Weep with rage for the betrayed ghosts of Grenfell
“Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people”
This is a piece I never wanted to write, about something I wish, with every fibre in my body, never happened. Those who died five years ago in Grenfell were betrayed in life, and are still being betrayed in death by a political class which now wields their remembrance against us all as a tool of depoliticisation.
Fighting for justice is an expression of remembrance, not a negation of it. In the five years since the fire at Grenfell tower killed 72 people, the vast majority of whom were ethnic and racial minorities, we have witnessed what sociologist Paul Gilroy describes as “the use of time as a weapon” and the careful curation of social injustice.
Can the current social arrangement of our society possibly achieve any meaningful justice for Grenfell? Is voting against the interests of corporations, proven to have knowingly acted in ways which made Grenfell an inevitability, an option within our existing political system?
The spectacular violence of Grenfell was a product of attritional violence from the degrading of building regulations on the macro level, to the ignoring of residents on a micro level. The injustice of Grenfell, which our society has consented to as status quo, is also the manifestation of a more insidious and invisible violence: social containment.
"Can the current social arrangement of our society possibly achieve any meaningful justice for Grenfell? Is voting against the interests of corporations, proven to have knowingly acted in ways which made Grenfell an inevitability, an option within our existing political system?"
As the flammable Arconic PE Reynobond cladding spread the fire up, across and down the building, we watched in disbelief. Pieces of the cursed solidified petrol fell on our heads like black snow on a summer’s night. Floating down alongside it was the combustible RS5000 insulation of Celotex, which nestled into our hair and scattered the street as we watched people call for help from the tower.
It is worth remembering that the bid to insulate buildings across Britain, which came following the Kyoto agreements and intense lobbying from foam insulation collective BRUFMA, was seen as a key way to lower carbon emissions. Arconic, the company which knowingly sold its flammable cladding, is currently owned by asset management giant BlackRock, its top shareholder. The bitter irony of the shallow case for environmentalism is Blackrock is also the top shareholder in the oil company Shell.
Watching in horror and outrage as the tower burned, one group we noticed waving white towels from the window of the 22nd floor were members of the Choucair family. As armed police barked at us underneath the tower and police rushed by with riot shields, we screamed to the clear dark and almost peaceful sky pleading that help come to these two people in the window.
Their waving became more frantic as a helicopter appeared hovering closer and closer towards them. Without understanding the logistics around helicopters and fires, we naively hoped that the helicopter would rescue them, and recordings from those inside the tower show they held onto the same hope. The helicopter flew closer to the Choucair family, but then turned slowly away from them in an excruciating move. The people inside the helicopter seemingly had what they wanted. We didn’t know yet what that was.
The two figures in the window stood shouting and waving until they moved no more. Not long after that, the fire enveloped the flat. Six members of the Choucair family were killed that night, three generations from grandmother to granddaughters. We watched so many people die there. So much beauty is lost forever. The screams fell silent as a hesitant morning broke.
Around the same time, a gentleman by the name of Omega Mwaikambo, a resident of the community, returned to his block neighbouring Grenfell, having watched the murderous corporate chaos on his doorstep. Instead of finding his door how he left it, he found a dead body wrapped in plastic and left directly outside the front door of his flat. The body lay motionless, with no explanation of how or why it was placed there.
Mwaikambo, in a bid to document the terror he was being forced to witness by untouchable multinational corporations and a servile government, took out his phone and filmed the body. He uploaded these images on Facebook, as if to cry out for help, perhaps to help the family of this soul know the whereabouts of their loved one. He later went out into the street and informed a professional photographer, Jason Kay, what had happened.
Kay promptly informed the police and conspired to have Mwaikambo arrested at the scene where his neighbours had just been killed. When asked about his decision by the BBC, Kay replied, “I felt I had to report that to the authorities given the circumstances, I did turn him into the cops. I'd do it again. Absolutely. 100%." Mwaikambo was charged with the 2003 Communications Act for posting offensive images to social media and was sentenced to three months in jail.
And so began the slow criminalisation of the victims and the amnesty of the criminals.
Later that day, I picked up the Evening Standard newspaper and the front page sent chills across my body. It was a horizontal shot of the Choucair family in their last moments. My belief was that the photograph could only have been taken from THAT helicopter.
"The two figures in the window stood shouting and waving until they moved no more. Not long after that, the fire enveloped the flat. Six members of the Choucair family were killed that night, three generations from grandmother to granddaughters"
The editor of the Evening Standard at the time was George Osbourne. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer is infamous for his austerity programme, which led to then Mayor of London Boris Johnson closing 10 fire stations (including Westminster and Knightsbridge, both close to Grenfell), and cutting 27 fire engines, 552 firefighters and 324 support staff. George Osbourne later went on to a £650,000 a year role at BlackRock, the top shareholder in Arconic, one of the key companies complicit in the Grenfell fire.
Karim Mussilhy, vice chair of the group of survivors and families called Grenfell United, said that “evidence from the public inquiry has shown this was always the government’s plan - to suppress unrest and violence at all costs.” A key group tasked with maintaining the social order after Grenfell was the Strategic Coordinating Group which was under the command of the Metropolitan Police.
In the Strategic Coordination Protocol manual put together under the banner of the London Resilience Partnership, the activity and function of this key column of social order is outlined clearly. At the declaration of a major incident by the Met, Civil Contingencies 2004 Blair era legislation kicks into action and the resilience mechanisms are implemented.
The manual details how the Strategic Coordinating Group will be organised: “the SCG may initially be chaired by the Metropolitan Police Service, but this may subsequently be handed over to the most appropriate agency, depending on the nature of the incident. A cadre of officers from partnership organisations will be available to fulfil the role of SCG chair.”
Today marks 5 years since the #Grenfell Tower Fire. 5 years ago our lives changed forever.— Grenfell United (@GrenfellUnited) June 14, 2022
Join us at 4pm for the multi-faith memorial service at Grenfell Tower. Walk with us at 6:30pm from the Nottinghill Methodist Church.
Today & always we remember our 72. Carry you always💚
Resilience, in the understanding of contingency legislation, is the maintenance of social order through the creation of an information chain which runs from third sector organisations, like charities and places of religious worship, directly to the police and even the military.
The manual describes the establishment of the “steady state” which signifies the return to the status-quo. “Steady state is the term used to describe the activities that organisations respond to and manage as part of their everyday responsibilities. Steady state may also be known as business as usual or normality.”
In the case of Grenfell, the return to business as usual has been exemplified in Kingspan, who, despite manufacturing the flammable K15 cladding on Grenfell, have doubled their trading profits since the fire.
The Strategic Coordination Protocol manual also asserts that at the top of the Joint Decision Model for the SCG is the “gathering of information and intelligence”. Can one deduce from this that the SCG commanded by the Met collected intelligence on the community and victims of Grenfell? If so, what was the nature of that intelligence and what is its purpose? The Civil Contingency legislation, and the resilience infrastructure built around it, exemplifies what Edward Said referred to as the “normalised quiet of unseen power.”
Journalist Ian Cobain details the government contingency plans around “controlled spontaneity” in the aftermath of major incidents as including key tell-tale signs. He identifies the use of specific logos, phrases and even the ostensibly spontaneous distribution of roses at the scene of a major incident as a form of social control.
All of these examples have been evident around the Grenfell tower over the past five years. As the persevering Karim Mussilhy continues, “This is a pattern – a system built to prevent justice and protect those in power. While this system exists, we face the same insurmountable challenge as the many before us. From Aberfan to Hillsborough, justice has been denied and Grenfell is no different.”
I used to say we lived in a museum of controlled spontaneity, but today it feels more like a mausoleum.
Lowkey is a British-Iraqi hip hop artist, academic and political campaigner. He is a patron of Stop The War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Racial Justice Network and The Peace and Justice Project founded by Jeremy Corbyn. His latest album Soundtrack To The Struggle 2 featured Noam Chomsky, Frankie Boyle and Ken Loach and has been streamed millions of times.
Follow him on Twitter: @Lowkey0nline
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