A Black fire: Grenfell and racism’s impact on community tragedy

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More than three years after the Grenfell fire, there’s still no justice for the 72 people killed. For the Black community, this falls in a long history of neglect by the government.

The murder of George Floyd and the global #BlackLivesMatter protests awakened a rage within society. Just like Breonna Taylor’s killers, the companies who made, and saved money off tragedy at Grenfell Tower, (see: Artelia UK, Max Fordham, KCTMO, Studio E, Harley Curtain Wall and many others) remain free while survivors deal with the loss of their loved ones.

It would be a comfort to know something like Grenfell will never happen again but an estimated 500,000 people are still living in buildings wrapped in flammable cladding. With little to no change, a complete disregard for accountability and the compensation deserved, I have to ask – is this a Black thing?  

Grenfell was populated with working class BAME citizens, and this was neither coincidental nor random. At least 34 of the Grenfell victims were from African, Middle Eastern or Asian backgrounds. Yet, during the inquiries, discussion on race was isolated and ignored. In a year society has been called to acknowledge racism and prejudices like never before, the way that the tragedy at Grenfell has been handled has, understandably, been called into question.

The day immediately after the fire, a public inquiry was ordered. This phase inspected and analysed the ‘how’ – what was actually done to stop the fire in the immediate. The hearing which heard from survivors ended in 2018 and in 2019 the first inquiries published a report written by Sir Martin Moore-Bick which made recommendations for the government.

In 2020, we had Phase 2, which questioned the ‘why’. This included examining the materials used for refurbishment, and looking at the cladding testing amongst other things. Two companies, Studio E & Exova, gave evidence before the hearing was paused due to Covid. Seven families, three years on, are still held up in temporary housing, even though the Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, promised re-housing within 3 weeks. The government’s deadline to remove all combustible cladding from all tower blocks in London was not met. There are still 23,000 buildings in the UK covered in the stuff.

To date, there have been no arrests and according to police, there will be no charges until 2021 at least. Frustrated survivors are met with lack of reassurance and this, in turn, has made the BAME community feel left behind, slighted and ultimately ignored. 

It was never just a tower block. The tale of Grenfell is a contemporary horror story. 72 tenants died and another 70 were injured. Some victims burnt alive in their own homes, while others screamed for help, and others were so desperate they jumped from the fifteenth floor. The cheap cladding that burned exposed the history of UK’s racist practices and, by the time the fire had been extinguished, everyone the world over was reminded of who the privileged really are. 

The psychological trauma alone has affected thousands (including the 223 who escaped that night). There have been protests, vigils, fundraisers, social media pages flooded with dedications and support, but still no justice. The onus has fallen on the community to fight for change as nowhere near enough has been done by the people in power.

Built in 1974, with 24 floors, Grenfell tower was viewed as an emblem of modern architecture. Developed in London’s elite North Kensington it was built in what was known as the Brutalist style (showcasing bare building materials). It was renovated in 2016 with cheaper, aluminium composite cladding which was added to look pretty to please the surrounding wealthy residents, a decision that led to the seventy-two deaths on that fateful day in June 2017.

I’m aware of how political council estates are; their very designs intended to hold people back. Just take a look at their ‘ugly’ designs; barbed wire, stacked flats and drab colours. Having lived in an estate myself, I’m aware of the sheer panic a community issue can have on the morale of its tenants. Local robberies, ambulance calls, police raids, fires – it all eats away at you because no one looks out for council tenants wellbeing; they only look out for each other. 

Here, it’s a double-sided coin, as the war on immigration is also against council estates, viewing them as a place which houses immigrants, as the UK tolerates the working class other, while the rich make decisions for the poor. Stormzy said it best at his 2018 Brit Award performance. ‘‘Yo, Theresa May. Where’s the money for Grenfell? What, you thought we just forgot about Grenfell? You criminals. And you got the cheek to call us savages?’’  

Grenfell is the effect of poorly maintained social housing and our government has sadly made it clear that to them, Black and minority lives are disposable. This disaster is a culmination of years of neglect and cuts made by the Tories and systemic failures by the government which continue to miss the opportunity to do better. 

There are many things in which the government was directly responsible for in relation to the fire. Kensington and Chelsea Council hold a £274 million reserve, and yet Grenfell’s sprinkler system would have cost them £200,000. Two years before the fire, residents complained to government ministers about fire regulations and were ignored. Even after the Shirley Towers and Lakanal House fires in 2010 and 2013 respectively, coroners pushed for sprinkler systems in high rise buildings, and the Tory government then placed that responsibility on the fire industry.

The coronavirus pandemic has only magnified similar systems of discrimination too, with BAME Britons four times more likely to die than white people. In fact, it’s become known during the pandemic that ethnic minorities in the UK are overexposed to the virus and even racism is being identified as a contributing factor to increased deaths. 

The pandemic also only caused further fear of loss, and of life for people who are still experiencing great suffering, and who have not yet been given the opportunity to begin healing. Throughout the community, Grenfell survivors have been made to suffer psychologically, emotionally, physically, and financially. Hundreds of children were treated for trauma, many still traumatised, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others dealt with what was known as the ‘‘Grenfell Cough’’, hawking up pollutants released after the fire. 

Kensington and Chelsea council paid £2.5million towards support for survivors. A £50 million five-year screening programme has been set up to examine the fire’s long term effects. However, there have long been reports that the bereaved are apparently not receiving the consistent support and monitoring they need and deserve from the council. Beyond the financial, physical and political support required, we can’t overlook the emotional and mental health strain that rehousing, job hunting, finding schooling and living in temporary situations will have. The pain of these victims is felt and reverberates throughout a community who refuses to forget. 

Psychiatry NHS Trainee, Dr Abiha Bhatti (MBBS BSc) has considered race in relation to trauma in her training. ‘‘A large proportion of the Grenfell community is from a BAME background,” she explains. “Amongst the many socio-economic and health inequalities experienced by BAME individuals due to the inherent and systemic biases that still exist within our systems, one of the most pertinent is that of access to, and experience of, mental health care for BAME individuals. The psychological impact of a disaster such as the Grenfell fire comes as much from experiencing the event, and the traumatic aftermath of it.’’

British, Nigerian novelist and Head of Editorial at Black Ballad, Jendella Benson often writes about race in relation to identity. She feels Grenfell was further confirmation of what the Black community already knew. ‘‘I think it really does something to the psyche to be shown time and again, how much your government doesn’t care about your community. 

“It feels like there is nothing close to justice on the horizon and the current inquiry feels like a never-ending circus, so I think many of us feel we have to check out for our own emotional wellbeing and focus our efforts on other things we can do for our communities, otherwise, the powerlessness that you feel will eat you alive.’’

Racism and classism, I believe, is what killed the oppressed and marginalised residents of Grenfell tower. The lack of accountability and compensation has deeply affected the Black community in London. In July, a formal submission was made to the inquiry panel to consider the impact of institutionalised racism in relation to neglect in this case. The fact that these deaths could have been avoided is so deeply tragic because it reminds the community that they indeed have no voice. Even though there were emails about whether or not the chosen cladding could resist a fire before it was used on the tower, the warnings were ignored by the lead fire consultant of Exova who did not look at a detailed illustration of the cladding system, simply because he was not the ‘primary recipient.’

The Grenfell tragedy shows that some lives are more valued than others in this country. It’s even been confirmed that any oral evidence given by witnesses to the inquiry, will not be used to prosecute. It’s mind-boggling to think that there were no sprinkler systems and only one escape route. No wonder gross negligence and manslaughter sentences are being considered. 

Though the world is overwhelmed by various troubles and traumas at the moment, the lack of adequate coverage on Grenfell today and the way the blame still shifts from here to there without resolution isn’t good enough. It’s an ongoing reflection of the lack of value placed on the victims and their plight. If there is no respect for their woes, they will continue to struggle to find peace yet. Sadly, the question, three years after the fire, is still the same - when will something be done?

Please show your support to Grenfell Tower and its survivors by writing to your MP to demand that the government do what they promised to do. More information can be found on the Support Grenfell website.

Images: Getty

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