Gaming the System: Imagining JUSTICE4GRENFELL



Reflecting on the Justice4Grenfell movement, returning contributor Colin Prescod throws away the concept of vertical reparations altogether, and sketches a canvas for more radical demands aligned with the tradition of popular political organizing, going as far as the idea of a People’s tribunal.

In the first days of the great viral pandemic: panic, pandemonium. Everything was panned: plague infested plunder. In the next days: communal isms excoriated those of capital. All in it together lip-service came easy in the crisis; help, a two-faced fork-tongued exchange. If only fresh starts and revelations came as easy as down-under eucalypts spring back to bush, in the wake of forests fired. If only apocalypse augured redemption. 

[COVID19 – AD2020. CP]


The State of Play ///

It’s a serious game, playing the system — an essential skill in class struggles. Black and Third World people, the dispossessed as well as the collaborators, have a particularly rich history of gaming imperialist systems — slave, indenture, colonial, capitalist. The record shows that games can be fixed. The powers that be determine the rules as to who speaks and who listens in courts of law; who gets to govern and who gets to make the big decisions on matters of national interest.

It has long been recognized that the U.K. Government’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry [announced a year after the calamitous fire at Grenfell residential tower, on June 14, 2017] would deliver neither complete nor timely justice for its victims. Justice for the 72 people officially acknowledged to have been killed, and the hundreds displaced and traumatised in the wake of the fire, has been thought of in terms of compensation for those who have suffered, and punishment of those who could be identified as responsible. Easy to see that there would have been any number of legal, professional, statutory, and possibly political perpetrators of wilful, neglectful, or, accidental crimes and other wrongful acts in regard to the unprecedented disaster. But even as the appointed Chair of the Public Inquiry, judge the Rt Hon Sir Martin Moore-Bick, announced the protocols for the hearings, it became clear that some wrongful actions would fall outside both its jurisdiction and its consideration. Police inquiries were to handle legally admissible crimes — against the person, against property, against the law. Human Rights commissions would handle/investigate/discuss wrongful, though not criminal, actions in regard to the people and statutory responsibility — rights to life and equality, for the vulnerable, women, children, the disabled. And, in this instance, it seems to be left to “the court of public opinion” to ‘air’ the unmentionables — crimes against the people, class crimes, crimes of the powerful. 

At its inception, the State declared that the Public Inquiry would look at the circumstances surrounding the fire; leaving the criminal investigation to a proposed Police Inquiry. Gradually it emerged that any Police Inquiry would have to wait for the Public Inquiry to report before it could be convened. Eventually the Public Inquiry opened, uncertainly, with caveats, already mentioned.

After one year’s hearings, the Public Inquiry reported in October 2019 — but only in part. Phase One investigated the events of the actual fire. Phase Two is planned to examine the history of the building — its original construction and related building regulations, subsequent refurbishments, and any role these may have played in regard to the circumstances of the fire.

In January 2020, the Public Inquiry set out to complete its Phase Two business — in effect to investigate who and what is to blame for the disaster. But within just a few weeks the Phase Two proceedings stalled — over protocols. Astonishingly, a challenge by the lawyers representing the building and construction professionals reporting to the Inquiry requested that any truths told to the Inquiry would not be admissible as evidence, in the event of criminal proceedings. Even more remarkably, they have now been given this assurance.

Prescod The Funambulist (2)
Grenfell Tower on July 9, 2019. / Photo by Jessica Girvan.

Since March 2020, COVID19 lockdown has led to suspension of the Inquiry — until July 2020, or later. The management of the viral pandemic has stalled many things.

Reparations may not be Good Enough ///

It is arguable that the Justice4Grenfell campaign would do better to focus on “wrongful acts” than ‘crimes’ as such. A focus on “crimes,” although sounding the promise of punishing wrong doers, directs and subordinates everything to the judicial system. But a focus on crimes excludes key concerns — “crimes against humanity.” There is no court of inquiry for deeply disturbing, wrongful and wicked acts by the authorities, against the people — no court for crimes of contempt, crimes of disdain, crimes of disregard. 

Things have changed over the three years since the Grenfell fire. Much has been exposed about the culpability of the local state, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and its appointed agents and agencies, who managed the original build and subsequent maintenance, as well as the redesign of the residential tower block. The public’s eyes have been opened to the extraordinary degree of disregard and contempt displayed by these authorities towards the residents and neighbors of Grenfell Tower over many years, in regard to repeated requests and complaints specifically about the health and safety of its residents. The paper-trail submitted by heroic and meticulously disciplined community activists, in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire, has exposed undeniably high-handed dismissal of the people’s voices, time after time after time. It should be said that the Inquiry’s Phase One report has delivered, perhaps surprisingly, forthright comment on, legal irresponsibility, professional misconduct, statutory contempt, political injustice, and institutional socio-economic violations — all uncovered in the evidence gathered in its first year’s investigation. Although the report does not pronounce judgement, nor suggest imposing any sanctions. In truth it is hard to fathom the actual powers of the Public Inquiry. The Phase One report included a hard recommendation to the effect that legislation related to construction and building regulations should be changed immediately. But there has been no evidence of immediate State response.

On the back of all that has been exposed, the advent of the 2019-2020 COVID19 pandemic has been a game changer. Some suggest that globally the re-start after COVID lockdown presents an exhilarating opportunity to re-configure the entire world system. In the midst of all this, the Justice4Grenfell situation has shifted — the goal posts moved by the Public Inquiry; the ball now kicked into the long grass as a consequence of the plague. Arguably, up till now the Justice4Grenfell campaign has been heroically whistling in the wind, and at the same time, pushing the metaphor, wishing for fair wind — hoping to obtain some kind of justice, granted by the very authorities that have systematically overseen and indeed overlooked contemptuous dismissal of Grenfell residents’ protests and demands throughout the years that preceded the tragic fire. And now the coming of the plague threatens to take the wind out of our sails entirely. Even the much-celebrated, monthly community “silent march” with banners that proclaimed the message “always in our hearts,” has been stymied by the “stay at home” lockdown imperative in the face of the COVID menace. We will need not just to restart, but to reconfigure our campaign; not just to be given a voice, but to have power in our gift.

Prescod The Funambulist (1)
Justice4Grenfell mural in North Kensington, London. / Photo by Duncan C. (2017).

Time to reconsider our situation, our strategy, our demands, our objective, in regard to what Justice4Grenfell would look and feel like. Time to sophisticate our campaign. At the start, before being drawn, understandably, into the state’s Inquiry, we had righteous rage and clinical clarity — count the dead, rehouse the unhoused, comfort the grieving, support the traumatized, compensate those who had lost everything, identify and punish those responsible for overseeing/managing the historical slide to disaster. Even as the statutory authorities were charged with their duty to respond to the people’s legitimate demands and to satisfy the people’s immediate needs, multiple schemes for establishing a different kind of forum — not only looking into the circumstances that overdetermined the coming of the fire, but also exploring what is to be done by way of proposing structures and processes that would ensure better, more accountable systems of government.

Some imagined a People’s Tribunal — looking into the forces that had overseen the slow drift to disaster; looking into the state and its apparatuses; looking to propose new local-government structures and processes; serviced and supported by the very same volunteer army of legal and other intellectual supports that came to join the Justice4Grenfell campaign. It would address the tragedy of the fire primarily, but also wider matters of justice and lawful entitlements —matters of crime, punishment and reparation, as well as, matters of radical change to how local democracy works. It would involve determined, disciplined, and prolonged communal effort. 

At the head of the agenda for any such people’s forum’s investigations would be human rights violations in the everyday practices/functioning of the existing State — looking at instances of neglect, contempt, failure, repression, injustice, and criminalisation. At the heart of the agenda would be commitment to confront socio-economic injustice; poverty and impoverishment — more plainly, to address class oppression, racism, state abandonment, state failure, systematic managed decline of living conditions, marginalization of the voices of youth as well as elders; to collect and pay heed to the testimonies of the voices of the marginalised; to put people-values above property-values. A People’s Tribunal would address lived frontline issues, giving privileged platforms to justice campaigns, local and national; curating grounded, imaginative, and engaging conversations in the community; encouraging and supporting thinking in order to challenge and change; monitoring and challenging the unsatisfactory workings of the judicial process and related police and prison practices. A People’s Tribunal would also include a commitment to commemorate, memorialize, record and archive significant and historic community change action — as a learning and educational tool, informing and shaping a new political culture. A People’s Tribunal would also have to find ways to engage with uncomfortably tough community contradictions; legacies of brutal political, economic, and social histories — the violence of the violated, the madness of the destabilized. 

Prescod The Funambulist (3)
Grenfell project-work at Queen Mary University of London in April 2018. / Photo by Colin Prescod.

Because trust in “the establishment” has been severely shaken, the ambition of justice campaigns like Grenfell’s needs must move beyond playing the system. We the people need to re-imagine the workings of the State — to re-imagine the power relations that define the political process; to re-imagine a political process without institutionalised injustices; to re-imagine democracy; to build a refreshed, militant, political culture; to nurture communities of resistance; to mobilise campaigns of change-action. “Every cook can govern,” ventured the great socialist historian C. L. R. James. We the people, reparations beggars until now, need to become radical alternative choosers from now on. ■