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.