With expert testimony for the Grenfell Tower fire investigation taking place on Monday, survivors of the most devastating blaze in London, still seek justice.
Fewer shrines than last year line Bramley Road not far from the Latimer Tube station in London. Dedicated to people killed in the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017, the presence of grieving families permeate ad hoc altars decorated with items to honor the dead. From photographs to stuffed animals, the sites commemorate those who died in the early morning tragedy.
Recounting the incident, Hisam Choucair said in an interview with The Independent UK:
“In one night I lost half my family, I feel like a stranger now. I feel like part of me has been taken away from me.”
“When I go past the tower I have flashbacks. I know they are just pictures in my heads, but I can see people in those windows, dying, trying to get out.”
A mammoth eyesore in the London skyline for months, now Grenfell Tower is wrapped in white scaffolding that resembles a burned corpse enshrined in gauze. While plans to turn the torched edifice into a memorial are underway, there are more serious issues the country must tackle.
Ceremonies of bereaved families along with those left without a home, show the government’s response to relocation remains an issue. As reported by the Guardian and New York Times, nearly 100 households of the 203 displaced lived in temporary housing as of March of this year, but accepted permanent housing by June.
Added to the angst of those impacted, they doubt that anyone will be held accountable. Ongoing official investigations of the incident discovered major issues: firefighting protocol of “stay put” and delayed responses by emergency workers placed many in danger and caused fatalities.
Another more glaring issue is the widening gap between the wealthy and lower economic brackets, in which former residents emphasize that tenants’ lives were placed over profit.
In fury, MP David Lammy said right after the fire last year, “It is the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way, and we should call it what it is. It’s corporate manslaughter, that is what it is, and there should be arrests made frankly.”
While residents and some British call for arrests, the strong right-wing Administration continues to introduce policy aligning with Brexit ideologies. Their efforts direct impact enfranchising efforts of Black and Brown Brits, the poor and immigrants.
Cost Over Safety
Built in 1972, Grenfell underwent refurbishing efforts from 2012 to 2016. Renovations occurred after a plethora of complaints by residents of government housing —including Grenfell— charged that the buildings were unsafe.
According to German standards, some of the construction materials were highly flammable. In the US, the cladding used in the Grenfell refurbishment are banned in buildings 40 feet and higher. In the findings, the investigation unveiled that the materials used for the Grenfell Towers were cheap, placing cost over safety.
More so, leading up to the fire, multiple complaints of building compliance and safety lodged against the tenants’ management office were met with threatening letters of legal action.
After the fire, UK authorities report 71 deaths ranging from infants to elders from a blaze that started in the kitchen of a fourth floor flat in the 24-story high rise. Believed to be a faulty refrigerator that caused the initial flames, the fire spread quickly within hours.
According to Mohamed Sufi, a resident of an identical tower on the other side of Bramley Road said that most residents of Grenfell, a number of flats housed other family members or fellow immigrants who were not enlisted as occupants. “Dozens died in one flat. You never heard of them,” said Sufi who believed that authorities under-reported casualties.
Under the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, funding towards government subsidized housing has been drastically cut while housing prices increase sharply. Like many other buildings funded under social-housing, a new facade was a major part of construction updates, while regulators overlooked other important repairs such as working fire escapes, fire alarms and sprinkler systems.
Grenfell sits in the Kensington and Chelsea borough. On one side of the North Kensington community are well manicured semi-attached homes sitting along clean roads. When you cross a major thoroughfare, the housing turns into modest-looking flats and terraces with storefronts in need of renovation that are clumsily propped on uneven streets. The hue of the people change, too.
Sufi, who stood on Kensington watching Grenfell burn said that most residents in the building were Muslim, immigrant, working class, Black and Arab people; though there were white migrants residing there too. “The fire happened during Ramadan so many of the adults in the Muslim families left their flats for the first prayer,” said Sufi. “By the time they came back, the building was on fire.”
Since the tragedy, citizens engage in heightened conversations around social and economic inequities in the United Kingdom. In midst of the UK’s Brexit and austerity measures, people of color who are working class or immigrants face severe challenges, mainly their exclusion from full participation as citizens.
Over the past several months, the country is embroiled in the Windrush Scandal, a controversial policy by the Cameron Administration to deport or detain and deny pensions to immigrants born in the British Commonwealth who immigrated to the UK during WWII.
At a recent meeting between Grenfell survivors and parliamentarian John Bercow, he encouraged them to keep seeking truth. In the hostile UK climate, they wonder if the truth will set them free.
Lead photo: London, United Kingdom. 16 June, 2018. People gather outside London’s Downing Street and march through Westminster in solidarity, two days after the one year anniversary of the Grenfell fire on June 16, 2018. Survivors of London’s Grenfell Tower fire disaster joined relatives of the dead on June 14, in poignant tributes to the 71 killed in the residential block inferno one year ago. Photo Credit: CrowdSpark/Alamy Live News