There is something significantly different to record a conversation about the politics of a given neighborhood in the calm of an office or in the neighborhood itself — even if the sock Léopold added to his microphone ultimately proves not to be the most efficient windbreak! We begin this important conversation with Colin Prescod in front of Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, two and a half years after the massive fire that killed 72 residents (predominantly members of the racialized working class) and displaced hundreds on June 14, 2017. Although the source of the fire was accidental, its propagation to the whole building reveals the structural neoliberal and racist violence of housing management in the U.K.. Colin replaces the spatial and historical context of the fire through what he was able to himself witness and contribute to from the Notting Hill 1958 so-called “race riot” to today’s violent gentrification. He also gives us keys to question what justice for Grenfell could “look like” for the former tenants of the tower, as well as for North Kensington residents, beyond the framework of the state’s judicial system.
Colin Prescod has lived at the same address in West London, a stone’s throw away from the site of the 2017 Grenfell residential tower disaster since 1958. Now retired, professionally, he has been variously an academic sociologist over 20 years; a documentary filmmaker of Black British community struggles against racism and for belonging; a theater-maker/playwright; a museums and archives curator. He has also served voluntarily on a number of community and cultural committees and organisations – most notably, as Chair of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations in London.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE FUNAMBULIST MAGAZINE:
PHOTOS TAKEN DURING THE RECORDING:
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ///
Léopold Lambert: Hello, everyone. Today, my guest is Colin Prescott, who is a resident of North Kensington since 1958, the sociologist who worked in film and theater, in TV, and he’s head of the Institute for Race Relations in London.
Colin Prescod: Not the head, the Chairman.
LL: The Chairman, I’m sorry. And we are recording this conversation in North Kensington itself, it’s outside, that’s why you hear a little bit of wind, hopefully it will be okay. And we are in front of the Grenfell tower, that on June 14 2017, burned and killed 72 people; we’re in the site of remembrance. And we’re going to be walking a little bit during this conversation. Good morning, Colin.
CP: Good morning.
LL: Thank you very much for meeting me. You wrote a very important and powerful piece for The Funambulist in the past. And this is a way to also continue this collaboration we did and to have maybe a little bit of an update on the justice for Grenfell movement, could we maybe start by having you describe where we are, in every possible meaning?
CP: We are now, we’re at the base of the Grenfell tower. At the top, the tower is now covered in plastic sheeting quite tightly. And at the very top is what’s become a well-known sign of the justice for Grenfell campaign, a green heart. With the slogan next to it “Grenfell forever in our hearts.” It feels increasingly as though for the moment all we can be sure of that we will get from the campaign justice for Grenfell is that that we keep it, we make sure we keep Grenfell forever in our hearts: the people, the families directly affected, as well as the humiliation of the community that is represented by the disaster of 72 people, the last count being killed in that fire. That’s where we are. It’s kind of noisy, there is still disputed debate going on about what will happen on the site, to this site, whether the tower will come down, what will replace it, what’s to happen, that is for future. Because most immediately, what’s happening is that the people who were—who hurt the families whose relatives died, or the people who fled and survived the fire that night and now live with trauma, they’re being rehoused and so on, that their needs are first and first of all looked after. Physical needs, but also psychological needs. And also, it seems to me the biggest one, political needs, because the greatest need is to make sure that this kind of contempt and humiliation of a community which leads to disaster does not happen again.
It is already possible that it can happen in many parts of England. It has been found out since Grenfell that there are up to 430, 440 other towers like Grenfell with the same physical designs, the same inflammable materials covering the tower that could cause a disaster should a fire start in the country, the state, the government of the land is yet to point out how it hopes to address these comprehensively, these situations. So there are people who are going to bed every night, still nervous, anxious in their homes, yes, because they live in conditions like this of the Grenfell tower. Meanwhile, the state’s response, to say something else about where we are in relate to this, the state’s response, as everybody will have realized, I think everybody knows globally, is to set up an inquiry, government inquiry. We may have a variety of responses to the idea of a government inquiry: it is the very same government that was in charge the same systems in charge that led up to Grenville that we are appealing to, to have an inquiry that will offer some kind of justice to these people. So, but one understands how the people who hurt who are in immediate need, material need, psychological need, I repeat myself a little, would want to ask of the state because the state of alert often looks as though it’s a state not of the people—it’s the ruling classes who run the state. The state is, in fact, something that that is that has a responsibility to all the people in the land. It is a, if you like the state is, I say somewhere else, the state is a site of struggle. Yes, we’re always having to struggle to make sure that the state and its agencies are responsible to us, are accountable to us. It’s a site of struggle. It’s not, it’s not the ruling people’s state, it is our state.
So we have the right the Grenfell residents, the people, the people who are injured directly have a right to insist that the state serves some responsibility towards them. So they go to the inquiry in the hope that it will offer them something that it will offer something that looks like justice, it will at least open up the truth. We’ve had just over a year of that state inquiry sitting, the law is giving evidence and so on. It’s made a report, it’s going to report in two in two sections. It’s made its first report after one year. And what it said was, it looked in that for the first part of the of the inquiry, they looked at what happened on the night on the particular date, the occasion of the fire, how it happened, who was there, what the police did, what the fire brigade did, the authorities and so on, to look at all that. It looked very thoroughly at it. And it came out with an interesting statement, not a statement against the people it came out saying to me, to summarize for me from where I’m standing for us, for those of us who talk about justice… it came out saying we have discovered from looking at just the night, that there are some big questions, it looks as though there’s real culpability on the part of the governing authorities and the contractors and the builders, the local state and national state in regard to creating the conditions in which Grenfell occurred. There is some responsibility since people had been of the locality and living in the house itself had been making protesting and saying, This is the, they’re dangerous things here, which could cause people to die. There’s evidence, there’s all this evidence. This is all said, but those requests, those complaints, those questions were treated with total contempt by the state local authorities. And of course, the people who are employed, the contract has people contracted to look after the property, to build the property, to renovate the property are also culpable. And the second part of the inquiry is going to look at those roles. Yes, it’s going to look at those and indeed, to see if, when they’re responsive, what kind of responsibilities narrow.
Unfortunately, at the start of this of the second part of the inquiry, which is only a few months ago it started, it immediately stalled. It stalled, because the contract is the people responsible for putting up the building, and so on for all the safety, the safety inside of the building, have made a request to the to the to the inquiry, and the judge who’s heading the inquiry saying they would like to have immunity. If they are to speak the truth. They want to be assured that they will be immune from criminal charges of proceedings coming directly offered, they say to the inquiry. This is extraordinary. And we’re in with all of us waiting now to see what the attorney general which is the meat the top legal authority in the land will say because the judge who heads the inquiry has put that request to the to the Attorney General and everybody’s waiting, the judge is waiting. The Grenfell people families are waiting. The dreadful just for Grenfell movement is waiting to see what happens next. But of course, you will realize that this means that everybody is now very due disturbed about what exactly what is going to be happening with this process of engaging with the state in order to seek justice for Grenfell. That’s what we are. Yeah. And sorry to be so long winded.
LL: That’s actually that’s actually perfect as an introduction, and perhaps, now that we sort of set this we should also insist on the neighborhood aspect, and also how this fire does not happen in a sort of political vacuum. Most of, most people who died where people of the racialize working class, and many people are undocumented workers as well, we’ve been asked, absolutely despiteful questions following the, in the during the investigation. And we are indeed in this neighborhood. That is that is very contrasted, right. It’s like it’s North Kensington is a relatively wealthy neighborhood where you have you have this estate here, that has to exist with the contents of management, like the one that placed those panels that are responsible for the promulgation of the fire. So could we could we perhaps, start talking about the neighborhood itself? You told me, you told me before we started recording that you always, you always situate yourself as well with within the sort of three circles of people who are affected and concerned by what happened here in 2017. Could you tell us about that?
CP: Well, yes, we, everybody who lives close to this tower, everybody within the within a half a mile radius around the tower, everybody has been affected by this, of course, and I feel as that one has covered, the three circles the most, the most inner circle, will be the people who were in that building. On the occasion when the fire started, some of whom managed to get out, some of whom were trapped and died. And those are the first people who of course had to be helped literally, on the in the days immediately after the fire, where would they live? How would they eat? Who would comfort them—psychologically, therapeutically? So those were the first, that was the first four. So that’s the first set of set of people who are involved in justice, justice for them, immediately surrounding that the people who those of us like me, I live 300 meters away from the tower. We saw it. And we, so we too, have a kind of trauma that comes from having to live through that experience and the helplessness of it, the hopelessness of it. That’s secondary, and residency, yes the residence. Then there are the third ring will be in the defense campaign in the justice campaign, will be people who I would call local activists, professional activists, they could be lawyers, I mean, all sorts of people, but they’re activists who’ve been who’ve been doing things in and for the community.
As we know, communities look after themselves, when, in the absence of things looking after them, communities throw up their own self help. This whole community, this, this air that I live in, has a history of all that from the time I was a boy to now today in the wake of Grenfell. And that bunch of people are also involved in the campaign and have a feeling for the campaign and an interest in the campaign, because that amongst those are the people who over the years before the fire are the people who would who were making notes, who belonged to the to the residents, campaigns, local campaigns, who wrote to the local authority saying listen, this is not right, this looks dangerous, these are the something should be done, somebody will be harmed, who were doing it and who will having the authorities and management or corporations looking after the tower treat them with total contempt and turn away. Now they—so they now have a voice they have a voice with which they want to speak.
I say there are three layers, the first for the people who are most in need, and they in a sense have the biggest, the loudest voice or committed to have the loudest voice because they have the hardest beating hearts. Yes, around the Grenfell thing, but the other rings of people I belong to, if you like, to the outer ring of a resident who’s been here a long time and who has therefore a certain feeling about this place, understands the hurt of being treated with contempt by the by the authorities over the years.
LL: And if that’s okay, can we talk just a tiny bit about this third circle? Because I think that I mean, many people worldwide were extremely shocked by what happened. Which also means that many people, for better or for worse, wanting to get involved in helping, I guess on the ground, they translated into some, sometimes some very basic actions that was very needed, but maybe on a on a sort of slightly longer term. I think it might, it might ask questions, and it might teach us about what is good solidarity and what is bad solidarity? How do you how do you how you gain trust, how do you betray that trust? And so what are maybe for us the lessons we can learn from, like this sort of flux of people with some time and maybe a savior complex?
CP: I don’t know that I have a lesson I haven’t experienced, which says that it is difficult. We all have the inclination, we all feel it. And political even more so, we feel it not just an emotional response, but a political response to the situation. But I, I’m not speaking for everybody else in the in the movement or the campaign. But I in a sense, I am humiliated. Or I’m certainly slowed down by the fact that I can’t go any faster, can’t go any faster than the people at the center of the circles I talk about. And to the extent that the people who were injured directly whose family whose relatives died, who are suffering the trauma, saying “We haven’t yet, we do not yet feel that our need is being addressed,” yes, their voice dominates what you can do. I may want to make a political movement, I may want to have a people’s tribunal instead of a State Tribunal, I may want to have a campaign that gathers all the people in the, around the country actually, who live in similar circumstances to begin to have a some kind of campaign that joins, yes, the Grenfell, the Grenfell moment, the Grenfell justice movement, so to speak, but you can’t get there, while the people who are immediately in the middle are still hurt, yes and screaming, yes, you have to humbly acknowledge that, that is the first space. And that slows down the degree to which you can say, Oh, I am political, I will make the demand, solidarity is—and all, so, of course, all these things hang but you cannot simply move with those, while these complications of actuality, these actual complications exist.
So in that sense, you have to be always ready to be in a movement, always ready to campaign. But sometimes, you have to just be quiet. I’ve written somewhere else indeed I wrote for you about the march that happens. Yes, the in the wake of Grenfell, there is a march every month on the 14th of every month because it was the 14th of the month of June that this the first incident that the death disaster occurred, we have a march. It is a silent march. It’s interesting that it’s a silent march. It’s not a sloganizing march. There are some slogans but they’re quietly on posters. And they say most of them simply saying justice for Grenfell. They say can we have the truth? Statements of hope. But when one is on the march, one rehearses in the silent marches, interesting, it is loud in one’s head. You’re rehearsing all the time, the answers to the questions, the questions and the answers that you that you’re raising now: how? When? in what manner will we manage this? And what do we do while we’re waiting for the justice, so to speak? So those are simply questions in the mix of my reality.
I cannot pretend that any of us know how to structure as a movement that makes sure that we that we get what we want, it even opens questions as to we will find out we may well find out in the end that the court the existing structures, are not actually adequate to answering the question, what would justice for Grenfell be like, look like? Feel like? For me, I would feel that we getting to be having something that might answer to justice, when we have if we, if there was a situation in which the voices of these publics I’m talking about, the people and, talking about the people who immediately died and their families, the people who are residents who’ve been over the years making noises about this, when those voices if there was a way of having a forum in which those voices would be assured that they will be heard that they have power. Then I might say I can see something called justice. It’s so it is beyond it is beyond even identifying the people who were at the head of the local state or the head of the corporations or the head of the building management company who behaved badly and charging them with something and maybe finding them or it the justice I’m talking about actually goes beyond that. My sense of what would make justice? It is, what do we want the people’s controlled legacy of this horrible moment to be? It’s a big question.
LL: You may not call it a lesson, but I think it’s absolutely crucial. So thank you so much for that. Should we start walking? Yes. Because I would be interested in also making sure that our listeners who are not so familiar, perhaps for some of them, with the political history of London, understand well, in which sort of spatial politics did this happen? Okay, so that’s a little bit noisy. [truck beeping in the background] I’m going to cut for just a bit. All right, so we’re back. Yes, so this neighborhood of North Kensington, which even the name itself is, is can be each name for this neighborhood, whether it’s Knotting Hill, North Kensington, like this,
CP: Or the Grove, we call it, Ladbroke Grove, the Grove.
LL: What is the different maybe political implication between those three different names?
CP: Ah, well, when I was a boy in 1958, when I came from the Caribbean to join my mother here this North Kensington was absolutely what people would undoubtedly call a slum. It was the ghetto. It was full of people, people were living in broken houses, houses that didn’t have proper plumbing in them, houses that were shared, multiple shared by many, many families, more families than would normally live inside of those places are typical for poor arriving migrants in in the metropolis. And it was like this for 20 or 25, 30 years actually continued in this kind of way, changing very slowly. But then and then changes began to happen very rapidly. New, a new major road was built through the area, which meant that the redevelopers, the urban improvers, had an opportunity to just simply clear out many of the houses and to move the populations. So the population that I lived in, intensely Caribbean centered, new migrant population that I lived in when I was a boy, a teenager, in North Kensington is no longer here. It’s changed a lot. North Kensington’s very interesting, actually, where I live, I come to find out as I’m here, it has, it has a past in which a great majority of the population looking offensive would have been Irish. After that, it has a past in which there were little pockets really of Jewish people, migrant settlers; they’ve now moved on and moved out. It later has Spanish populations. And so there are markers around of this, there are some churches for the Jewish population that are still here that people still come to, in a way the Spanish population, there is still some… [“How are you doing?” to someone on the street] And, and after the Spanish, some Italians, and after that Moroccans and broader North Africans, and now today to make this go much faster, from the place where North Kensington where as a boy, I live with mainly working class white people, working class black people, the black people recently arrived and settling.
Now I live in a North Kensington in which the houses lived in and the little schools that are thrown up have quite an intense French population and Russian population in North Kensington. These are not poor people, these are the people who give, around whom the title gentrification has been used in the areas where I live. That’s a huge shift. When I came here as a boy, I was 13. I’m now 75. So I’ve lived through that huge change in this area. And when I was here’s a boy in the in the 50s, this is the place North Kensington in which, as I think I’ve said for The Funambulist in the liberal piece I wrote for it before, in which there were in 1958 what people called race riots. There were serious runnings on the streets over several days, maybe even weeks, very intensely over it went on for longer than that but very intensely over a few weeks of what we call the race riots where the new smallish, relatively small, black Caribbean migrant settler population had were beginning to live, and they were being attacked in the streets certainly after dark by groups of people who were stirred by explicit fascists, Britain’s most famous fascist Oswald Mosley, a friend of the Nazis, in the in the in the nasty period for Europe, was operated in North Kensington had an office in North Kensington, stirring people, and trying to point out here amongst other people, trying to convince them that it was the presence of these new black migrant settlers that was making their life so miserable. And nonsense, of course, a total nonsense, but enough for disgruntled people, people who don’t know and who are desperate to be stirred by wicked forces. So maybe they would come they came together and attack people in a variety of ways. This went on for a few weeks until the settler, new settler population managed to organize itself more and more to defend itself. And interestingly, the police forces intervened this—I’m now talking about 1958—to stop the nightly attacks that were occurring to people only when, only when this population, the black population, made it clear that they were organized to fight the final fight. That’s the deep past history.
I’ve lived in a society in North Kensington that’s been very proudly kind of ahead of the curve in Britain in terms of, quote, living convivially with multiculturality since that time, because it is though not just the black but also the white population, in the black and white population in North Kensington became the most, to use a strange word, civilized part of the land, in a way. We were terrific. It was an anti-racist community, so to speak, coming off those riots, because people understood. One thing that happened that was very interesting, about seven or eight months after the height of the race riots in 1958, in earlyish in 1959, there was a famous, yes, a famous attack, I call it lynch because that means a mob attack on a young man called Kelso Cochrane. He was from Antigua in the Caribbean, one of these early settlers, and he was stabbed and killed by a group of young men on the street, not unlike the Stephen Lawrence case, which came many years later is very, very famous, no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the death of Kelso Cochrane. But what happened in the community was that it came together a massive funeral, huge funeral was held in Ladbroke Grove attended by bashes of the community black and white. And in a way after that, we all behaved as though that the riots were an embarrassment to our community. And we decided to live with it was we made without ever anybody have an explicit saying to live conviviality with each other, and it was ahead of the game, it was one of the places in London where you would notice that whereas in other places in London, the country, black and white animosities were still explicit on the street and all that kind of stuff. Here that suddenly that was not, we all knew that was not to be tolerated. So Notting Hill, began to have that cache. And interestingly, I think it is because of that wonderfully civilized cache, that it began to be attractive to middle classes, first, English, white middle classes to come in to live in this civilized, social contexts in a way even before this before the rise of what we now call gentrification, this this word, but that began the sweep to come live in this place.
LL: And the well-known festival also probably has something to do visit right. It started exactly at that moment in 1959.
CP: You’re thinking of carnival?
LL: The Carnival yes, yes.
CP: That’s, the carnival is interesting. Because it begins—it’s a marker it is the Carnival is a marker of this history I’ve just been talking about from 58 when people first. Okay, we will turn down Portobello Road here… and now it’s raining.
LL: It’s raining and we see some huge union jacks over the street which is scary in those times.
CP: Yes. Just saying that we’re in Britain.
LL: Yeah. Just in case you didn’t know.
CP: Where was I? Yes, the carnival. So I say in 59 as, if you like, the post climax of the 1958 riots, this band Kelso Cochrane was killed. And one of the things that happened was that there began to be an there was a demand that went to the to the Parliament, saying, in a way justice for killed Kelso Cochrane would have been the cry, led by a very famous black woman activist called Claudia Jones. This same woman Claudia Jones who started the, who went to make a protest about the killing of Kelso Cochrane, she ran a newspaper called The West Indian Gazette. And she decided to have a sort of, as a as a fight back and a marker of the fight back against the riots, to have a carnival, a West Indian carnival, but it was not on the street was indoors. It was in town halls, and she did this carnival for three or four or five years. Before she died. She died quite young. So she started the spirit of a carnival as a healing force. Yes, as well as a form of cultural expression of being here. But not on the street. It wasn’t until the early 60s that in the early 60s, another part of the of the community I say that responded to 58 and decided to be that it was important to be convivial and to be together in this space, headed by a woman called Rhaune Laslett, called for a fair, a festival fair what called a carnival even on the streets in North Kensington, and people came and amongst the people who came were people who were part of the Carnival indoor festivals that Claudia Jones had started onto the street with the steel pans. And this element of the English fair was only a small element when it began when the fair began, this element began to go around the streets literally took to the streets people dragged behind and it caught it caught the imagination of everybody and it is from there that the carnival started.
We are now on a street which is called Blenheim Crescent and I’ve stopped here because just across the road there there’s no marker, you wouldn’t know it, but where the, where it says next to the one that says “tattoo” on this on this Blenheim Crescent was the place that in 1958 the Caribbean Community assembled in the in the building and you can see the way the roofs are, they prepared defenses, things to throw down… I was only a little boy so I wasn’t in their room, say Molotov cocktails—they were seriously going to defend themselves against the white mobs stirred by the fascist Mosely. And they were ready. The word went out to the police and police said well this is this is not quite what we felt like should happen so they came in they stopped they stopped the any white racist attack is coming and the calm down the people here and this was an this signal the stop of the of the everyday riot situation that happened at that time.
LL: And so as you were saying earlier is like it’s both this sort of the this sort of sense of conviviality, you use that word, that was created after this murder in 1959. This racist murder and the carnival, and many aspects of these neighborhoods that in turn made it attractive in sort of some as a social space for gentrification. But now we’re more, I mean, we’re completely in—
CP: We’re completely in the new era.
LL: How is it [the neighborhood] been able to defend itself?
CP: Ah, when you say the neighborhood, you mean the neighborhood of like me, the old neighborhood. It has not been able to. It’s not been able to because the forces are much bigger than North Kensington for the making, making this happen, much bigger. I’d have to say that. Just a mile yeah, half a mile a mile away in that direction, in the west is a is a thing called Westfield. Westfield is the largest new commercial mall seen in the country, and the best, they say, and it has an effect for a five-mile radius around it. Everything is changed, in order for that to happen. The train line, the underground transport line that you arrived in Ladbroke Grove on, didn’t—now has a new stop called just along the line here from Ladbroke Grove next to that, just beyond the tower, that was came into existence only to service the Westfield center. That’s a real sign of how powerful commerce can be, and the market can be. And, and anywhere we look, the markers are, you will get I can name you any number of places Powell’s Square, which is just at the at the other end of the street here, Blenheim Crescent there we’re standing in, used to be extremely slum broken down houses. And now it is, the people who live the people who have a lot of money and who work for, who work in Brussels, and traveled back and forth.
Next to me where I live my street is now as got any large number of French, French living people. I’m not objecting to that I cannot object to this, this is they have to live. And my area has changed because there are now in around me there are three, at least three I’m not exaggerating, three private paying schools, for the children and the families of these families who have moved in that were not bad when I was a boy and have only recently arrived. So it isn’t, it has not been possible to stop any of this. The cry from Grenfell in the wake of Grenfell, which you can find in other parts of London, too, is one which is saying, We would like to have this neighborhood these people on the ground, we would like to have more say, in determining the development, the redevelopment in our area, within which we’ve been trying to do so for many years, that wider circle of, of community activists have been saying for many years, and being ignored. Grenfell should provide us with a platform for saying, This is what happens if you ignore these voices, if you treat community voices who care about their communities with contempt, this is what happens. It should be an occasion for that to have some power to amplify the voices of the people on the ground. We wait to see.
LL: Well Colin thank you so much for taking us on this walk—me personally and our listeners remotely. I think it’s something that we will keep talking about you and I and in various forms. And in the meantime, I think we’re many to want to show you our support and with for justice for Grenfell, thank you.
CP: Thank you I agree with you entirely—solidarity. Solidarity is key to everything that we that we do now and from now on, absolutely key. I want to make a promise to that, I will try to write something more coherent than chatting on the street. That takes my reflections, my our conversation about Grenfell one step further.
LL: Wonderful. I think both together work super well together. So thanks again, Colin. This podcast is produced by the Funambulist. You can listen to dozens of other episodes on your favorite podcast platforms and on our website at TheFunambulist.net