Since the very public murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis three weeks ago, there has been a welcome and understandable resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that first surfaced back in 2014, after a spate of police murders of unarmed black men and boys in the US.
As we remember the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, which occurred exactly three years ago, the resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement seems entirely appropriate.
72 people died in an inferno that engulfed the 1970s tower block they lived in in North Kensington, an inferno that was caused, primarily, because the structural integrity of the building had been lethally compromised by a re-cladding operation designed to make the tower look more “attractive” — not only had existing windows not been repaired or replaced to make sure that they were fireproof, but the re-cladding involved holes being drilled all over the tower that, on the night that the fire broke out, allowed it to consume the entire tower is an alarmingly short amount of time.
Also unaddressed in the refurbishment was the internal situation in the tower — including the neglect of the fire doors necessary for the compartmentalisation process designed to contain a fire within any flat it broke out in for an hour, allowing sufficient time for the emergency services to arrive.
The Grenfell Tower fire should never have happened, and the fact that it did is the responsibility of those who were meant to ensure the safety of those who lived in it, but who completely failed to fulfil their responsibilities — the Tory government, which was obsessed with cutting regulations to facilitate profiteering and cost-cutting, local government (Kensington and Chelsea Council), the private company (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) to which control of the borough’s social housing had been outsourced, and all the various contractors involved in the business of turning structurally sound buildings into death traps. One of the most startling revelations of the fire was that dangerous flammable cladding was actually legal, and that nowhere in the broken chain of command of a neo-liberalised social housing programme was there anyone prepared to point out how wrong — and potentially lethal — this was.
So why did this all happen? Well, the bottom line is that those who live in social housing are regarded as, at best, second-class citizens by those in power. It is arguable that the provision of social housing — rented housing at genuinely affordable rents — has in general been led by people with little regard for their tenants. In the 19th century, god-fearing men taught to believe in looking after those less fortunate than themselves also saw the chance to make a profit out of creating housing for low-paid workers, and the great council house building projects of the 20th century can be seen less as projects that arose spontaneously than as responses to two great national calamities — the First World War and the Second World War, both of which exposed how returning soldiers were faced with chronic housing shortages. Along the way there have undoubtedly been episodes when government, local government and architects all believed in the provision of genuinely affordable housing for low-paid workers, and also designed that housing with vision.
Unfortunately, since Margaret Thatcher began dismantling the notion of the state providing genuinely affordable rented housing — for life — to those in need of it, there has been a concerted effort to demonise those who live in social housing, and particularly on housing estates, with the mainstream media complicit in portraying them as unemployed and/or criminals, a shameful pattern of owner-occupier-led black propaganda that has been disgracefully successful, and that has led to a steady reduction in the availability of social housing, a commensurate increase in the profit-making opportunities for private landlords, and an entrenchment of a society-wide notion of those who live in social housing as second-class citizens.
Three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, this dark propaganda continues to pollute the discourse around this preventable disaster. It is no wonder that, today, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is being discussed with reference to Grenfell, as many of the tower’s residents were indeed black.
But, in addition, we should also recognise that ‘Brown Lives Matter’, that ‘Refugees’ Lives Matter’, and that ‘Working Class Lives Matter’, as the tower’s inhabitants were a mix of people of diverse backgrounds, but all, crucially, were not part of the ruling elite or those it rules for — primarily itself, but also, to a negotiable degree, the middle class.
Also worth thinking about are the victims of Margaret Thatcher’s drive to sell off council housing — those who lived in flats in Grenfell Tower that had been bought under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme and were paying market rents to private landlords.
Back in 2018, the Guardian published a memorial to those who died — accounts told by their families and friends — and, in an introductory article, explained how “[t]he makeup of the people who died shows how diverse, open and tolerant Britain has become in the past 30 years (more than half the adult victims had arrived in the country since 1990)”, adding that “[t]here were few white-collar workers among the victims and only seven white Britons , indicative of how the disaster disproportionately affected minority ethnic communities.” 18 of those who died were children, while the oldest victim was 84.
As the Guardian also explained, “There was an Afghan army officer, a Sudanese dressmaker, a British artist and an Italian architect. There was an Egyptian hairdresser, an Eritrean waitress and a Lebanese soldier. There were taxi drivers and teachers, football fans and churchgoers, devout Muslims, big families and working singletons. People whose lives were complicated by health issues or love or both. Neighbours on nodding terms, and friends for life from the flat next door.”
Three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, as we remember those who died, as we remember that, despite an ongoing official inquiry, no one has been held accountable for what happened on June 14, 2017, and as we remember that, up and down the country, 56,000 people are still living in buildings with dangerously flammable cladding, we should also remember, as with the resurgent ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, that a broad coalition of all those oppressed by a majority-white elite — on the basis of race and class — are still let down, or actively stigmatised, belittled or oppressed by those in charge, and that, fundamentally, the lives of those who live in social housing are still regarded as disposable by our leaders and those responsible for our safety.
Below is ‘Grenfell’, which I wrote after the fire, and recorded with my band The Four Fathers, featuring, and produced by Charlie Hart.