Three years after the devastating fire in the West London tower block, the public inquiry is being sabotaged by those who are most responsible for the disaster, writes Moyra Samuels
“Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Fredrick Douglass, 1857
The Grenfell Tower fire (GTF) was a result of a collection of decisions made by individuals in organisations, which in themselves were not acts of personal violence but together led to the terrible loss of at least 72 lives in the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017. It symbolised a more insidious form of violence made possible by the combined institutional and individual failure of the political establishment to take seriously the precarious nature of living conditions in high rise blocks.
The fire exposed what Lowkey so aptly recognises in his song Ghosts of Grenfell, “when invisible violence becomes visible”. Grenfell exposed the deep seated inequalities in the society we live in, shining a light on the capitalist system where profit-driven cost cutting invades every aspect of our lives for which 72 of our neighbours, friends and loved ones paid with their lives.
Three years on, the bereaved families, survivors and the community remembered and celebrated the lives of those lost as the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe and global Black Lives Matter movement takes to the streets. The cry on those demonstrations of “I can’t breathe” has an eerie resonance for what happened at Grenfell.
Meanwhile, lockdown and quarantine has taken its toll on the survivors and bereaved who continue to struggle with grief and trauma in social isolation. It has been a strain to substitute the monthly and annual silent marches we have been holding since the fire, with virtual ceremonies. It was this collective connection that kept us fuelled in our fight for justice.
Over 12,000 people attended the second anniversary Silent Walk in 2019 as well as 2,000 people at the Solidarity March in central London.
On 27 January 2020, Phase 2 of the Public Inquiry into the fire resumed, after a wait of nine months for the findings of Phase 1. To date very few of the recommendations from the report have been implemented and there is clearly little political will to do so. Phase 2 will focus on decisions which led to the fire and the responses to the aftermath.
The key demands of all local campaigns for justice for Grenfell are: Truth, Accountability, Justice = change. Phase 2 will provide for the survivors the truth of why the fire happened.
In the days before this process began astonishingly Grenfell United, a group representing survivors and bereaved families, had to challenge the appointment of Benita Mehra, a panellist, on the grounds that she had a conflict of interest. She had previously received funding from Arconic, the company who supplied the cladding for the exterior of Grenfell Tower. Why this was left to Grenfell United to raise rather than the Public Inquiry itself is a question that needs answering.
By day two of the second phase the various companies involved were working hard to pass the buck. The facade contractor, Harley, said the insulation and cladding were selected by the architect Studio E and the landlord. Studio E said another consultant selected the insulation and Harley had design responsibility for the facade.
Exova, the fire engineer, said it was not given details of the proposed cladding system and Rydon, the main contractor, said Harley was contracted to design the facade. It was also revealed that Arconic, the maker of the cladding, knew full well the panels were unsuitable as it was below safety standards. This mixture of involvements and the lack of anyone taking responsibility it facilitates is an apt illustration of the nature of neoliberal capitalism in action. We remember the names of those who perished, and we must also remember the names of those organisations who by their indifference and pursuit of profit were responsible for social murder.
Three days into the Inquiry the various companies involved demanded: “Privilege against self-incrimination”, which protects a person from being required to answer questions “if to do so truthfully might expose him or her to a risk of prosecution”. This has been granted by the attorney general so the prospect of criminal conviction is fast disappearing. There is a strong feeling that those most responsible for the fire at Grenfell Tower are not only trying to dictate the terms of the Inquiry but to sabotage it.
When PI resumes on 6 July there is a demand that institutional racism is investigated by including it in the terms of reference of the Inquiry. If this were to be granted it would be a small victory for a community in limbo.
If our community and indeed the country wants justice and the change to ensure Grenfell never happens again, it is down to us. We will have to take our lead from the inspiring BLM protests and call on the trade unions and supporters across the country to join us, on the streets, outside the PI, and by any means necessary demand justice for Grenfell.