Local estimates of fatalities far surpass police figures, and suspicion, anger and distrust are adding to a widespread sense of devastation.
Source: The GuardianIf you had spent any time walking the streets of west London in the past two weeks, you would know the names of some of the missing from Grenfell Tower off by heart. The lampposts, railings, bus stops and shop windows between Shepherd’s Bush and Notting Hill Gate are still covered with A4 posters of loved ones: three-year old Amaya; siblings Firdaws and Yahya; mother and son Zainab and Jeremiah; Anthony, Marjorie, Sheila, Nur, Mariem, Gloria, Marco, Jessica.
You may have heard the story of Rania Ibrahim, who broadcast her agonising dilemma on Facebook Live: leave her flat, on the 23rd floor, with her children or stay there and wait for help as she had been advised under the “stay put” policy.
Through the camera, we see things the way she must have seen them, such as the door opening to thick smoke. As she speaks – in Arabic and English – you can hear a neighbour saying, “Close the door! Don’t let the smoke into your flat.” Rania describes her fears breathlessly, reciting lines from the shahada – one of the pillars of Islam, a prayer said in times of distress. At one point she opens the door again to let other people into her flat before calling, “Hello? Hello?” into the darkness. There is no answer.
Rania’s video is a deeply personal act of witnessing. Her voice, and the voices of others, remind us that the most important story here is not simply one of political or institutional failures. It is a story of multiple human tragedies, the effects of which will resonate in surviving families and in this community for generations.
Her story is an important lesson, and one I wish no one had to learn: it is the lesson of what happens when councils and housing providers are seemingly in a race to the bottom to cut costs and expertise, and when the state appears not to listen.
It is no surprise that the Grenfell community is angry, though community leaders have appealed for calm. On Wednesday they learned that the true death toll would not be known until at least the end of the year. The families of some of those still missing face months in limbo. Since the beginning, local estimates of fatalities have far surpassed police figures. Suspicion, anger and distrust are adding to a widespread sense of devastation. People do not want or need social unrest, and politicians and commentators need to be careful in their choice of language, because this community has suffered enough.
It will be hard for the authorities to build up trust in the inquiry unless they listen to victims and survivors and place them at the centre of the response. The government’s decision to appoint a retired judge with expertise in shipping and contract law and a history of controversial decisions in relation to social housing, suggests it is still not listening.
Walk the streets around the tower and you will hear snippets of conversation, residents telling and retelling trauma. Stories such as Rania’s are all anyone has heard in the last two weeks, along with tale upon tale of last phone calls, how people escaped, and what they saw.
Beinazir Lasharie, a local councillor, has spoken about how she had to grab her children and run from an adjoining block. “This community is devastated,” said Susan Rudnik, who set up art therapy sessions on the Henry Dickens estate in the immediate aftermath, when no staff from Kensington council or the tenant management organisation (TMO) that manages its properties were on the ground. When I spoke to her, she said the TMO, where I used to work, was threatening to withdraw use of this space.
“Our culture is one that speaks rather than listens,” writes the sociologist Les Back. If you have followed the story of Grenfell Tower, you will know that local residents warned the council of serious concerns about cladding and fire safety, and you will have heard the leader of Kensington and Chelsea council justify the local authority’s handling of the disaster.
Yet two weeks on, there is anger at the way residents and survivors are being supported by the TMO and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Last weekend, I heard stories of 30 families evicted from temporary accommodation. They say they weren’t called or helped and that some of them received letters under their doors telling them to vacate the hotel.
If this demonstrates anything, it is a continued failure to listen. Residents have told me they sense no change in attitude from the TMO or the council. Yes, they need urgent support, a criminal investigation and proper accountability, but they also need to be listened to. Without listening, there is little to no confidence that an inquiry will truly reflect what happened, or that it will address the many questions they have.
That there have been systemic as well as local failures here seems beyond doubt. The social contract has been broken, and people’s lives have changed for ever. The government has announced a national inquiry into cladding flammability after 100% of sample tested failed. There are fears from some fire safety experts about exactly what these tests comprise. Is the government spreading fear and panic in order to make it look as though it is doing something? Are the tests effective?
Over the past two decades, observers, and commentators have witnessed changes to the wider political and administrative framework, not only in social housing but in the NHS and in schools and across other public sector services. Deregulation, austerity, PFI, reduced budgets for local councils: those of us who have worked in public services in the past decade have seen the impact on the ground. Positions such as clerk of works are now widely defunct in local authorities, in order to save costs. An inquiry should look closely at this context, and at residents’ experience of it.
Attention must be paid to both local and government failures, to the voices of survivors, their families and the wider community. Given the breakdown of trust at local, borough and government level, it is only right that the survivors of this unprecedented fire sit at the heart of the inquiry and have a meaningful say in both content and scope.
The fire at Grenfell should change everything. It cuts to the heart of to whom, how and when the state listens. We must stand with the community until the authorities – both local and national – demonstrate that they are really listening to those who live in social housing. And we must never forget those who have lost their lives in a preventable disaster.
After just two weeks, already the focus has started to shift, but as the inquests begin and the death toll seems to rise endlessly, we must make sure we place victims and survivors at the heart of the process. This is and is not a story about cladding: it is a story about one group of people losing their lives because of decisions made by another.
That’s why it is so important that we listen to the voices of the survivors now. Rania’s voice, and the voices of her community, must be heard and answered. For them, the personal is political. We must echo their call to be at the centre of the public inquiry, and ensure their voices are heard. In Back’s words: “The task of careful listening and critical scrutiny is perhaps more important than ever before.”