The burnt skeleton of the Grenfell tower stands empty and silent in the centre of Europe’s busiest city, a tragic reminder of the fire that occurred in the early hours of 14 June 2017, of the tiers, the screams, the rage, the faces of those who lost everything that night, and of those who are mourning for their family, friends and neighbours, of the questions that are still waiting an answer. The terrible last moments in the tower were captured in text messages and phone calls to family and loved ones. ‘Mamma, I think I’m going to die. Thank you for all you have done for me’, Gloria Trevisan’s apartment was on 23rd floor. She called her mum in Italy several times over the night, these are her last words as flames and smoke crept into their home.
The fire of the tower was a tragedy, but a man-made one, neither natural, nor unavoidable. David Lammy MP called it corporate manslaughter, one that led to the death of at least 80 people, with the full count only expected later in the year. For Aditya Chakrabortty a better way to describe what happened that night is what in 1845 Friedrich Engels called social murder. “When four separate government ministers are warned that Grenfell and other high rises are a serious fire risk, then an inferno isn’t unfortunate. It is inevitable. Those dozens of Grenfell residents didn’t die: they were killed”, he explains. Either way it is disingenuous to call for leaving politics out of the tragedy, this is as political as it gets. That those who died were the less well off in one of the wealthiest boroughs of one of the richest cities in the world is no coincidence. It is the extreme outcome of London’s ongoing war against the poor, the social cleansing of prime real estate land.
The Kensington and Chelsea borough council at the heart of the Grenfell Tower tragedy had the worst record in England for finding local homes for its homeless families before the disaster, and is now struggling to find accommodation for 158 families evacuated from the tower in the neighbourhood, with reports that some people were being offered unsuitable or distant housing. To local campaigners involved in Justice4Grenfell this is no surprise, “it’s been known for some time that the council has been bussing people out of this area. That’s been an issue for many, many years around here, and that’s one of the reasons that comments were made earlier in terms of the social cleansing of this area,” one of them said to The Guardian.
Today’s urban poor
The list of the dead and missing is a snapshot of London’s contemporary poor, where wealth disadvantage intersects race, migration, gender and education. Diversity in terms of ethnicity and passports held is clearly a feature of the population of Grenfell, but it can be also a misleading one if taken alone. There are plenty of other areas in London and in the Kensington and Chelsea borough that will score similarly on a generic diversity index based on these two criteria alone, but they didn’t live in Grenfell Tower. We need to look closer and account from other social cleavages that taken together may help us to understand the specific milieu in which Grenfell Tower tragedy came to be.
In the list of residents there are many who were born abroad, they are migrants but this doesn’t go far enough as an explanation either, a few miles away most of the Shard is owned by foreign investors and partially occupied by rich foreigners. Among those in Grenfell, some lived in the tower for years, assisted by the local council and somehow stayed in there, and others just transited through it like Gloria Trevisan, the young Italian architect who had recently moved to London who probably saw the tower as a springboard and valued the advantage of the extremely central location and breath-taking views of the rest of the city. The list also included several second generation BME, sometimes the son and daughters of the old migrants above. Let’s be clear we are talking of visible ethnic minorities, the apparently value-neutral acronym BME is a post holder for the legacy of the Empire and the racial hierarchy embedded in it. The list is made also by elderly on barely enough state pensions, various working poor and people on the dole – all of whom includes various skin gradations and passports.
The resident list also include some people who in theory were not meant to be there, temporary occupiers or sub-renters, among them people with no or precarious legal status. Among them some survived but their voices and pain were hardly heard, only the mobilisation of others has given them the right to the city: to be heard, to be assisted and to be accommodated. The Home Office acknowledged their presence by announcing a 12-month immigration amnesty for survivors. In practice, it means that the Home Office will not conduct checks on residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk or those coming forward to provide information to help the authorities in their inquiries. For Labour shadow minister Diane Abbott this is a positive development but with important caveats: “Without an immigration amnesty there may well be people we never know about, and too many people who need help who will not receive it, […] But this does not go far enough to ensure the confidence of those affected. Why would they volunteer their details knowing that in just 12 months they could face deportation?”
The recent precedent of Donald Trump’s administration retaliating against undocumented young migrants (DACA) who had benefitted from Obama’s suspension of deportation orders is a warning on the use of identity data collected ‘in good faith’ by the authority.
Not a twin tower
Boris Johnson as mayor of London transformed the skyline of the city. Ultra-sleek skyscrapers have surrounded Saint Paul’s cathedral, in the very place where the great fire of London took place in 1666. Modern building technologies are safe and fire resistant, we no longer need to fear fire, we are told. And yet many of the buildings, testament to Mr Johnson’s alpha male aspirations, are left half empty, as no one can afford to live there: they are offshore bank accounts for the global rich. A few miles away from the Shard, there was a tower, people were crammed into tiny apartments. Apparently just over £5k would have saved the lives of some of the residents caught in the fire. Apparently £5k is what it would have cost if the external cladding was done with a fire resistant material instead of one known to be flammable. You may pay £5k for a night in a suite in the Shard.
It is nonsense to blame high-rise towers; ‘let’s not build any more apartment blocks’ one liberal commentator came out with. Nonsense. Manhattan is a long procession of tall, much taller than the Grenfell Tower: apartment blocks, Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore, Rome have thousands of towers. It is not the tower form to blame, but how you build it. What materials you use, how much care you take in planning fire exits, how many persons per square metre you allow, how adequate and well-resourced your firefighters are. Each of these issues requires a decision to be taken, and every decision about money and resources is inherently political.
No doubt attempts will be made to whitewash the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Theresa May’s new chief of staff Gavin Barwell reportedly ‘sat on’ a report as housing minister warning that tower blocks such as Grenfell Tower were vulnerable to deadly fires. They will tell the residents to let it go. They will try to disperse them across London so that connections are broken and collective outrage is watered down. Grenfell Tower residents have the right to the city, to stay in their borough, to rebuild their life, to have their many questions answered.
Nando Sigona is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Institute of Research into Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham. His book, Within and Beyond Citizenship: Borders, Membership and Belonging (co-edited with Roberto G. Gonzales) was published in BSA Sociological Futures series by Routledge in July 2017. @nandosigona