checks mentioned building exteriors, only they were advisory, Dany Cotton told the public inquiry. Despite advisements to check potential breeches of compartmentation (the way that fire is contained in high rise buildings) - including cladding - the commissioner told the inquiry that the extensive list could not be performed by a service under so much strain (Grenfell Public Inquiry, 27 September 2018). Moreover, she argued, the fire services could not oversee what lay behind the cladding. What they couldn’t see, they didn’t question, and, therefore, didn’t train for. They assumed that the regulation within the industry would safeguard against highly flammable materials being clad to a building, with an air gap.
The bereaved and survivors who formed Grenfell United have lobbied the government determinedly in a bid to prevent another inferno. It is a role they have played, from necessity, which shames this government. Natasha Elcock, a survivor of the fire, and now Chair of Grenfell United, told MPs “we shouldn't be fighting for what is right for other people.” The government should have. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Savid Javid, at the time minister for housing, pledged to remove the cladding and insulation. Philip Hammond told the country the materials were “technically illegal.” Yet, governmental action has been glacial since. At the Tory party conference James Brokenshire finally announced a ban, 15 months after the fire. The survivors and bereaved had called for it immediately.
The government’s moves to address the issues do not go far enough, firefighters, campaigners and architects have expressed. As Ahmed Elgwahry, a bereaved family member who lost his mother and sister at Grenfell, said in his Inside Housing piece: “[o]n its own, and without more, it falls well short of the root-and-branch change needed in the way fire risk assessors, designers and contractors approach fire safety” (Elgwahry, 2018). The devil is in the detail and any ambiguity allows for private interests to stretch wording to maintain their profit margins. Any lack of clarity, is by extension a lack of control, and can be exploited. The Royal Institute of British Architects called for a complete ban on combustible exteriors, along with the retrofitting of sprinklers into blocks and the construction of a second means of escape (Apps, 2018). The government has not done anything close to this. Dame Judith Hackitt called in her government commissioned review for a new regulatory framework to be created (Hackitt, 2018). The bereaved and survivors echo calls for a new testing regime that is stringent enough to prevent anything resembling the conditions at Grenfell being replicated or maintained. The recently announced ban is not retrospective. Moreover, it only applies to buildings above 18 metres, from 2020 onwards. Schools and hospitals clad with flammable and combustible materials, but below 18 metres in height, are not within its scope.
It was only after the efforts of campaigners that the government announced £400 million of public money had been made available to remove the dangerous cladding and insulation from high rise blocks. They took the funds from the general housing budget. The cost of safer housing therefore became less homes and an inflated cost of living; the profits are still taken by a scattered network of outsourced companies. In many cases, the same companies that installed the cladding in the first place (Bergin, 2017).
Any party at ‘the centre’ has had to be willing to abandon the cumbersome burdens of state, and allow it to be a profitable enterprise for others. When costs are cut, and responsibility is outsourced, duty is jettisoned. As Adel, a bereaved family member, eruditely put it, “it’s health and safety culture gone mad.” The government, in essence, allowed for fuel to be doused upon buildings. In many cases, the interiors of said buildings were kindling to fire, due to underfunding and non-compliance in the procurement of materials. The cutting of red tape, forged with a mind to preserving life, can be taken as an act of violence, especially when coupled with austerity. In the case of RBKC, this was needless austerity, as they were the richest borough in London.
Processes of managed decline typified the management of social housing in North Kensington, as MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, explained in Failed By The State (Redfish, 2017). The “shoddy job” she suspected has already come to light in the Grenfell Public Inquiry. Nothing could stop the flames once the fire started at Grenfell. Even the fire doors were not fireproof. As detailed in Barbara Lane’s extensive and expert report to the Public Inquiry, there was a "culture of non-compliance” in regard to fire safety and prevention at Grenfell Tower (Lane, 2018). Safety in housing is a complex web, so multiple fail safe mechanisms are inbuilt to avert disaster. Grenfell was a catastrophic failure. The cladding and insulation were the fuel for the fire, but compartmentation was breached in a number of ways.
Dany Cotton told the inquiry that any preparation for Grenfell that could have been done was of little consequence (Grenfell Public Inquiry, 27 September 2018). The fire could not have been fought. Andrew O’Loughlin, the most senior member of the fire service present at the fire, told the inquiry that people should not have been allowed to live there (24 September 2018). The fire service were profoundly shocked by the fire at Grenfell. On the night, senior officers maintained a stay put policy, which told residents to stay in the building, for an hour and twenty minutes after compartmentation had been breached, Barbara Lane’s (2018) report states. They had never had a night like Grenfell. The heroism of the service members who fought the fire is recognised by all. Many are members of the community and are tormented by the open questions and wounds that remain. O’Loughlin told the inquiry “my expectation was people who were safe in their flats should stay safe in their flats.” The fire service had never trained or planned for such a catastrophic failure. To have done so, Dany Cotton told the inquiry, would have been seen as absurd. The fire lifts did not work. The dry risers did not work. Their ladders were too short. The fire spread in ways never witnessed before. Where the fire could be fought with hoses, the rain screening of the cladding prevented the water from extinguishing fire.
The testimonies heard at the inquiry expose a lack of preparedness for risks that should have been known and foreseen, before disaster. The fault is not the fire service’s alone. They are not the agents responsible for making a building that was safe, unsafe. The policy of “stay put” was the right advice for Grenfell, right up until the cladding and insulation was attached. Lives had been saved through this practice prior to the fire. The market’s callous indifference to life changed that. The conditions that maintain life were fatally undermined by a number of private companies, who were facilitated by national legislation and local government malfeasance. To date, no corporation or governmental body has faced justice. This led the poet Potent Whisper to dub the UK “Grenfell Britain”; a country where when the safety of people is breached, power is so compartmentalised that nobody is responsible (Potent Whisper, 2018).
Migrants, criminals and the rabble
According to the Grenfell Action Group, it was only the economic crisis that prevented the demolition of their homes. The redevelopment followed, but masterplans for the area continued to be drawn. Battles to maintain the conditions for working class life were made all the harder when Lord Adonis in 2015 released his ‘City Villages’ report for the Progressive Policy Think Tank (the Institute for Public Policy Research). His ideas, embraced by the Conservative led government, were to tear down the “sink estates” and create new villages from the wreckage. As a consequence, Notting Dale’s social housing was under mounting pressure. Silchester, the neighbouring housing estate to the Lancaster West Estate, faced redevelopment. Residents, inspired by the struggles at Grenfell, campaigned. Only after the fire at Grenfell and the world’s attention being placed upon the local authority were they assured of their future in the area.
Despite the inspirational struggles waged around Grenfell, those who lived in the tower and kept power in check faced pernicious attacks upon their character, the details of which have yet to disclosed through the public inquiry. Tenacious activism was dismissed as ramblings and ravings, and lurid depictions were made of community activists by local councillors. “If you’re talking about class or race and are from North Kensington, you are the great unwashed to them,” Niles Hailstones, a community activist and touring musician, told me. Hailstones constantly challenges the council and its local functionaries for institutional racism and ill-gotten wealth, which he traces all the way back to the trading of enslaved Africans.
Paradoxically, before the fire, the former leader of the council Nicholas Paget-Brown claimed it was the resistant community who were engaging in class warfare. At a full council meeting, attended by community activists, the council leader brushed aside contentions following the council’s deal with a local private school to lease them the local library building. The public, listed building - which had been a community asset since 1891 - is a site of significance for locals. It stands in the centre of Ladbroke Grove and is seen as a testament to the municipal values of yesteryear, in an area where wealth divides are astronomical. For 127 years, it has had public use. When Paget-Brown heard words to this effect, he dismissed them as “quaint heritage.” The library’s reallocation and the historic building being handed over to private education seemed a Fait Accompli. Yet, despite contemptuous attitudes and defeatist logic, the Save North Kensington Library campaign has succeeded in saving the building, both as a community space and as a library. But activists know this was only because of Grenfell. In the council’s letter pledging to keep the building for the foreseeable future, the letter begins by acknowledging how the disaster necessitated a change in the council’s attitude and policies in North Kensington. They have changed tack to soothe the mood, but they haven’t engaged in any process of reform to tackle the issues that bred the inferno.
Before the fire, a number of campaigns formed to fight their community assets being stripped. They sought to save community provisions from a rapacious process of redevelopment. Various community organisations accused the local authorities of engaging in a process of arrested development, asset stripping and social cleansing. The fire vindicated some at unimaginable cost. Ed Daffarn of the Grenfell Action Group, who predicted a major disaster like a fire being the only thing to shine a light on his mistreatment, called for the council to engage in reparative processes, and give back community assets. The Council have conceded to this demand in a number of struggles. The case of the sale of Kensington and Chelsea College’s Wornington Road campus highlighted fundamental issues in leadership and accountability in the local authority; Kroll, an international risk assessment centre, engaged by the college, concluded in October 2018. The issues were highlighted consistently in the Grenfell Action Group blog. Yet, even as the fire smouldered, the group were cast by their local ward councillors as the boy who cried wolf (Blakeman, 2017).
Casting off statutory responsibility necessitates dehumanisation. In the wake of riots, “feral rats” bred by “sink estates” took the blame. For the housing crisis, it is the “benefit scroungers” and “migrants” liable; a hostile environment created. Punitive measures were introduced across all spectrums of society, any provision for undocumented or irregular migrants a criminal act. And, then, there was terrorism. A number of young men from North Kensington went to Syria during the war, leading the national press, both broadsheet and tabloid to dub the area a “hotbed of extremism” (e.g. Evans, et al., 2014). Attempts to undermine community activism led to the recycling of these stories, fictions and facts in the wake of fire.
All of this was compounded by the post-Brexit environment, where a London-centric mode of governance was blamed for breeding the forces that birthed Brexit. A new discourse of “left behind” was peddled from the left and right, which denied extreme poverty and precarity in the “cosmopolitan cities,” especially London. The xenoracism and nativism that Brexit swelled, Grenfell should have compressed. Everything about Grenfell should have been turning point in the country, opening up to the universality of the threat presented by the moment, as Robbie Shilliam argued (Shilliam, 2018). Instead, the far right dined on the smorgasbord of contempt and prejudice. Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson told their huge followings that Grenfell was a state conspiracy. They decried its attention, and spoke of the cover up to mask the number of undocumented killed in the fire. Hopkins even insinuated the fire was started by people playing with combustible materials to commit terrorist attacks. Such logics, though absurd, may provide some explanation as to why the Metropolitan Police decided to send armed officers with automatic weapons patrolling the area in the immediate aftermath of the fire. The contemptuous attitudes to life in the area manifested with a gratuitous act on November 5, 2018, when at a gathering in a South London back garden fire works display, Grenfell Tower, with black and brown children at the window, was burned to cinder.
Citizens of nowhere and the count
The far-right and radical left contend that the state’s death toll from the fire is a cover up. To the right, the “take over of London by illegals” explains the government’s alleged crimes, whereas to the left, it is the hostile environment that unpeopled so many that they don’t even count in the death toll. In the immediate aftermath, there was no signage in any language other than English for weeks. Statutory sites were ring-fenced by workers who were legislatively bound to extend a hostile environment. The government’s amnesty amounted to little more than a stay of deportation. NGOs like the Red Cross took weeks to facilitate spaces outside of the state’s scope. The police throughout the month of June made clear they hadn’t been able to access certain sections of the community. Amidst the chaos, Grenfell was widely reported as “the worst disaster of post-war Britain.” Given how many died in Aberfan, the Tower Hamlets stampede and Hillsborough, many took this to mean a true death toll was in the hundreds. The BBC’s Panorama that was released a week after the fire, on 21 June 2017, estimated the occupancy of Grenfell to be 500 people. If this were true, hundreds would be dead.
The conditions of the fire meant many bodies were incinerated. It was communicated by Fiona McCormick in June 2017 that “true death toll may never be known” (Bannerman, 2017). The police announced later that 87 human remains were removed from the tower, however they stressed this was not indicative of the death toll. The number was reported as “at least 79” until forensic work identified 70 missing people from the remains taken from the tower (one of the deceased had died in hospital). After a number of fraud cases concluded, the police announced that the number “was very unlikely to change from 71.” Then the 72nd victim passed, Maria del Pilar ‘Pily’ Burton. She had suffered a serious deterioration of health following the fire, and it was upon the community’s insistence that her name was added to the toll.
Because of the failures of administration on the part of RBKC and the KCTMO, there was no accurate list of residency to work off in the immediate aftermath. Moreover, for days, at key sites listed in the media as refuge centres, the lists of missing were being constructed by volunteers, or survivors themselves. Because of a lack of formal structure, and an issue around language, the transliteration of names meant many were triple counted. Excel spreadsheets being worked on at community centres listed hundreds of people missing, assumed dead. The state’s discourse around the death toll confused matters. For the first few days, for reasons probably justified around social order, the death toll was downplayed. The cynicism of the state led people to think the worst.
Because of the peculiarities of this inquiry, the inquests have not been concluded at the time of writing. The state’s coroner Fiona Wilcox has a very good reputation amongst bereaved and survivors. Her work has identified all those who are known to be missing. There are no new missing posters being put up, nor are there any reports of people coming into the community speaking names beyond the count. So, therefore, the assumption is that the state has done its job, and 72 is the official figure. Yet, for reasons implicit and explicit in this piece, at least 72 remains the most accurate phrasing.
Britain is a country where deaths take place beyond the state’s count, bred by the processes of abandonment and callous indifference (Bhandar, 2018). It remains a possibility that there are names unspoken who were lost in the fire. They, however, will not be as numerical as the fringe voices, speaking hyperbolically from abstraction, make out. The hysteria of the early days was predicated upon the state’s incapacity, the conditions bred by the state’s abandonment and indifference. What those outside skeptical of the state miss is that consciousness must develop in the area; continued conspiracy breeds distrust and feeds the worst elements of post-disaster politics.
“Confetti at a whores wedding?”
Despite the hostile environment residents found themselves in, something set Grenfell apart from other post-disaster environments, especially where the state is culpable. When asked about the fire, locals blamed the redevelopment, which they placed within a broader context of social cleansing. They held the KCTMO and RBKC directly responsible for the fire and demanded justice. The truth, we are assured, will come out in the public inquiry. Extrapolations to form a general analysis, however, have not taken a back step since the fire started. Many are problematic. None more so than the London Review of Books’ Andrew O’Hagan, who sought to undermine the ‘narrative’ supposedly constructed by the Grenfell Action Group and other concerned residents, and upheld by the media (see O’Hagan, 2018).
In a move of post-modern buggary, masked as empirical reasoning, O’Hagan blended fact and fiction. When locals spoke of how senior members of the council were engaged in a programme of social cleansing and large scale redevelopments that made them disregard their duties of care, O’Hagan thought of himself as the man to join the fray. He wrote to community members that he is the right man to get to the bottom of this all. He told people he “was hated by the right-wing media” and wore it as a badge of honour. But his piece came out as an apologia for the council and a wider defence of the patrician elite structures of Toryism. He cast those who opposed the council as career activists “throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding.” At best, they were victims of a mob mentality, bred by a false narrative, that was misreported by the media. He smugly points out that on a basis of analytic truth, the catastrophe foretold by the activists, particularly Edward Daffarn, was not the one that struck.
The cladding and insulation were not cited as a fire risk by residents of the tower in their external and internal communications. Rather, it was the state of the building, the storage of provisions, the blocking of corridors, the movement of the boilers, the exposed pipework that disturbed them. This is all true. The prophetic nature of the ‘Playing with Fire’ Grenfell Action Blog post on the November 20, 2016, which read: “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders” (Grenfell Action Group, 2016) is therefore undermined, O’Hagan contends. Only the Grenfell Action Group had put in a Freedom of Information request regarding the cladding, but were denied knowledge of the details. Unlike statutory authorities, extreme negligence led them to the conclusion that only eternal vigilance would keep them safe. David Collins told me that GAG always operated with a mind on the worst of all possible outcomes, such was their view of the KCTMO, who they dubbed “an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia.”
Andrew O’Hagan never spoke with the Grenfell Action Group before writing his piece. His attempt to contact both Ed Daffarn and Grenfell United were made just days before his article went to print. Whatever the methodological reason was, the attempt to undermine the community through the Grenfell Action Group blog has not worked out for the author. The victory of the campaigns for the library and the Wornington College have vindicated the group’s work. Moreover, as detailed in the inquiry and explained briefly above, the disaster at Grenfell was due to a confluence of factors. Market state logics from the national government and managed decline and needless austerity from local authorities. The only stairwell at Grenfell Tower was non-compliant, on top of the litany of violations and failures that have already emerged. The people who lived in the tower, including - but by no means exclusively Ed Daffarn - knew something was not right, their intuition led them to make demands. If those demands had been met, lives would have been saved. Instead of telling this story, O’Hagan tells a story of contrarian malcontents who wrongfully targeted a white man with the best of intentions. North Kensington doesn’t need this story. The world doesn’t need this story. The only person who stood to benefit from this unprecedented intervention were councillors he sought to absolve, in particular former deputy leader Rock Fielding-Mellen, who locals blame more than anyone else for the catastrophe at Grenfell. In their attempt at reparative work, the council have had to work very hard to untie the knots of Fielding-Mellen.
Those versed in the struggles of yesteryear pontificated to those on the Lancaster West estate in the days after the fire when they should have listened. Few had ever been there before. They held that a crude voluntarism must not be allowed to sprout, that politics is about commitment, not the experience of being burnt from house and home. So, they sought to organise above those most affected. Much of the early activism around Grenfell was unilateral, invasive and unwelcome, especially as few had versed themselves in the history of the actions around the redevelopment and resistance.
Beyond the sound-bite commentary picked from the testimony of locals by news crews, led by the diktats of their editors, the framing of Grenfell fell to voices outside of the area, who talked for, not with, the community around Grenfell Tower. Their politics imposed national solutions, blaming May and Cameron. They hailed Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn as the magic elixir, who had a miraculous stature after the shock election result. This blighted the development of resistance. Politics which does not work from what was revealed from the fire serves the state. A politics which doesn’t work from the groundwork already laid is destined to run afoul. Yet, it has been the modus operandi for much of the organised left.
As the fire was still alight, political commentators took a cursory glance at the Grenfell Action Group’s blog, through which, they lampooned the KCTMO and RBKC. The chaos and anarchic atmosphere on the streets deepened the council’s crisis; they were perceived as absent, which entrenched their pariah status. The incompetence of the local authority in the immediate aftermath was the ostensible reason for the resignations of Leader of the Council Nicholas Paget-Brown and Deputy Leader Rock Fielding-Mellen. With their resignations came a reshuffle in the council’s cabinet with Elizabeth Campbell the new facade on a council that had no will to do anything but change perceptions. The people seethed. But, with the cosmetic changes, and the complications of local politics, national attention waned.
Commentators of the left took a macro look at deregulation and named the names of neoliberal Britain’s architects, who presided over the bonfire of regulations (Monbiot, 2017). These were key interventions to frame Grenfell, but they did not account for the fire, nor empower the community. The usual suspects of the left came to the base of the tower and sought to empower through cooption. The acronyms took up their soapboxes. The Socialist Workers Party held private caucuses before filling rooms and panels with members from front organisations. Labour, cast as the proverbial white knights of the situation, saw the solution as a change in government. But the Tories did not fall because of the fire; not locally, not nationally. And as the instrumental value of Grenfell diminished, so did engagement.
The council’s vacuum in the wake of the fire necessitated self-organising. The communities of North Kensington ran services themselves. As statutory duties were not being met, ad hoc protocols came into play. The withering away of governmental structures, services and departments at a national level extended the callous indifference further. The scandalous reality of the post-disaster environment shocked even seasoned politicos, whether they worked inside or outside the system. But, national and international solidarity bred conditions by which aid could be offered, and work could be done, without state structures. Weeks and in some cases months of autonomous work began.
The summer of 2017 saw forms of organising unparalleled in modern Britain. Because of a chain of resistance in the area, there was a politics implicit in the humanitarian aid effort, which resembled a system of mutual aid. An appetite for a new political formation ran deep. Numerous projects began with an intention of taking power from RBKC, whether in a limited or more fundamental sense. Dreams of developing a new administration, run by and for the locals of North Kensington, led to the seizing of community spaces for community use. When Ishmael Francis-Murray, Redfish and I made Failed By The State, we sought to historicise and articulate this mood (see Redfish, 2017). After the long hot summer, a cold, desolate winter loomed. Fair weather friends of the community began to leave. This was a pivotal moment. The frenetic activity on the streets was coming to a close and dust was beginning to settle. Aid was being liquidated into funds and distributed to survivors. Grenfell was still bare and exposed to the elements. To all around, it was a reality of dystopian proportions.
“The city” and its limits
On the day of the fire, underneath the Westway, at Bay 56, Acklam Village, a space was taken for community need. It was already a site of significance in the area, having been an adventure playground, a yard for steel pans and a pop up cinema. For years, it had been kept in a state or arrested development, primed to become a retail space in a radical reshaping of the area. When its doors were opened to Niles Hailstones, due to the gargantuan relief effort, tonnes of aid came in within hours. It became a central node in the aid effort. ‘The Village,’ as it came to be known, was a space of relentless activity in the summer months. But with the autumnal shifts, and aid being managed by the bereaved and survivors, the semi-outdoor and unheated occupation looked attritional. When a former college was found abandoned, the keys were offered to Hailstones, who administers The Village. He saw an opportunity for a reparative process. He organised community members involved in the The Village, and took them to what he dubbed ‘The City.’
It was four months after the fire, in October 2017, when community groups got access to The City. It is a huge space beneath the Westway. It had been designated for redevelopment to become a site of adult social care. Three statutory services were to be moved there, their previous offices primed for re-development. By the very nature of the occupation, council redevelopments could be stopped. But the community dreamed bigger. The idea of an independent administration was an ember of the fire. The possibilities for a space for training, learning and realising dreams led to scores of young people refurbishing the building. They wanted to build the space to provide the services and opportunities they never felt they had.
Many of the boys who filled The City came from the street life of the area and would be classified as ‘at risk’ by the state. Some had lost family members in the disaster at the tower. They brought their bravado with them and the anarchic atmosphere allowed for their worst sides to find space. But despite all the machismo, they refashioned the building, they painted walls and spent the vast majority of the cold winter months seeking to prepare the space for either a grand launch or for the day the doors would be permanently open to the community. Those days never came.
The City was a throw of the dice; it was a gamble for a radical change in the immediate aftermath. It failed. Although some individuals have been blamed, it was destined to fail, due to the limitations structured into the moment. Few political visionaries engaged with the space, some popped their heads in or came to the attempted grand openings after the monthly silent march, but where organisational discipline was needed, there was no radical ideology to structure an alternative. Even with the will, there was no way.
There’s something that is often missed when analysing Grenfell. A tower block burned. Blocks are as central to street culture as anything, the basis of pirate radio, the place to plot. So when Grenfell burned, youths across the country felt it deeply. If those in North Kensington who tried to build something better had decided to burn and loot in response, the whole country would have felt it. The youths of the area knew their power and they tried to build a radical alternative, but they did it with an ideology steeped in neoliberal doctrines and the cut throat capitalism of the streets. Their labour could fashion the space, but space became a void. Appeals were made for assistance, but the struggle was not taken up.
The Panthers ten-point programme was not a philosophic doctrine. The demands had been made before, in similar methods. But it provided a backbone to struggle. No such doctrine emerged in North Kensington. Where there was activism before the fire, and to a large extent after it, it was reactive. Community spaces were defended. The community fought to maintain the gains of the past. The question was begged: what are we for? Substantive and collective demands have not been made officially by the myriad groups. To find unity in a solution is a tough endeavour. Yet, from all of the campaign groups, and all those who responded from their heart, it is clear to see that the community want their needs met and the spaces that better their life maintained. They want their rights and responsibilities respected. They want a state worthy of the trade offs they make to live in Britain. As Antonio Roncolato, a survivor of the inferno, told the Public Inquiry “after all we are paying our dues and it is our lives.”
Thousands now use Grenfell on their CV, there have been countless uses of its name. But for all the good will, a political vision could not be realised, even one nourished in grassroots, on land that is common. With the dream deferred, the remaining endeavours of the community are, by necessity, dependent upon the state or the charitable structures it uses.
Charity as a conduit of state
Within North Kensington, as Anthony Wilks tells in his documentary, there is a culture of using charity as a conduit of state. This he dubs the ‘Failed Experiment,’ which Grenfell punctuated (Wilks, 2018). Grenfell, and all the controversies that fall from it, are placed within a context of the local authority using charity in this locality to serve the community. However, this reading of history is culturalist and broad. The idealism that drives the narrative is that charitable, patrician logics persisted for over a century in the administration of North Kensington. However, this analysis lacks any explanation of the changes within charity in a world of globalised finance. Changes to board structures and constitutions mutated even recent organisations, like the Westway Trust, beyond reckoning. The scope of these organisations - who they serve and who they answer to - demands a materialist analysis. One that sees the financialised logics of profiting without producing, particularly land banking, as playing a role.
Within the Grenfell Action Group’s blog lay far more than prophecy and agitation. The blog spoke against the asset stripping, arrested development and managed decline that defined governance in the area. Three organisations were seen as working in an informal alliance, dubbed “the unholy trinity” (Grenfell Action Group, 2016; 2017) Two of these organisations have faced much scrutiny, RBKC and KCTMO. The Westway Trust, however, have managed to maintain the perception that they are a benign charity, acting to enable and empower the local community. They are anything but.
Anyone familiar with West London will know the Westway. It is a six-lane flyover that dissects North Kensington. What locals knew viscerally from their experiences could not be sensed by those who came to the area in the aftermath of the fire. The Westway Trust administer the community’s land beneath the A40. Much of the land, now adorned with post-Grenfell art, has taken on new significance. Yet, plans to redevelop spaces, like the Maxilla Wall of Truth, have not been redrawn. Subtly, the Westway Trust have re-exerted their control and fuelled tensions, with long-term plans seeking to take back land taken for community endeavours and projects after the fire.
In 40 or so years that the community’s land has been held in trust, two thirds of its 23 acres have been let for commercial use. The revenues generate millions. Yet, they distribute less than 10 percent of their revenues to the community. The locals have protested, accusing the organisation of being in cahoots with big developers and complicit in the violence of social cleansing. Many articulated a sense of erasure, especially when images of their proposed redevelopment at Portobello Road showed only white people. In response the Westway23 formed, which fought to return the land beneath the six-lane London artery to the commons. When the Westway was built, at a time when the area was known for its poverty and rebelliousness, the land was derelict. The community repurposed it, which led to the forming of the North Kensington Amenity Trust (the embryo of the Westway Trust). Throughout the years of neoliberalism and financialisation, the charity mutated from something that worked for the community interest to something that works against it, the first director of the Trust Anthony Perry said in his last interview before he passed away.
There were tipping points that the community should have seen and responded to, Ed Daffarn told me: “When Rock Fielding-Mellen joined the board of the Westway Trust, alarm bells should have sounded.” It is alleged by a number of prominent community activists, that Angela McConville, the departed and disgraced CEO of the Westway Trust (who left while under internal investigation for institutional racism), worked hand in glove with Fielding-Mellen in plans to redevelop North Kensington. McConville made her dream of making the Westway a “top ten London destination” well known. Her plans were to use the land as a link to the White City and Westfield developments. Her endeavours were historicised by the community, who rallied to oppose her plans, as within a line of class warriors who sought to make North Kensington rich again.
When the impressive houses around Ladbroke Grove were built, they were never intended to be a working class homes. The area became the melting pot it is through war, depression and histories of migration, through which the mansions became tenements. When Anthony Perry, the first director of the North Kensington Amenity Trust, sought to act in the interests of the population of North Kensington in the 70s, he was met with resistance from his peers, who loved the area, but loathed the presence of the people. Many charities and third sector organisations formed through struggle in North Kensington, some with radical roots. However, over the years, the organisations have widened the scope of their purpose, diluting their potency or becoming complicit in wider processes that have priced so many out of the area.
Charitable structures in times structured by the market absorb doctrines and discourses that undermine their purpose. The Westway Trust’s discourse regarding its plans for redevelopment adopted market logics. The community were best served, they held, by increased footfall and more spending. The Trust therefore sought to develop a land that would entice those who have to dip into their pockets. Two consecutive Annual General Meetings were shutdown by angry North Kensington residents after the Trust unveiled their plans. Residents contend that the proposals afoot would fundamentally alter the geography, both social and physical, of the historic area.
As the inquiry enters its second phase, RBKC will fall back on the charities it supports in the area to argue its hidden hand was there. They will argue that their work enabled charity, they will argue they led from behind through the rich tapestry of organisations that supported the community in the aftermath of the fire. On their telling of history, the lionising of the community is the pardoning of the state, because the people filled spaces that the council or its functionaries had a hand in. What needs to be seen, understood and analysed is how intermeshed charitable structures are with the state. A politics is demanded which transcends the limitations of the moment, which can at least articulate the lived experience of those at the coal face of struggle.
Grenfell as a rupture
Grenfell was a rupture, an event which exposed truths otherwise hidden from view. Something of the magnitude of Grenfell disturbs and reveals all, exposing similarities in difference and bonds of unity, formed through the state’s disregard. The risk to life extends equally to all, cutting across the lines of division from the state’s count and classification.
Indifference to life has been met with stoicism and silence. Above all else, the bereaved and survivors, who through necessity, have remained campaigners, value their dignity. They bring the heart to a heartless system, and the voice of truth, but they have been kept on mute. The silent march is therefore a poignant form of protest. It takes place on the 14th of every month and will continue for the foreseeable future. The numbers attending has waned of late, but thousands still attend, respecting the community’s demand for silent and dignified remembrance. On the march to commemorate a year since the disaster, tens of thousands attended.
But where the bereaved and survivors want to be heard, they remain silenced. “The inquiry is taking place in the heart of lawyerland,” Natasha Elcock, the chair of Grenfell United told me. The bereaved and survivors are being made to bend around the conveniences of the legal structures. ‘Do not speak unless spoken to,’ the British judiciary say down their noses. The atmosphere has made the vast majority of those most affected detach themselves from the space. “The bereaved and survivors merely ask that they be done right by, for once,” Elcock told me as she stood outside Holborn Bars. The Grenfell community want the venue moved. Two survivors have found spaces in Hammersmith, a neighbouring borough and short train ride away. They were dismissed by the legal authorities. Compounding issues around the venue, the lawyers of the bereaved and survivors have yet to have full disclosure of evidence. Objections have been made publicly and privately, but remain muted. Marx’s explanation for the Napoleonic era comes to mind: “first as tragedy, then as farce.”
The heart is where the battle is
Throughout North Kensington, the heart is now ubiquitous, representing community solidarity and grief. It is an all inclusive symbol that has been replicated many times, some in problematic and instrumental ways. Keeping people’s attention on the issues and campaigns around Grenfell has led to the building of a broad based coalition. Empty signifiers therefore assist the moral appeal to keep up awareness. But more is being asked for, and therefore a more subversive reading of the heart comes to mind. The American writer Upton Sinclair once said. “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This piece never aimed for the heart. Heads must roll for what happened.
The great black radical Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) publicly criticised Martin Luther King’s activism for making the fallacious assumption his oppressor had a heart (see Carmichael, 1967). Appealing to the moral sensibilities of a system so structured around the market is a fool’s errand. North Kensington cannot. It knows this viscerally, from experience, as do those at risk of death across the country. To hear their stories hits both the heart and the stomach, but it should hit the heads of authority. The heart, by my reading, is therefore representative of the love that is found when people come together in the face of state abandonment. It represents the duty of care that only community can provide. It is a moral symbol in an immoral world, representing the politics forged by building the systems of care that no longer exist in authority.
Serious political questions fall out of Grenfell and the crises around it. Statutory services must meet people’s rights and needs, but the structures to fulfill these duties are not fit for purpose. In Cracks in the System, a film about the scandalous public health crisis on the Ledbury Estate, made by the Rainbow Collective (2018), the question is asked, ‘are councils and local authorities, filled, as they are with politicians from a particular demographics, the best bodies to have statutory responsibility for life?’ In North Kensington, the local authority know they have betrayed their purpose. They know the people do not trust them. Any covenant or contract with the residents of North Kensington is kept in place by force. But such feelings are mirrored across the country, in a huge amount of wards and local councils.
Neoliberalism has challenged the state’s structures so much that defending council housing has meant defending the system of its provision. Very few would endorse their local authority or tenant management organisation as the ideal. The fire and the failure at Grenfell exposed profound issues that require fundamental redress. One of the major avenues would be to legislate so that discrimination against those who require state subsidies is punishable. The 2010 Equality Act unites all bills protecting those from prejudice and discrimination. In its draft form, the bill considered class a protected characteristic, but parliament decided against it. Class is not an identity and is very hard to define. But class is real, it is relational and it needs addressing.
In response to the state’s callous indifference towards life, communities across the country want the power to look after themselves. Amplifying these voices could subvert what ‘taking back control’ really means. If a council can be punished for substandard services and failing in its duty of care, it would radically change the dynamics of power. Politics must address the needs of people across the country. Too many feel they are being unpeopled by those in power - locally and nationally. The conditions that maintain their lives have been fatally changed, some by austerity, some simply by the logics of the times. In such a moment, real politics must make those who count for nothing come to count for everything. Grenfell, we felt, changed everything. Only it didn’t. It does nothing on its own. To assume change on the basis of death makes the same fallacious assumption that was called out by Ture.
The changes Grenfell demands are implicit within every power dynamic it exposed. The media need to look long and hard at their processes, where all the labour hours and wages went and where all the unused testimony they extracted from traumatised people now sits. The state must address, at root, where it has failed in its duty of care. Politicians must reflect on how they attempted to instrumentalise Grenfell. In the immediate aftermath, Grenfell was cast by Jeremy Corbyn and those around him as the outcome of austerity. He told Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons that Grenfell came from “disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners” (see Merrick, 2017). But corners were cut by his party, who were complicit in the deregulation drive. When May volleyed this in response, the cycle of buck-passing continued and political commentators quipped about it. As we hurtle towards Brexit, such flippancy is dangerous.
With regulation read as anti-business - not pro-life - the Tories, supported by a motley crew of nationalists and nativists, won the right to depart from the European Union. On the current trajectory, gaping holes will be left in legislation. There are huge concerns about the consequences of this as, when redrafting legislation and regulations in a market state, poor wording can kill. The battle to defend life necessitates a language that preserves or rebuilds the conditions that maintain life and a government willing to challenge business to fight for the right to life for its citizenry.
Across the country, people are organising to be heard. They are seldom recognised for their actions, but when they are, their moving image is taken, but their voices have been kept on mute, apart from a few selected sound-bites according with a pre-established script. A man speaks over their action, with a narrative arc that makes everything okay, if incredibly sad. The country keeps calm and carries on. There’s evil in this process. Complacency is not justifiable. A proper reckoning is demanded, where contrition is expressed from all parties involved in this injustice. Grenfell was a state crime. The work of redress which must be undertaken in its wake is infinitely demanding, but necessary. A politics is brewing beneath the mounting failures and cynical uses. If those in power don’t listen, the voice of the unheard will speak, and there will be no dictating the terms of the discourse.
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