Mourning and marching after the Grenfell fire

June 22, 2017

Close to 100 people are dead and possibly more after the fire in Grenfell Tower, a public housing tower block in West London. This tragedy exposes everything wrong with a society ruled by a Conservative Party government that puts the profits and power of a few ahead of the livelihood--and the lives--of the many.

The fire came less than a week after a general election in which the Labour Party, led by left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, outdid all expectations, and the Tory government of Prime Minister Theresa May lost its majority in parliament. May is attempting to stay in power through a deal with a right-wing party, but her position was weakened further after the nightmare of the Grenfell fire showed the human cost of years of neglect and austerity.

Millions of people who celebrated Corbyn's showing in early June were horrified by the fire and outraged by the needless toll in human lives. Rob Owen of revolutionary socialism in the 21st century and editor of the rs21 magazine talked to Alan Maass about the surge of anger and protest following the fire, how it was connected to political organizing around housing issues before, and what it might mean for the future.

THE GRENFELL Tower fire has aroused so much anger, not only toward Theresa May and her government, but the whole system that breeds austerity and inequality. Can you talk about some of the reasons why that is?

ONE OF the things that makes the sight of the tower so powerful is that it's this skeletal image standing in the midst of an area of extraordinary wealth.

For readers who might not be aware, Kensington and Chelsea, where the Grenfell Tower was situated, is one of the richest areas of London. So on Friday, when a march went from the local town hall to the tower--a march called by residents who had occupied the town hall earlier in the day--you walked past houses that wouldn't have looked out of place in Beverly Hills, costing millions and millions of pounds.

Then you turn a corner, and you hit the housing estate where Grenfell Tower stood.

There are about 4,500 tower blocks in a similar condition around the country, according to the figures cited in the media. What most local councils have done is gradually let them get run down, in the hope that tenants move out. So Grenfell Tower was neglected for long periods of time.

Protesters take to the streets in London after the Grenfell Tower fire
Protesters take to the streets in London after the Grenfell Tower fire (Wasi Daniju | flickr)

Then, some 8.7 million pounds was spent on refurbishing the tower in construction that ended a year ago. But large amounts of that went for cosmetic changes. One of the main causes of the fire--or at least one of the main reasons it spread so quickly--is that the outer cladding put on during the refurbishment was made of a material that was flammable.

The statistic that has gone all over the Internet and is being talked about constantly in workplaces is that for the cost of an additional 2 pounds per square meter, they could have put fire-resistant cladding on the building.

One factor that the media haven't picked up on as much--but which campaigners and community activists have, and which has a strong resonance--is how the questions of racism and migration tie into the tower fire.

Large numbers of the people living in Grenfell Tower would have been first- or second-generation migrants--people who had sought refuge in this country. One of the first known victims of the fire was a young boy who had come over from Syria as a refugee. So the racial dimensions of housing, particularly social housing, and austerity have come to the fore in a very sharp way.

And all this is coming shortly after the election, where Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party did unexpectedly well. So there was already an environment where people were talking in more class-based terms than usual. The Grenfell Tower fire coming at the moment it did has crystallized that mood.

After the protest on Friday, hearing the slogans that people raised, it's hard to imagine how a moderate response that doesn't deal with those issues is going to contain the political anger that's being expressed.

You can even see it reflected in the establishment media. There was an interview between Theresa May and a BBC journalist shortly after she went to the site of the fire for the first time and refused to meet residents--and you could see the BBC presenter shaking with fury as May refused to answer her questions.

One of the things that's hit popular consciousness is the number of statements made by leading Tory politicians that damn them completely. For example, David Cameron, the former prime minister, made a speech about making a "bonfire of regulations." This was only a few years after a Tory minister, Eric Pickles, refused to make sprinkler systems compulsory in council housing.

People are beginning to understand the situation that local councils have been faced with during this whole era: On the one hand, the government says it wants councils to add sprinkler systems in housing or use fire-resistant cladding, but doesn't make this compulsory. Then, on the other hand, it massively reduces the funding available to local councils, so they can't carry out anything more than the most marginal of repairs.

CAN YOU talk about the protest marches last week and what might come next?

THERE WERE two marches on that Friday. One was the planned march that a lot of people had started the day with the intention of attending. It started outside the ministry responsible for housing, with plans to march to Downing Street and the BBC.

That demonstration was called by a traditional alliance of trade union groups and established left and housing campaigns. On Facebook, the numbers of people saying they would attend exploded through the course of the day.

Many rs21 members went to a second demonstration in response to a call that went out that afternoon when a number of the Grenfell Tower residents occupied the Kensington Town Hall.

By the time people finished work and got to the town hall, there was already a protest of several hundred people, including tenants who had occupied to demand answers, and then voted to leave and have a rally on the steps to further their demands.

As the evening progressed, I think large numbers of people who were planning to attend the first demonstration in central London started to flow across into west London to the protest at the town hall. By the time the organizers called for the demonstration to march, there was well over a thousand people--predominantly local residents and working class, with relatively few people from the organized left.

I think what made this demonstration so powerful was the combination of slogans that you might traditionally hear radical students chanting--about bringing down the government, about austerity, about neoliberalism, about who was to blame--coming from middle-aged men and women, most of them Black or minority, in a community where the left had probably not spoken to people in a significant way in a very long time.

One of the things that I thought was most powerful about the demonstration was that it was both incredibly angry, but at the same time incredibly somber.

Around the tower and the surrounding area, there are a large number of posters that people have put up with pictures of those still missing. Obviously, if those people who are missing were in the tower, it's overwhelmingly likely that they died.

So on the march, people would switch between chanting for the government to go, for May to fall, saying that she had blood on her hands--and then suddenly crying as they remembered their relatives and talking to each other about the situation.

The demonstration was punctuated by street meetings. Two or three people brought microphones and speaker systems with them, so periodically, the demonstration would stop, and residents or friends of residents or family of residents would get on the microphone and talk about the politics of the situation, how they felt, who was to blame.

They would talk about the difference in how working class people, and Black working class people in particular, are treated--but also who should be held accountable.

It was an incredibly poignant moment when the demonstration reached the bottom of the tower. As I was saying, the march went from the town hall through some of the richest parts of London, past these incredibly large houses and wide streets.

And there was a massively varied response. Bus drivers and working-class people would cheer on the march and join the demonstration. But there were nervous looks from the wealthier residents, who were unsure what to make of it and clearly not entirely comfortable with the part of the community that's generally kept out of sight marching through the town center.

The demonstration put the blame very clearly on the government--on the decisions that leading Tory politicians have made over the last five or six years, which created a situation where something like Grenfell Tower could easily have happened in many, many places in the UK.

It's still very early and difficult to tell exactly what form the movement will take around Grenfell Tower. A demonstration that was going to take place on Saturday was postponed as housing activists and Grenfell residents talked about what the next round of protest should look like.

There's going to be a demonstration in two weeks' time on July 1, called by a coalition of the left, including people around Jeremy Corbin, to demand the fall of the government. This was called immediately after the election, but the Grenfell Tower fire will clearly take center stage.

ONE OF the horrible ironies of the fire is that there were residents in Grenfell Tower organizing against conditions and warning of the threat of a deadly tower fire. What has the movement around public housing looked like before this?

PARTICULARLY IN London, the housing crisis has been a major area of tension for quite a number of years. Social housing has been run down, and rents paid on privately owned accommodations now make up an astronomical amount of people's income.

The housing campaigns have run on two separate tracks. On the one hand, there are the traditional campaigns defending council housing, often run by established figures of the wider left or the Labour left, which have fought going back decades to stop the selloff of council housing to private landlords.

But alongside that, there are resident committees and tenant associations fighting quite bitter and radicalizing campaigns to defend the housing blocks that they're in. There are a number of high-profile campaigns like this around London--including the Grenfell Action Group, made up of the tenants who had been campaigning for investment in the building for a number of years, all the while warning of a possible catastrophe.

The Grenfell Action Group has its own blog and website and ran a really persistent campaign, particularly targeting what's called an "arms-length management organization."

These exist in councils across London, where responsibility for social housing that is notionally in the hands of the councils is passed off to a kind of quasi-independent body that's wholly owned by the council. That body becomes a kind of buffer between the council and local residents over questions of failures to do repairs or health and safety concerns.

The Grenfell Action Group had been fighting a long and bitter battle against the management organization, trying to hold particular councilors and particular officials to account.

One of things the media is now reporting--as they go back through what isn't an atypical story of a group of residents fighting their council--is the difficulty the Grenfell Action Group had in pinning anyone down to a sense of accountability.

This is typical of what's happened with local government--accountability and responsibility have become so diffuse that it's very difficult for residents to work out how they could have some sort of democratic control over what's supposed to be social housing.

In the last few years, alongside the more traditional campaigns, a more radical housing campaign has emerged in London called the Radical Housing Network, which grouped together resident associations that want to fight with wider political groups that have campaigned over the question of housing and the right to a decent place to live in London.

Up until now, many demonstrations have targeted private property developers, because the cutting edge of the housing campaign was trying to stop councils from shutting down or demolishing former social housing so the land could be sold off to property developers to build new developments with a very limited social housing component.

But in the aftermath of the fire, the close relationship between the tenant group, which is very well rooted among the Grenfell residents, and a layer of the radical left organizing around housing issues has been important.

These activists have been able to articulate the demands of the residents when it's been difficult for the residents themselves to do so--when they've been more concerned with how to house people who lost their homes or how to demand accountability about the numbers of people who have died.

That relationship has been quite a key point in getting a radical interpretation to reach the media--in a way that it's been very hard for anyone to contest.

COULD YOU step back and talk about this radicalizing tragedy in the context of the general election a week before, where Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party did so much better than anyone expected a few months before?

I THINK it's only fair to start by saying that few people were expecting the result we got in the general election. There was a handful of rs21 members, probably those most embedded in the campaign, who were urging people to recognize that something like this could take place, and for members to get more involved in making it happen.

The fact that shocked everyone, as I imagine has been reported in the U.S., is the unprecedented turnout of young voters for Labour.

I was campaigning in the Croydon Central constituency, which is a seat Labour took from the Tories--Gavin Barwell, the MP who lost his seat, is now a senior adviser to Theresa May at Number 10, responsible for dealing with things like the Grenfell disaster.

But the results we were getting from canvasing gave us no sense of the degree of the shift that would take place.

I think it's only possible to understand what happened if you credit Corbin's ability to get his message out to the general public--despite being undermined by Labour Party MPs, despite the media silence about what he was saying.

In the weeks running up to the election, his message spread rapidly around social media. The strategy of the Corbyn team of holding mass rallies in areas where Labour had their safest seats--a strategy that was pilloried as pointless at the time by the right wing of the Labour party--created a buzz and a momentum akin to what you would try to do in building a social movement.

I think one of the reasons Corbyn's message resonated so strongly with a younger audience is the lived experience of austerity. All the warnings from the establishment and the Tory smears against Corbyn didn't connect with a generation that has lived under kind of many, many years of Tory rule and continuing austerity.

Being presented with an alternative to all that is something that really struck people.

After the election, that mood has caught on with wider sections of the population. People talk much more explicitly in class terms. The idea that Corbyn's proposals could become reality--that increased taxation could actually bring large amounts of money into education and health care--has transformed the political landscape. People are thinking not just about the process of stopping the cuts, but actually making things better.

Meanwhile, the Tory Party is in a state of total crisis. Theresa May looks like a defeated figure, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond came out twice in two days to publicly put a knife her in her front, not her back--first about her suitability to be prime minister, and then over the question of the Brexit plan she's trying to deliver.

It seems like the establishment has become distrustful of its own weapon--distrustful of the Tory Party that it traditionally used to force through its policies. And there doesn't seem to be anyone coming to the fore who is capable of resolving the crisis.

That's the context for May coming to Grenfell Tower the first time after the fire, when the residents booed her and chanted for her to go. Then, Corbyn arrived later to walk around the site and talk to ordinary people, and he was mobbed like a hero.

If it wasn't for the election that preceded it, I'm not sure the political response to the Grenfell Tower fire would have been the same. The immediate call for massive government investment in sprinkler systems across the country seems like it was possible because people had come to the conclusion, as a result of the election, that real change was a realistic option.

Jeremy Corbyn has positioned himself as waiting in the wings to become prime minister after the next election--whether it comes in a couple months' time if the May government collapses or two years' time, which is the program that the government seems to have set itself to try to get through the initial talks on "Brexit" from the European Union.

What Grenfell Tower has done in this context is to show the human cost of austerity in such a powerful way--in a way, tragically, that I'm not sure much else would have. And it's clear that the right doesn't have any kind of response.

There's been such a change in mood that even the media has to respond to events in a different way, and it seems impossible for the government, no matter what the situation, to put a foot right.

In those circumstances, you get a sense that the actions of even small sections of the extra-parliamentary left can be quite significant in taking the momentum of the election campaign into social campaigns that now have a realistic prospect of bringing down the government.

For many, many years, the left has had slogans and an analysis about how the Tory government is nasty and weak. The fact that it's weak now is beyond question for millions and millions of people.

And there's a sentiment not only that one big push could get rid of a rotten government and replace it with something similar. Now there's an expectation that getting rid of May will result in a government with a reform program quite unlike anything I've ever experienced in my political lifetime.

That will pose its own kind of problems and strategic questions, both for the Labour Party itself and for those of us on the revolutionary left. But for certain we can say that the entire political world around us has changed completely in the last four months.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor, Denise Herrera and Sarah Levy.

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