Grenfell: a fire fuelled by racism

This week marks the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower blaze which claimed the lives of 72 people on the horrific morning of the 14th June 2017. As Black Lives Matter protests are taking place across the country, and with greater awareness of structural racism in the UK, the anniversary this year has been particularly harrowing. The Grenfell tragedy is a perfect example of why people are protesting for Black Lives Matter; just like George Floyd and the lives lost before him, institutional racism also claimed the lives of the Grenfell victims. The question we must ask ourselves is, would the fate of Grenfell residents have been different if they were white?

The fire was the result of generations of negligence towards working class BAME citizens by the government. During the Windrush Era, black immigrants were moved into hastily built and dangerous high rise buildings, such as Ronan Point which collapsed due to a gas explosion, two months after its construction. Grenfell tower was built in 1972, in an effort to clear slums (lived in by Windrush immigrants) and gentrify the area. It caused hyper-segregation in the quality of life between BAME residents and the white, upper-middle class north Kensington residents.

With the Grenfell inquiry set to resume next month, there are demands from the survivors for the inquiry to include institutional racism in its terms of reference, and to consider whether racial stereotyping and prejudice affected the actions of the local authority. Nour-eddine Aboudihaj, the founder of the Grenfell Tower Trust, which supports the bereaved and survivors, revealed that there were many safety complaints from residents that were ignored. He said: “The fact residents were from immigrant or BAME backgrounds means they weren’t listened to and they were treated unfavourably.”

With their voices not being listened to, a blog post by the Grenfell Action Group, just seven months before the tragedy, warned: “It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believes that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord (the local council).” It is a disgrace that in one of the wealthiest boroughs in the UK, with the money available to amend the safety concerns which could have spared the 72 lost lives, the tragedy still occurred.

Cost cutting decisions were responsible for the fire which spread through the cladding. The survivors and bereaved believe that these decisions were made, and the residents were mistreated because of the majority BAME backgrounds of the tenants. The public inquiry has already concluded that the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower breached building regulations prohibiting the use of certain combinations of combustible materials on high-rise residential towers, which helped spread the fire. The Grenfell architect, Thomas Rek told the enquiry that the focus of the proposed cladding panels was on “appearance and cost”, rather than performance. He revealed that the original plans for zinc panels were dropped in favour of combustible aluminium composite panels due to it being a cheaper material.

In the aftermath of Grenfell, Theresa May, the former prime minister, pledged that the inquiry into the tragedy would leave no stone unturned and the then Community’s Secretary, James Brokenshire said that such cladding would be removed by this month. Three years later, while the country is stuck at home, there are still three hundred high rise buildings with Grenfell style cladding which could face the same fate, and there are still six families living in temporary housing. In both the construction of the building and in the treatment of its residents, institutional racism can be blamed for the 72 lives lost. It is painful to watch the hypocrisy of the government supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, as black lives cannot matter to this government, since no action has been taken to address the racial inequalities exposed by Grenfell.

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