Grenfell Fire: how the fight for justice was derailed

RCG on the protest for Grenfell, Westminster June 2018

It is now nearly 18 months since the fire at Grenfell Tower in west London on 14 June 2017 claimed 72 lives, destroyed hundreds of homes and exposed the utter failure of the British state and the local council to meet the needs of the working class. Every week brings new evidence of the crimes committed against the people of north Kensington, from the gaps left in windows after shoddy refurbishment that helped the flames spread up the building within minutes, to the toxic dust and soil still poisoning the very air they breathe. Yet still no criminal charges have been brought against anyone responsible for the disaster – first and foremost the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC), its tenants’ management organisation, the KCTMO, and the contractors, Rydon, who oversaw the lethal refurbishment and cladding that turned the tower into a death trap. Of those made homeless by the fire, only 130 households have found permanent new accommodation; 150 are still waiting in temporary accommodation. The Public Inquiry grinds on, eliciting ever-more horrific detail of the night of the fire, but designed to ensure that any demand for justice is kicked down the road.

Only an open and democratic movement led by the working class, that forcefully insisted on justice, could have prevented such an outcome. The RCG and others were part of fighting for such a movement, not just in north Kensington, but more broadly across the country. This struggle would include the millions of people who are still living in social housing that has been run-down and neglected, including hundreds of tower blocks still swathed in flammable cladding, where a disaster like the fire at Gren­fell could happen again. But the possibility of building such a movement was stifled almost from the start.

The working class of north Kensington is not stupid. It knows very well the crimes that have been committed against it: that the fire at Grenfell was the result of the systematic degradation of social housing under Conservative and Labour governments alike, that its own council, the richest in the country, has treated local people with nothing but contempt, before and after the fire. In the first days after the fire, real anger and determination that things were going to change – exemplified by the occupation of the town hall by predominantly young black people from the local community – was palpable. Why did that fail to translate into an organised and independent movement for justice?

The answer is that while the response of the establishment in the aftermath of the fire was grossly incompetent, slow and negligent towards survivors and the bereaved, it moved quickly to ensure there would be no significant resistance. The local council was terrified by the occupation of Kensington and Chelsea town hall on 16 June. It was the one occasion when the newly-appointed council leader, Elizabeth Campbell, was forced to offer limited concessions: everyone would be rehoused locally and permanently within a year, she promised. She would write to the prime minister demanding an immigration amnesty for all those involved in the fire. Help would be given. Rehousing within three weeks, promised an equally frightened Prime Minister May. None of those promises were kept. Instead, the efforts of the council, the police and local authorities went into ensuring that their control in the area would never be so threatened again. There would be no repeat of the London uprisings of 2011 that followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. The possibility of any fightback was effectively derailed by the petit-bourgeois left, in particular the ‘official’ Justice­4Grenfell campaign and self-styled ‘community leaders’ who could be guaranteed to play down demands for action while pushing themselves to the fore as ‘mediators’ and who would lead any potential movement to a dead end.

Within three days, the necessary forces from within the community had been co-opted. On 19 June, a Silent March was organised to lead local people away from the town hall. It was led by a seemingly radical local film-maker, Ishmahil Blagrove, who just days before had called for a revolution and had spoken on the steps of the town hall. Now he wrote: ‘We are asking that everyone who attends remain composed, dignified and respectful’. The march was joined by the local Labour MP Emma Dent Coad and Michael Mansfield QC. 

The march was also used to an­nounce the launch of the Justice4­Grenfell campaign. Amongst its found­­ers were Labour Party supporters including Yvette Williams OBE, diversity officer for the Crown Prosecution Service, and Moyra Samuels of the Socialist Workers Party. It immediately billed itself as the ‘official’ Grenfell campaign, and by 10 August had registered itself as a limited company.

Today Justice4Grenfell is little more than a front for the SWP, although it claims to speak for local residents. At its only public meeting, in February 2018, calls for action were ignored and the main focus was organising campaigning for Labour in the forthcoming May local election. On the few activities it has organised – outside the Town Hall for the six-month anniversary of the fire, a set-piece march to Downing Street to mark the first year – it has censored and excluded those who have attempted to organise independently to demand justice.

Meanwhile, many of the survivors and bereaved organising in Grenfell United have been advised by lawyers not to speak out. Any public expression of anger and grief has been mainly channelled into the Silent Walks which take place every month. While for many they remain, despite dwindling numbers, an important tribute to the dead, the comments made by the main organiser, Zeyad Cred, to Russia Today are revealing: 'If you look at the early days of what happened after the fire and you look at the reaction at the first protest outside the town hall and that went viral. The reaction to people trying to storm the town hall was big news. We didn’t really get much news coverage until the six-month anniversary for the silent walks… and if we escalated that protest at the Town Hall into something greater or into something more catastrophic or violent then that’s the news that the rest of the world will see.’ ‘Dignity’ and ‘unity’ became watchwords of these silent vigils. But unity with whom and for what? In reality, their main impact has been to take pressure off the council.

The Revolutionary Communist Group has been involved in working in solidarity in north Kensington from the first days following the fire. We have taken part in every protest, in­cluding every Silent Walk, and pro­tested for over a year at every council meeting. At one of these, we forced the council to hear a petition signed by several thousand people demanding rehousing, criminal char­ges against the guilty, and a people’s inquiry, to applause from those in the public gallery. We joined local organisations to demonstrate outside the KCTMO AGM, organised a picket of Rydon’s headquarters and, prompted by local demands for action, held a rolling picket along the streets of north Kensington targeting the homes of local councillors. At every turn we have faced censorship, sectarianism and avoidance by those who claim to be leading the movement. Various ‘community representatives’ threatened the RCG: for holding a local meeting in a community hall, warning us that we would be ‘driven out’, or vilifying our events as ‘communist’ and a ‘decoy’; knocking over our stall when we demonstrated outside RBKC; telling RCG campaigners on the streets that we were not wanted in the area. Far from organising an open, democratic solidarity movement, such opportunists have merged with the bourgeois media in denouncing any ‘politicising’ of the issues.

The horrors of the Grenfell fire could and should have been a launchpad for a militant class struggle – in an area of London with a history of resistance against state racism and repression. The RCG is amongst those who fought to allow the voices of those demanding justice, action and accountability to be heard. The possibility of building such a movement was derailed by opportunist forces who, consciously or otherwise, ended up serving only the interests of the state. These are the forces which time after time will attempt to interpose themselves between the working class and its enemies. They must be exposed and opposed.

Without a shift in organisation and mobilisation on the ground, there will be no building of a real fightback to demand justice for Grenfell and the local community, let alone the wider struggle that is needed to expose the fire risks that thousands of working class people are still exposed to in tower blocks across the country.   

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 267, December 2018/January 2019

 

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