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Grenfell, three years on: let us not forget

Photo by Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash

In this article, Steve Tombs marks the third anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people and changed forever the lives of many more; he does so through the lens of the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis and the renewed critical attention to manifestations of structural racism. Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University. This article was originally published on 12 June and was produced for the Harm and Evidence Research Collective website.

Almost exactly three years ago to this day, in the first hour of 14th June, 2017, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London, killing at least at least 72 people. Almost immediately the atrocity was revealed as no accident. In fact, it had long been foretold by the residents of the tower themselves, via the Grenfell Action Group, most chillingly in the all-too-prescient blog of November 2016, seven months before the fire, which was headed with the warning, KCTMO – Playing with fire! The blog was the latest in a long line of attempts by the residents to have their health and safety concerns taken seriously, not least during what proved to be the fatal refurbishment of their tower-block when the decision was taken to replace fire-resistant zinc cladding in the refurbishment contract “with cheaper aluminium panels to save £293,368”. This cost-cutting measure was to turn the tower into something resembling a kiln when a fire began in a fourth floor flat, most likely as a result of a faulty Hotpoint fridge freezer, on 14th June, 2017.

In the aftermath of the fire, many proclaimed Grenfell as a “never-again” moment. Housing policy, regulation, fire safety, all would change irrevocably. The harshness of neo-liberalism would be shed. White, class power might even recognise the worth of poor, black, minority ethnic and marginalised populations, dumped in poorly maintained social housing. It was a moment upon which the Prime Minster at the time, Theresa May, was to reflect as she resigned her position two years later, not as a result of her palpable failures in the wake of the atrocity, of course, but a consequence of internecine warfare within the Conservative Party. Thus, with no hint of irony, May stated that “the unique privilege of this office is to use this platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society … And that is why I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower – to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten. Because this country is a Union. Not just a family of four nations. But a union of people – all of us. Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.”

But now, three years after the fire, commemorated as resistance erupts across the Global North in the face of the most searing manifestations of structural racism and simultaneously viewed through the mirror of a pandemic which has, on official figures, taken close to half a million lives worldwide, the shattering effects of class and ethnic inequality which framed Grenfell are more visible and more harshly experienced. In the UK alone, at the time of writing, almost 64,000 deaths in the UK are attributed to coronavirus in the period since ‘lockdown’ began – a disproportionate number of whom are, as we know, of Black, Asian and minority ethnic origin. Just weeks into the pandemic, as the images of health and care workers – the nurses, doctors, porters and cleaners – who had died began to be broadcast, it was already obvious that black and brown faces were on the frontline in the unfolding health crisis.

And in early May, the Office for National Statistics confirmed what we had been seeing with our own eyes. First, the ONS revealed that black Britons were “more than four times more likely to die from the disease than white people, with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis almost twice as likely to die compared to the white majority”. And again death was linked to housing: for these were also people living in overcrowded households – 30% of Bangladeshi, 16% of Pakistani and 12% of black households in England were officially over-crowded compared with 2% of white households. And then days later, further ONS data showed that those in “low paid, manual jobs” were “four times more likely to die from the virus than men in professional occupations, while women working as carers are twice as likely to die as those in professional and technical roles”. Security guards, health and care workers, construction workers, plant operatives, cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs and retail workers – those who were forced to work through ‘lockdown’– were at far greater risk of dying. These are the members of our community who were more exposed, less protected, whose lives didn’t quite count enough – just as one resident who stood outside Grenfell tower had said as he watched it burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.”

Despite formally abandoning their now denied ‘herd immunity’ policy, this Government had clearly decided that some lives are disposable. Viruses, just like firesdo discriminate. And the politics behind the virus-discrimination is not dissimilar to the fire-discrimination which killed at Grenfell. It is a politics of class contempt and of racism. In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, it is “the state-sanctioned … group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” or, as Friedrich Engels termed it, social murder.

So as we endure the relentless, callous mendacity which passes for daily Government press briefings on the trajectory of the health crisis, interspersed with shrill cries of offence as the trophies of our glorious imperial past are toppled, let us not forget the preventable, mass killing at Grenfell 3 years ago more or less to this day. Meanwhile, three years later, nothing about Grenfell has been settled. Nothing has been resolved. There is no ‘closure’.

So, three years on…

Let us not forget that those who survived the fire have been retraumatised by the fear, loss and discrimination associated with the pandemic and many, too, by the weight of the knee of the powerful pushing down on their necks.

Let us not forget those who, notwithstanding years of broken promises, half-truths and lies from the mouths of the powerful, remain in temporary accommodation, still displaced from their homes, their communities, their lives.  

Let us not forget those who lost their jobs and their businesses as a result of the fire.

Let us not forget the thousands across the UK still fighting to have similar flammable cladding removed.

Let us not forget the inquiry which, two years since it began, is now halted and has barely begun to determine responsibility.

Let us not forget that those who stand accused for their role leading up to or in the aftermath of the fire: the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation and the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, all of which bore some responsibility for the conditions in which the residents of the Tower were living and for the gross failures in response to the fire; Arconic, Artelia, Celotex, Harley Facades, Kingspan, Max Fordham, Rydon, Studio E and the countless other private sector companies involved in the design, oversight and undertaking of the tower’s refurbishment, as well as Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the fridge freezer which sparked the fire; Public Health England and the Environment Agency for their consistent failures to respond to residents’ concerns about “significant environmental contamination”, including from carcinogens, in the years following the fire; and that long line of politicians of all main parties who had boasted of a bonfire of regulation, as well as Governments which had imposed austerity so that fire services and all forms of local authority oversight were drastically cut-back, while health and social services were so undermined as to be unable to meet the routine needs of a population, let alone respond effectively to emergencies.

Today, almost three years to the day after Grenfell, let us not forget the emotional, psychological, physical, cultural and financial harms that continue to be suffered – often unseen, unspoken, unrecognised, yet intensely felt by thousands of bereaved, dispossessed, scarred men, women and children as a result of what happened on 14 June 2017.

Let us not forget the 72 lives avoidably lost in that fire.

Until there is truth, justice and accountability, let us not forget.

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