Months on from the tower block fire that shook Britain, Socialist Review spoke to Justice4Grenfell activist Moyra Samuels about how the community is coping and what the campaign is planning.
Seven months after the fire what is the feeling within the community?
The raw emotional pain has subsided a little bit and has been replaced by this enormous anger because it’s become obvious that the council and the government can’t organise a piss up in a brewery.
There is also a palpable level of exhaustion and demoralisation. People thought the council and the state were going to act. Why are survivors still sharing beds with their children in hotels? Why is Theresa May refusing the core participants — the survivors — a community-led decision-making panel? It’s not even a precedent; it’s what happened in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and it’s what happened for the Hillsborough disaster.
So, of course, there is a level of demoralisation and for some a level of cynicism — that the public inquiry is going to be a cover-up and we’re not going to get anything. But as activists we need to guard against that demoralisation and continue to make demands. It’s been a very tough battle for everyone, which means a clear voice of where are we going for the future is really important.
There is also a feeling that it’s been the best of times and the worst of times. In the community we’ve had to really step up and people have found their voices. Working class people in council blocks that others thought amounted to nothing have demonstrated that they’ve got a huge range of skills, are creative, can put forward ways of organising and work bloody hard.
These volunteers from the community organised a Christmas party. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were two real life reindeers! They had presents piled up the wall. They got companies to donate and sat and wrapped almost 2,000 presents for all different ages. They had a Christmas grotto; they had funfair and arcade games — all sorts of amazing things.
How much is that a development from the struggle people have gone through together in the past few months and how much community organisation was there before the fire?
The fact that we have the Notting Hill Carnival every year means we are a community that knows how to organise. You can’t have 2 million people in your streets and not be organised. So we all have it in our DNA — what are we going to do at carnival? Who’s going to perform? We all police the streets ourselves because it’s our area. So that’s one part of it. I think some of it arose from the early weeks after the fire and it’s also because North Kensington is one of the poorest areas — if you look at local Labour MP Emma Dent Coad’s report on inequality — and with food banks, and so on, there’s already a lot of people supporting each other. There’s a really strong community spirit in North Kensington but people have demonstrated and developed amazing skills since the fire.
What is people’s attitude towards the local Tory council?
It was already pretty awful beforehand as it has been a Tory council for 44 years. The community had been fighting the council over “developments” for decades — the Westway23 campaign against the motorway; the Silchester campaign to stop the demolition of three tower blocks; campaigns over the library being leased to a prep school and the closure of the local college; the Grenfell Action Group.
The attitude of the councillors was summed up at one of the meetings where residents were expressing anger. This is how arrogant these pompous, over-privileged wastrels are: “The estate does not listen to the village.” The councillors literally used these words. We’ve thrown it back at them. We said, “The village is coming for you now.”
So the community has started to find its voice in the attitude towards the council and an enormous sense of anger has grown to incredible proportions. What we saw was institutional indifference. After the fire where were they? While people were sleeping in the park, where was the council? It became obvious that the council was ineffective, incompetent, lacking compassion, just not bloody fit for purpose.
What about the government?
The community has quickly realised that safety regulations go way beyond the council and up to central government, who’ve made decisions about deregulation, social housing and how housing is allocated and funded. Housing has become the major fight within our communities, even before Grenfell, and it has really accelerated people’s understanding of funding and legislation. When Theresa May came to the area straight after the fire, she had to be snuck in. Residents spotted her and started chanting things like, “You’re a paigon.” I was asking, “What the hell is a paigon?”
And even at the memorial service she had to come through a side door. I was there. Jeremy Corbyn came with Emma Dent Coad and Dianne Abbott straight down the middle of the aisle. Theresa May came through a side door with some media person. For half the service most of the survivors were scowling at Theresa May.
People’s eyes have been opened to the fact that central government is implicated in what happened, whether it be from private contracts, employing private developers to do work on social housing at low cost, not thinking about safety, or the cladding issue. It’s not just North Kensington and Grenfell that’s impacted; this is national.
How do people feel about the public inquiry, which was formally launched last October?
Huge cynicism. People don’t think it’s likely to deliver. Why would you want one person [retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick] alone on such an important issue, one person making all the decisions?
The one time in that memorial service when I cried was when the bereaved families walked down the aisle. They are predominantly black and minority ethnic, and you look at them and think, these communities again. As if we have not already faced Islamophobia, deaths in custody, racism in our workplace, in our allocation of housing. You need to have a panel looking into the fire that this community feels they can talk to, and will understand them. That’s not going to happen.
People are also concerned about the relationship between the police investigation and the inquiry, which are running parallel to each other. And they’re starting to wonder how long that investigation will take and whether it’s likely that the bar is going to be set too high in terms of the evidence needed to prosecute.
So there are doubts. But people want their day in court, they want their voices to be heard, and they want to be able to say, “We did tell you that there are problems with the block.” They want people to know there are families that have lost six people, whole families, and that’s unacceptable.
What have grassroots campaigns achieved so far?
Justice4Grenfell (J4G) has kept Grenfell out there in the media while the survivors have been dealing with the shock and pain. We’ve gathered solidarity and support, connected with other communities, educated people about what’s happened and the historical context. But we’ve also directed people to where they can get help and support. We’ve kept issues alive at public meetings, like mental health services; we’ve asked questions relating to the environment.
The wall of truth is quite interesting. It’s grown organically from the streets and it was a really important space through the summer for those from the tower who could not go into hotels, could not sleep, weren’t getting any mental health support and were just roaming the streets. It provided a space where people could just talk to each other about what they’d experienced, and they could put up questions; it’s taken on a number of different functions.
Then there is Latimer City, which used to be part of the college. Funding stopped and it shut down. Young people after the fire just took over the space. They painted it, floored it, set up a music studio, a dojo, meeting room, archive, and performance space. They’re running it themselves. It’s a really amazing space. I introduced the Fire Brigades Union to them to do a health and safety course and risk assessment.
There is a resident-led group called Angels for Grenfell which focuses on health and wellbeing.
How important has union support been?
The FBU was really key. The trauma that they experienced made a connection with the trauma that the community had experienced, and in terms of safety they had been warning about the issues. There is a huge amount of respect for our local fire service. We fought campaigns to keep all of their trucks when cutbacks were proposed. They are embedded in our community.
J4G asked all the unions for support. The FBU sent a representative to meet us and said give us a wish list of what you want. We said J4G needs an office, so they equipped it for us.
The PCS civil servants’ union printed banners for us. NEU [education union] has also given us support. The impact on schools and children in the area was huge, and the same cladding is on the local school, and on many others across the country.
The unions have got the power to make demands and the organisation to spread the campaign. We want the support of the unions because we know that things are often won through ordinary people, which is what union members are — ordinary people together demanding change.
Are there any other plans for the foreseeable future?
It’s really important that there is political leadership inside the community. The campaign doesn’t belong to one group, it belongs to the community. That includes the Labour Party, the Moroccan communities, women, mental health groups, housing groups, bereaved families and survivors; the campaign has the possibility if it can unite people to get behind some key demands for justice.
Obviously what the survivors want, what the bereaved families want, is different to what the wider community wants.
As cynical as we might be about the inquiry, we need a political involvement in it. And if it looks like it’s going to be a lost cause, we need to think as a campaign if there is some way of offering an alternative, like a people’s inquest.
We need to think what are our strategic political objectives? What does justice look like? That’s the key question that the community needs to think about. We can’t bring back those people who died, but we can leave a legacy so that this never happens again. And one aspect of that, aside from prosecutions, might be a change in the attitude to social housing, a change in policy nationally in regard to social housing.
As a society we seem to look at social housing as something that’s for the undeserving poor, when we should be seeing it as a way of enabling all of us to live in communities in a more equitable and diverse way. So that has to be what the legacy leaves behind.
Moyra is Co-coordinator of Justice4Grenfell: justice4grenfell.org
Yvette Williams, Justice4Grenfell co-coordinator
» On community feeling
Anger still remains, primarily as a result of the continued lack of response from statutory agencies — the NHS, the council and central government. Failure to meet deadlines, deliver on promises and a culture of “you need to come to us” and beg for entitlements. Lack of effective engagement with the community on what is needed.
» On the council
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has a history of treating its community badly. This culture has continued — they offer no solutions and have stuck rigidly to policies and procedures that are no longer fit for purpose. Institutional indifference.
» On the government
They are a mess. Their behaviour indicates that they want to play down the tragedy and move on quickly. What happened at Grenfell goes to the heart of central government — privatisation, austerity, cuts to public services, health and safety, and so on.
» On the public inquiry
It needs a rethink if it is going to be effective in any way. No confidence in its work due to lack of representation. It is likely to only benefit the government and perhaps the pockets of a few legals.
» On Justice4Grenfell
We kept what happened in the international public domain, continued to raise issues, raised the importance of unity. We have formed broad links, for example, with trade unions. It is important to build a coalition — no man is an island. Unions are for working people who are also impacted by many of the issues; together we are stronger.
» On future plans
We must ensure that issues related to Grenfell form a major part of influencing votes at the local elections in May. We should also look more closely at the human rights and inequality issues arising out of Grenfell and support calls for changes around social housing.