On June 14, 2017, West London awoke to the pungent smell of smoke alongside the relentless sound of fire engine sirens. Images of the 24-storey residential tower block ravished by flames in North Kensington remains one of the most harrowing memories in Britain of recent times.
Sunday June 14 marked three years since 72 people lost their lives and a community was devastated in one of the UK’s deadliest structural fires.
The three-year anniversary of the Grenfell disaster came at a time when powerful and intense protests are sweeping the nation, sparked by the death of George Floyd in the United States.
This outpouring of anger is not restricted to calls for greater racial equality. It calls for wider justice for everyone suffering from inequality and discrimination that is conveniently swept under the rug by the establishment.
Like the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota, the Grenfell Tower disaster is a heart-breaking example of inequality at its most disturbing. The Grenfell Tower tragedy and its campaigners’ unaccomplished pursuit for justice, like the death of George Floyd, is a reminder of the crippling discrimination in modern-day Britain.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire on June 14, 2017, the then prime minister Theresa May made a promise to the survivors and the families of the victims of the fire that she would not let them down. Part of this promise was to rehouse those who had lost their homes with quality accommodation – a deadline that was not met.
But perhaps even more startling than failing to provide the survivors with a permanent home, is the fact that, three years on since the fire, Grenfell Tower survivors and the victims’ families still lack the thing they yearn most – justice.
Since 2017, many of the survivors and the bereaved, have been continuously bruised by the endless battles they have had to fight against authorities in what was the biggest loss of life in London since the blitz.
The first fight was to the quest to be rehoused, a promise that has been repeatedly broken. A more recent battle took place in early 2020, when Boris Johnson appointed Benita Mehra to help lead the Grenfell inquiry, an engineer who was linked to the US conglomerate that made the aluminium composite cladding panels used on Grenfell. The survivors and the bereaved called the appointment of someone who was connected to the polyethylene-filled panels which were found by the inquiry to be the “principle reason why flames spread so rapidly up the building” as a “slap in the face.”
Campaigners for justice have been beset with concerns that broader social issues have been excluded from the inquiry. The public inquiry into the fire has examined the actions of Kensington and Chelsea council but has not dealt with broader questions related to social housing policy. This decision was made by the inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who said he did not want to consider “questions of a social, economic and political nature.”
By adopting the tactic to include broader social and economic issues in the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in southeast London in 1993, Lord Macpherson’s report found the investigation into the killing had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership.”
It is this socially penetrating conclusion that Grenfell survivors and the victims’ families have been hoping for, but alack, have not yet found.
Instead, the harrowing carcass of the tower that stands adjacent to millionaire townhouses in West London, an ongoing public inquiry that’s been marred by rejections for a diverse decision-making panel, and a painfully slow government response in replacing dangerous cladding on hundreds of other buildings nationwide, shows that little has been achieved in combating the stifling class inequality in Britain that was highlighted by the Grenfell disaster.
As Adel Chaoui, who lost four relatives in the fire, told the Guardian: “It’s frustrating. It’s almost as if they expect us to give up and say: ‘Good lord, get on with it, fine.’ We are not going to do that. We will fight on and on. We are asking for a fair crack at justice.”
The powerful and emotive protests taking place up and down the country, are not just about combatting racism. They’re about tackling a system of institutionalised inequality. Inequality that’s pushed to the forefront by the fact that, three years since the deadly fire, those who have had their lives crushed by the disaster, still don’t have the answers or justice they are looking for.