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Grenfell two months on: still living in limbo

Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback

August 14, 2017
9 min read

Volunteers sort donations for survivors of the Grenfell fire. Photo: ChiralJon/Flickr

‘We should have rioted,’ a youth I work with from North Kensington told me the other day. Eight weeks after the corporate massacre of Grenfell Tower, the mood in North Kensington is surreal. Where W10 and W11’s restraint and stoicism kept young Londoners away from violence, the death of Rashan Charles has stoked tensions.

The tinderbox has been set. Another spark could very well lead to 2011-style nationwide uprisings against the state. The only route out is for justice, in a broad sense, to feel like a tangible dream. But what does this look like?

The crisis continues

North Kensington developed autonomous sites of relief and support through necessity, after central and local government showed an incapacity to serve the people. It was not the state, nor was it a love of the status quo, that kept the youth and malcontents from venting their rage, but the radical possibilities afforded by the voluntary relief effort. Just like in the riots six years ago, youths from warring territories put their beef on hold to engage in a broader struggle.

However, as we approach two months since the massacre, the cloak of normalcy and officialdom is being surreptitiously wrapped around the area. With the systemic violence of everyday life comes the return of meaningless hype wars of the youth. Keeping the ire from the fire directed at those in power is a necessity for social order, despite assumptions to the contrary.

The new council leader Elizabeth Campbell has willingly given members of the community and affected families her phone digits, though she has been known not to return calls, despite urgent needs being made clear in text and voicemails. The commitments to right the past administration’s wrongs have necessitated tapping into council reserves.

Under Campbell, quite radical overtures are being made to assuage the community; classic reform to conserve. Those who crave normalcy may warm, but most see the encroachment of the council into areas that felt liberated as a threat to public order.

Moreover, within North Kensington it’s abundantly clear that the crisis remains active. Only 14 families have been permanently rehoused. The vast majority of those who escaped the fire are living in the limbo of hotel living. The council has made deals where people can be housed in close-by West London boroughs. One family were offered multiple homes in Ealing, choosing one on offer, only to be told it was too expensive.

Neoliberal malfeasance was felt to have reached its nadir with Grenfell. Not only did systematic deregulation from central government allow for what happened, but corrupt local council leaders imposed needless and criminal austerity and made a joke of fire safety standards. Yet, when the scandals after the fire are properly catalogued, it’s clear that the market state simply cannot tap into any morality, an entirely alien value system to this stage of neoliberalism.

Residents of Lancaster West and Grenfell Tower warned their landlord, the KCTMO, in so many ways of their recklessness, but working class protestations – however articulate – were muted. With the world’s media focussing their lenses on the Lancaster West Estate, gardeners have beautified it, but exposed gas pipes continue to worry residents who are sure that the gas was a huge contributory factor to the Grenfell fire and is a threat to their life.

The culture of contempt is so profound that the blinkers that prevent councillors from hearing the inconvenient demands for adequate housing also stop the authorities from understanding the rage from the fire this time. The ruling class of the Royal Borough dismissed their subjects and presided over a series of events that undermined their very right to rule, and the people know it.

The people’s stability

Where the state failed, the people excelled. As I type these words, volunteers continue to do logistical work to provide money for those affected. Yes, even eight weeks after the fire, there is still a voluntary system of aid distribution that has hundreds mobilised daily, thousands weekly. The state’s anarchy was, and continues to be, met by the people’s stability. Tonnage of gargantuan proportions continues to sift through the community’s hands.

Just last week, community organisations demanded that the provisions stored as far afield as Surrey be returned to the area and distributed by the community, for the community. Distrust of the state has meant most organisations in the area are seeking alternatives away from state structures. Much of the aid has been liquidated, the money being given to community funds.

However, while the organisations that mutated in the face of such community need became aid distribution centres, few now can afford to maintain the functions. Despite distrust towards the state and Gold Command, in many people’s eyes, it’s time they stepped up to the plate and took control of the logistics of aid. Tensions about how to empower the community have surfaced as a consequence.

The profound failures of power have left those on the front-line of community work continuously overwhelmed. As the dust settles, issues unseen continue to come to the surface. Many of those traumatised come to assist in the voluntary centres set up to help them. Meetings are everywhere and nowhere. The signs of trauma are ever-present. Resolutions, however, remain – at best – distant.

Disaster capitalism

The survivors and affected residents are being hounded by the scavengers of disaster capitalism. The shock doctrine has come to the ends. The classic neoliberal device of providing services to conflicts is being put into practice, with many offering their CVs to stake their claim on the glut of money that is coming into the area. It is easy to paint the community as hostile and the state as in need of help ‘interfacing’. Many hours and days have been spent swatting the pests away.

When the corporate-minded outsiders aren’t present, the paternalistic and patronising methodologies of well-intentioned liberals bristle against the community. So many are keen to speak for the residents of Notting Dale and Latimer, few have taken the time to speak with them and win the support for the banner they seek the community’s unity under.

The issues of class oppression can be found anywhere. Numerous groups have been set up to serve the community, with few people from the community actually behind the initiative or empowered by it. The media, the documentary makers, the artists who came to paint the streets, the NGO workers and volunteers all came to serve the people. Often, they don’t know the people, and are dismayed when the skills they bring to the table are not warmly embraced.

The reality is that the community need time and space to depend upon themselves. Only then will they be able to take stock of what they need. However, time waits for few. The Westfield extension grows closer to the area by the day. The Westway and A40 halt the line of development for the time being, but the cranes loom large. Ask a young person in the area about what the future holds and they will not mince their words – they know the future is not being planned for those on low incomes to pay manageable rents. The Dale, one of London’s most long-standing working class communities, remains under threat.

The council have put their redevelopments in North Kensington on hold, for now. It is an indication that they know they went too far, too fast, with criminal consequences. The failure of the state was the breaking of the social contract. The whole edifice of society was broken by the events before, during and after the Grenfell fire. The conditions for life’s flourishing were not created by the state or its functionaries – a death trap was created instead.

No return to the status quo

The failures, the broken promises and the abject contempt shown by the local authority has meant even Gold Command are supportive of a kind of people’s council, where local community and voluntary leaders will be empowered. A radical rethinking of local democracy is surely demanded.

However, the demands go further. True localism requires not just representation where decisions are made, but a role in the budgeting and decision-making processes themselves. Grenfell would not have happened if the residents led the redevelopment of the tower.

After the fire, the 1,652 empty homes in Kensington would have had been subject to Compulsory Purchase Orders, the third of a billion the council holds in reserves being more than sufficient to cover it. That’s just common sense to those who see need and want to address it. However, the council thinks differently. Temporary housing is being offered. Long-term housing solutions in the area are being worked on, but at an unacceptable timescale.

For all their supplications, the state and local authority are banking on the status quo’s return. They are working on it slowly and methodically. Despairingly, the community will either have to accept it, or find the means to fight against it. However, two months on, with seasons to change soon, the radical possibilities of the present will soon become a past.

The restraint, resilience and resources of the people of North Kensington, shown after the crimes of state, must be rewarded. A status quo returning, with the community expected to repress their trauma and accept continued governance from failed institutions, is a further act of barbarism. Any further institutional violence must be resisted, or the whirlwind will be reaped.

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