Grenfell Tower: What Happens When the State Goes Missing



On the evening of June 14, 2018, several thousand people took part in a silent walk through the streets of the West London neighborhood of North Kensington — halting all motorized traffic in the main roads of the district. It was the anniversary of the disaster of the Grenfell residential tower block fire in which at least 72 people were killed — the largest and most deadly tower-block fire in London’s history. On-going investigations as to how and why the fire occurred have already uncovered a veritable scandal of state neglect and non-accountability.

There is something specially poignant about a huge flow of people deliberately observing the strict discipline of speaking nothing to each other over an hour or more, in order to concentrate on the matter that has brought them together — greeting each other with nods, or raised eyebrows; sad/glad-facing in recognition of their togetherness. The banners and placards they carry send out messages of hope and announce destinations of travel — the most insistent, “Justice 4 Grenfell” and, the invocation of COMMUNITY turned into the telling graphic imaginary “COME-UNITY.” The climax of the walk is marked by an instruction to “meet your neighbor,” to acknowledge any and every person next to you — and we all do that, breaking the silence. We greet, shake hands, embrace each other in a profound collective gesture. This silent walk has been observed on the 14th evening of each month since the mid-June fire of 2017.

There is always a social archaeology to our lived and living spaces. I’ve lived in North Kensington, Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill since the summer of 1958. The place had a colorful history before I arrived there to join my mother — both originally from the Caribbean. The house in the residential streets in which I still live were first constructed in the 1880s. This would then have been a neighborhood consisting of a mix of new white-collar, City of London, middle class professionals, as well as the serving and servicing working class and laboring poor. By the period of the 1930s to 1950s, according to newspaper accounts, much of the neighborhood had become dilapidated and “lawless.” And later still, in the 1950s to 1970s, parts of the area had come to be seen as a poor Black “ghetto,” populated in the main by pockets of new migrant-settlers from Britain’s Caribbean island colonies. They had come as “cheap labor” to assist in the post-WWII recovery of the mother country of the British Empire.

In the summer of 1958 this North Kensington area was the site of the so-called “Notting Hill race riots” — a history-marking event for the neighborhood as well as for the United Kingdom. Those “riots,” initiated by fascist agitation of White working class residents, stopped when the newly arrived Black migrant-settlers organized themselves to fight back, which pushed the police authorities to sluggishly intervene to clear the streets. But some months after the high point of those riots, in the following year, 1959, a Black man, Kelso Cochrane, was murdered here in a street knifing attack by a lynch mob. No one was ever arrested, and no one was ever charged for the crime. Thousands of locals, Black and White, attended the murdered man’s funeral parade. The impulse to start the Caribbean Carnival, which now annually attracts up to two million people over two days, advertised as the largest “street festival” in Europe, came out of the whole community’s “no nonsense,” “never again,” “not here” response to the killing of Kelso. And, at the heart of the Carnival, still, is a lasting spirit of conviviality, a statement of resistance against discrimination and injustice, a conscious legacy. Ironically, over the years, that lasting community’s “vibe” forged by neighborhood residents became a magnet for even newer layers of more prosperous incomers. These days, early 21st century North Kensington is thoroughly re-gentrified with the Carnival, its history hidden, as a contentious once a year phenomenon in its midst.

And now, a new history making and memory marking incident has occurred — the Grenfell tower horror of June 2017. How is the community to heal itself in the wake? If the Carnival marks a point of memory of the disquieting 1958 “race riots,” how will we mark the memory of the horror and the crimes of the powerful as exposed in the Grenfell tower disaster? And what would “Justice for Grenfell” be, look, and feel like? The Carnival can be viewed as a people’s occupation of the streets; a “temporary autonomous zone”; a ritual site of struggle. Uncannily, the Grenfell silent walks which, once a month, take to and take over the streets of north Kensington, seem to be in step with this tradition — just so the now bedding in occupation of a number of public spaces in the neighborhood.

The Grenfell residential tower disaster opens broader questions about the architecture of our lives — questions beyond matters of “social housing”; questions spatial and historical, about the built environment; questions convivial, about community narratives; questions about the design and designers of social experiences in urban living spaces; questions about the state’s accountability to the masses, the non-elites. We inherit the living spaces that we find ourselves in — homes and public spaces. But we also participate in making the experiences that we have in our urban living spaces — how we live, and what we put up with. We are complicit as architects of our spatial-social experiences. And the lesson of Grenfell has to do with what happens when the state does not serve us well; when it goes missing in the negotiation of our experiences and life chances in mass society. For the residents of Grenfell’s immediate neighborhood and the wider West London community, no gratuitous witticism intended, the burning question has become — how do we take hold of the governance, local and central, of our lives, when there is no trust in the agents and agencies of our state; how do we obtain or take back control of the state of our lives?

Back in July 2017, just weeks after the Grenfell fire, in a small commentary piece produced with community-activist Daniel Renwick, “Fighting Fire” (Institute of Race Relations, August 3, 2017) we wrote, “To date, the best the government has offered is temporary accommodation and a year’s amnesty for those paperless, traumatised and homeless, which amounts to little more than a stay of execution. Executive powers proposed an emergency local state administration after RBK&C’s unmitigated failure. Promised are a Government Review, a Public Inquiry, and a Criminal Investigation of Grenfell.” Today, a year on since that commentary piece, there are still displaced people awaiting settled arrangements, the various state investigations are still to deliver reports and actions, and even more inquiries and investigations, statutory and independent, have been initiated.

The central state’s plan was to return the management of the Grenfell tower (burnt-out and covered in thick plastic, decorated with a large green heart shape, and the words “In Our Hearts, Forever”) to the control of the local state, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBK&C), in spite of the fact that the RBK&C is formally under investigation for corporate manslaughter. And there are more skeletons in the RBK&C’s closet, beyond Grenfell. However, just this month, July 2018, the office of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been people-pressured into making a significant U-turn. It will now keep control of the site pending the setting up of a process that will transfer all decision making power about the site to the community. The penny appears to have dropped. And perhaps the tide is turning. Nonetheless there is an unavoidable loss of innocence in regard to the limitations and the hollow promises of the establishment. For all their engagement with the processes of investigation and compensation, the people demanding justice for Grenfell continue to dream of stopping the nightmare of dependence on the very systems that have betrayed, insulted, disregarded, fooled, marginalized, and disappointed them to date. Their search is still on to find ways to control their own community messages, and to cohere around the authority of their experience.

Resistance has a time lag. Making and re-making community is always a matter of process. In the case of Grenfell, activism is multi-facetted. At the heart of the community’s fight-back are former Grenfell tower residents, obliged to deal with the statutory powers in the first instance, organizing themselves to deal with deaths and displacement, personal loss and grief, desperate need for the basics of life (food, shelter, clothing, social support, justice, financial compensation); and beyond all that, assured security and protection against further trauma. Then there are the nearest neighbors to Grenfell — close witnesses, displaced and seriously distressed in the wake of the disaster. Next, there are the local, perennial community rights campaigners — for years dismissed, humiliated and contemptuously marginalized by the state and its representatives, suffering a variety of violations of their right to participate in the management of their community. Next, there are the wider activist guardians of civil society who have been drawn to this resistance community — professionals (legal, welfare, academic), not all or always embraced by the very people they would wish to assist (and not without reason), until they prove their credentials and win trust. These different collectives of the fight-back process, group, name and re-name themselves: the “Grenfell Action Group”; the “Westway 23,” so called in relation to the historically contentious major fly-over road that courses through West London; the “Justice 4 Grenfell” campaign; the “Grenfell Unite” forum. This community of resistance is engaged in the process of building a refreshed political culture, organically, from the ground up. Through their actions the people are stutteringly but insistently raising new questions aimed at taking power back — so that they become their own architects.

Across Britain there are 470 high-rise residential blocks wrapped in Grenfell-tower style fire-hazard building materials. And just this month, August 2018, it has been reported that the UK’s “Equality and Human Rights Commission” has in effect accused the government of breaching fundamental obligations to protect its citizens’ right to life — in regard to Grenfell. The state, local and central, stands accused of not being fit for purpose in regard to all of these developments. “Watch this space” becomes a banner-call to build new sites of struggle.