Ross Orchard questions why three years on from Grenfell, we're still awaiting answers to the same questions.
June 14th 2020 marked the third anniversary of Britain’s largest domestic fire since World War II.
The Grenfell Tower blaze that killed 72 people has since sparked a long and arguably directionless response from the government that has seen multiple disruptions into the fires inquiry, lacklustre attempts towards preventing similar disasters and most importantly, highlighted the failures in the governing party’s strategy to provide adequate aftercare for survivors of the inferno regarding re-housing. The culmination of these failings equates to an apparent perversion in the course of justice for the victims of Grenfell, and as we now find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic and a civil rights movement, the time for solidarity is now.
Social distancing laws have prevented the continuation of the monthly Grenfell silent walk but let us take this opportunity to remember those we have lost and to consider whether the establishment has truly learned from its mistakes.
News of the inquiry’s closure in March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic came off the back of widespread outrage among Grenfell survivors, as the preceding events left victims justifiably angry. Benita Mehra, one of two panellists appointed by the government to advise the inquiry, was found to head an organization which was receiving grants from one of the companies tasked with the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. This significant disruption into the inquiry raises some serious questions into the government’s commitment to provide an adequate and just conclusion for the victims of Grenfell.
How was the conflict of interest not uncovered before Ms Mehra’s appointment?
Why did Ms Mehra initially resist calls for her to step down?
Have these events raised the possibility that the companies heading the refurbishment of Grenfell may be delaying the process?
These events highlight the need for continued and heightened support for these victims and stands as a significant wake-up call for the public to realise the Tory party do not prioritise justice. Support for Grenfell victims from anti-racist protestors taking part in the ongoing civil rights movement has shown just how important the matter still is, three years on, and that community solidarity is the key to achieving justice. As the inquiry is set to resume in July we must stand together and use the momentum gained over these past few weeks to push for answers.
Going forward, evidence suggests that the Tory party have not heeded the warnings of Grenfell and fears of a repeat disaster are very much real. The infamous cladding that allowed the fire to engulf the entire building in just 25 minutes is still present on over 2,000 buildings nationwide. The Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee have published a report rightly calling on the government to “make an absolute commitment” to making all buildings with cladding safe by December 2020. HCLG has stated that the government’s pledge of £1bn to this cause will only cover a third of the refurbishment costs and, coupled with a short application window, means that many will not be able to access the funds. This leaves thousands of residents still living in at-risk buildings three years on from the harrowing disaster.
The moral compass of the current government is evidently severely disrupted and there is a clear need to hold those who have caused, and in some cases refused to rectify, accountable. Chairman of the committee, Clive Betts MP, has pushed for the government to take legal action in cases where private building owners have failed to begin remedial work by December 2020. These failings and the blatant disinterest in providing safe and adequate living conditions for thousands of citizens demonstrates the government’s willingness to gamble with the lives of its people three years on from one of the most fatal blazes in British history. This is simply an unacceptable approach to governing and managing a crisis and has resulted in significant, and in some cases irreversible, damage, both financially and mentally, for the victims of Grenfell. For those still having to live in evidently unsafe conditions, 94% of residents in affected buildings have reported feelings of anxiety and 1 in 5 have had suicidal thoughts.
200 homes were lost in the blaze in 2017 and three years on you would think it impossible that any of these victims would still be searching for a new permanent residency. Unfortunately, this is indeed the case with seven households still living in temporary accommodation and a further ten households who have since requested to be rehoused after being placed in accommodation deemed to be unsuitable. The stem of this issue is rooted in the government’s inability to provide adequate social housing. The lack of investment in social housing over time has led to a shortage in suitable housing options, especially for those with particular needs. Evidence of this reality is outlined by Spike Western, housing paralegal at North Kensington Law Centre, who stated that:
“The households who have still to be rehoused permanently following Grenfell are the most vulnerable survivors. They represent either those with particular housing needs, such as those arising from a disability, or those on whom moving permanently is something that cannot be rushed and must only be done when the survivor is ready.”
Unfortunately, the current state of the Grenfell response highlights the Tory party’s utter disregard for the wellbeing of the victims and shows a dysfunctional and poorly developed housing system that is unable to cater for those most in need. With warnings from victims and housing experts alike that another Grenfell-like disaster could be looming on the horizon, the government's disjointed approach to crisis management worrying to say the least.
As COVID-19 has further prolonged the pursuit of justice for the victims of Grenfell, it is imperative that we do not let this tragedy and its lingering consequences slip into the background. The abhorrent neglection and disproportionate prioritisation of response tactics from the Tory party highlights their inability to cope with such disasters. Realising the very real risk of a repeat catastrophe is reason enough to call on the public to express their solidarity with the victims of Grenfell and to extend these grievances to wider and very relevant causes such as the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.
It is worth reiterating that solidarity is key in achieving justice in what can only be described as a broken system. Only when we all stand together can we truly achieve the answers, justice and results that we as a community are still hoping to see.
John Bates, Renew member and councillor for Morecambe, explains why doing nothing is not an option.
The current upsurge in the Black Lives Matter campaign, triggered by the death of George Floyd in America, has once again brought to the fore the disparate treatment of Black people in society. At the same time, as with any major campaign, there has been a rise to prominence of counter-protests. It is my view that the instigators of the counter-protest are probably white supremacists. But it cannot be ignored that they bring along with them many otherwise, ordinary, run of the mill people who, under any other circumstances, would support, or at least not oppose, cries for equality in less fractious circumstances. These otherwise decent people share posts on Facebook, which, while ostensibly upholding traditional values of respect and patriotism, serve only to move the subject away from the important one of much-needed reform, onto the easier platforms of Law and Order, Vandalism and respect for National Freedoms and traditions.
It is a successful tactic. Once the mind is diverted from the fundamental injustice it becomes easier to brand the original campaigners as vandals or thugs or malcontents. The justice of the cause is lost in a welter of condemnation of direct action without any real consideration being given to the fundamental injustice or inequalities which lead to the protests in the first place.
So, on Facebook, we read claims that George Floyd was no angel, that he was a serial offender. These posts go on to question the appropriateness of the elaborate funeral arrangements, implying that all this "fuss" or "celebrity" treatment is undeserved. The sinister yet unspoken implication behind this post is, of course, that George Floyd's life, let alone death, are not worth such commemoration. Our attention is thus diverted from the appalling facts of his death, away from the fact that in a civilised society, everyone should be treated with respect under the law, particularly from those whose job it is to uphold that law.
Our Prime Minister in Name Only decries the defacing of statues and memorials in the name of protest, and in doing so, immediately ascribes more importance to those artefacts than to the underlying inequalities which give rise to the protests. Once again, the ground for debate is shifted.
On Facebook again we see the fatuous slogan "All Lives Matter." All manner of meaning can be read into that statement, but for many, it is seen as diminishing the "Black Lives Matter" slogan. Black Lives Matter campaigners are thus painted as only having a narrow and selfish interest, rather than compassion for society as a whole. At a stroke, the real message, that Black Lives are all too often, demonstrably and institutionally, worth-less in the eyes of society, is deleted and the argument is shifted onto safer, but essentially, meaningless ground.
Our Prime Minister in Name Only declares the formation of a far-reaching (world-beating?) inquiry into racial inequalities and leaves the arrangements for it in the hands of a person who has already made known her scepticism about institutional racism.
Will that inquiry give any consideration to the manifestly institutionally racist Windrush scandal?
How will that inquiry improve on previous inquiries whose non-implemented findings shout just as loudly about institutional and chronic, racial bias?
Is there any chance at all that the inquiry will even address the notion that an upsurge in campaigning and direct action is the inevitable result of generation after generation suffering inequality and indignation with no redress and little or no understanding of their long-held and justifiable grievances being shown?
It is difficult to see this inquiry as anything other than an institutional fig leaf, poorly designed to cover this Government's shame.
And on Facebook, we read:
"History is not to be erased just because you may not like it!"
"It is time to recognise that the past is over. It is time to look to the future and not the past!"
Or other such shallow twaddle.
There can be dozens if not hundreds of replies to such statements. Henry Ford told us that history is bunk. Many others have told us that history is written by the victors. Whatever answer you choose, there can be little doubt that our history as a nation, whose wealth was built on the proceeds of slave trading and the appropriations of Empire, never fully includes or dwells on the evil of those times. I have never met anyone who seriously wants to rewrite or erase history, but I know there are those who think the time is long overdue to examine its truths. I have no doubt that the ramifications of slave trading and empire are only understood by a few when they should be made clear to all. I also know that the deep and burning injustice felt by the descendants of those oppressed by the slave trade and the imposition of empire are only imperfectly appreciated by those who have never felt that oppression. The removal of deeply offensive statuary is not an erasure of history, it is a much-needed acknowledgement of evil.
Change is long overdue. I doubt that such change will come easily and almost certainly not as a result of yet another inquiry, even if well-meant, and I detect no honest intent in this latest sop to the BLM campaign. It seems to me that something much more profound is required. At the cessation of Apartheid in South Africa, the more immediate and vicious inequalities of that policy could have led to widespread and violent conflict. That the pent-up resentments and anger of that time of repression and cruelty did not lead to wholesale slaughter is, in large part, due to the wisdom, foresight and generosity of Nelson Mandela and his institution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That action enabled opposing sides to face unpleasant truths and to achieve understanding, remorse and forgiveness in ways that no public enquiry formed by a cynical and sceptical government could do. Generations of world-wide domination and exploitation can only ever embed a deep-seated sense of superiority on the one hand and equally profound resentment on the other. In the worst of us, that attitude of superiority has led to an ingrained and xenophobic hatred, and, in the victims, a justifiable rejection of a system and polity which has consistently refused to acknowledge the need for change.
What is needed is something akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A forum where each side can learn from the other. Of course, the learning will be greater on the part of those who do not at present understand the legacy of the slave trade and of empire, but equally essential is that the Black community can see and be a part of the processes which are implemented to address the centuries-long injustices for which reparation has never truly been made.
The Prime Minister in Name Only will tell you that he is not racist and cannot see that his "letterbox" and "watermelon smile" remarks are pure racism drawing, as they do, on race memory and ridicule of the non-white, non-Christian Other. Such a man will never address the problem if only because he does not believe there is a problem. And there are many others like him in the country. I am not referring here to the white supremacists, who I hope are mercifully few, and who simply represent a combination of ignorance and all the worst human traits. I refer to those whose understanding is subtly blunted and led away from proper understanding by the dishonest social media posts and all the years of sustained misinformation from a partial tabloid press, designed only to mislead and subvert honest people away from the inherent decency which directs most of us. If government will not do it perhaps others can. If enough of us begin the process surely we could make a difference. It might only take a few good people to raise the standard of decency so that others might flock to it.
Of one thing I am sure: doing nothing is not an option.
Renew supporter Zach Mayford argues for the removal of the statues of slave traders.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and “the new normal” grows older ever day, another pandemic is stirring hearts and minds across the globe: racism. George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police department sparked a monumental movement of anti-police-brutality and anti-racism protests. These erupted not just in the States, but around the world, from South Africa, to France, to the British Isles.
The movement has struck a deep and reverberating chord across the UK in individuals and institutions alike. Every major city has a protest movement, with networks of activists campaigning for socio-political change. It’s stirring to see such demonstrations, many masked and socially distanced, echoing Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe”. Some of the most evocating protests involve crowds kneeling out of respect, like the American athlete and equality activist Colin Kaepernick. Similarly, some protestors lay on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the exact amount of time Minneapolis officer Chauvin fatally knelt on George Floyd’s neck.
Such crowds, and such evocative demonstrations, are already forcing words from the mouths of British politicians. Boris Johnson originally echoed Donald Trump’s condemnation of the activists as “thugs”, and even progressive figures like Nicola Sturgeon urged protestors to find alternatives to physical demonstrations. Many mainstream publications have paired Britain’s abysmal struggle to combat COVID with the BLM crowds, alleging their responsibility for public jeopardy. The truth is, the same publications and politicians were uncritical to the point of jubilance when presenting the white faces packing out sunny beaches or celebrating VE day. BLM activists are bracing themselves for the inevitable branding of brown and black faces with the blame for Britain’s failures. We must think critically about which groups are the root causes of Britain’s inability to compete with other countries in this crisis. In reality, the UK government has systematically failed to provide enough PPE, testing, or even coherent advice to combat the pandemic effectively.
Yes, large, compact, and unprotected crowds spread coronavirus, but that’s not what BLM are advocating for. Activists and organisers are telling protestors to wear masks, to bring hand sanitiser and to physically distance at rallies. They are saying it with far more unity, clarity, and consistency than the UK government ever has. By contrast, police tactics like kettling and mass detainment pose serious concerns for infection and transmission, as do the discriminatory over-policing and violently physical arrests that sparked the protests in the first place.
It may seem far removed that British protestors, and other international activists, are marching about injustice thousands of miles away in America. However, racism is not just an American issue. Many, including prominent journalist and scholar Afua Hirsch, have eloquently argued that American racism was created and exported from right here in Britain. Black Brits are five times more likely to die in police custody than their white counterparts, and while only three per cent of the British population is Black, twelve per cent of the prison population is Black, due to over-policing, harsher sentencing, and disparity of economic opportunities.
Such disparity stems from Britain’s racist past, and the whitewashing, if not glorification, of the empire’s crimes. Protestors are turning to this legacy and tearing down the physical remnants of the slave-trading past, focusing their anger on statues. In Bristol, anti-racist activists tore down an effigy of the prolific slave trader Edward Colston and launched it into the marina. How poetic that the statue of a man who profited from transporting nearly 100,000 people across the Atlantic, killing almost a quarter in the process and tossing them into the sea, met its own demise in the same way, rejected, underwater. Immediately, Sir Keir Starmer, supposed saviour of the Left in Britain, labelled the activism as “absolutely wrong”, showing how out of touch both sides of the political establishment are with the country’s current climate.
As many are pointing out online, the act of removing such statues is teaching people more about British history than they ever did upright. Major cities across the nation, initially Manchester and London, are launching huge enquiries into all their statues and their links to slavery and white supremacy. As of the 9th of June, the Canal and Rivers Trust in London has already removed its statue of the slaver Robert Mulligan from the docklands. If anything, it was lucky to escape the waters of the canals and rivers which the Trust administers. A statue of the mass murderer and colonial overlord King Leopold II has already fallen in Belgium and the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College Oxford looks like its next on the list. Some call it the destruction of history. Other, with good reason, call it the production of a new, more balanced history. Whilst only symbols, these statues put slave trading and white supremacy on a literal pedestal. The debates around these statues, and their lasting presence in the 21st century, are already promoting vitally representative education and positive socio-political shifts.
With each protest, things change incrementally around the world. Cases are being reopened across the states, with activists successful demanding accountability for needless black deaths. Apart from the marches and the falling statues, the movement is provoking important introspection on this side of the pond too. Social media is ripe with educational posts and constructive reading lists. Attention builds around the case of Belly Mujinga, a black railway worker who was spat on and died of coronavirus. The CPS are now reviewing the case “in light of public interest”.
So what is next, and what can you do?
First and foremost, be an activist, and/or be an ally. If it’s safe, protest in a socially distanced way. If not, donate to urgent causes, share information, and sign petitions, particularly concerning the fair and representative historical curriculum of British history. Renew your politics, and be creative as you push for a kinder, fairer, and better society.