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On the 14th September, three months after the tower block fire claimed an unknown number of lives and left many hundreds homeless, the controversial Grenfell Tower inquiry was opened.
Its chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, promised that the inquiry will:
provide answers to how the disaster could have happened in 21st century London
and stated that he:
would not shrink away from making recommendations that could lead to prosecutions.
The inquiry will be split into two phases – the first will examine how the blaze developed, and the second will explore how the tower block became exposed to the risk of such a large fire.
The local community have raised concerns that this inquiry will simply be another in a long line of governmental failures, and that justice for the families will not be done. Sir Martin has already been criticised for refusing to include a survivor on the inquiry panel due to the feeling that this would supposedly ‘undermine impartiality.’
On the first day of the inquiry, protestors angry at Sir Martin’s decision gathered outside the Grand Connaught Rooms where the inquiry was being held. The Chair of the inquiry has also been accused of disrespecting survivors by refusing to answer a question from a lawyer representing the survivors.
Solicitor Jhangir Mahmood, who is representing several Grenfell families, said there was a ‘huge level of mistrust’ amongst survivors, who believe they still haven’t been listened to.
Pilgrim Tucker, who previously worked with the Grenfell Action Group and is continuing to support local residents, said:
‘Residents from Lancaster West Estate asked Theresa May to involve them in the decision making on the Grenfell Inquiry. In appointing Sir Martin Moore-Bick, she has ignored them, and appointed a completely inappropriate judge. We have no faith that this inquiry will produce justice.’
The community’s concerns are understandable. The story of Grenfell has been littered with systematic failures by the local council and the government. As well as this, we don’t have a great track record when it comes to justice being done for victims of state crime or negligence.
A tragedy of this scale involving state responsibility can be compared to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Hillsborough families fought for justice for twenty seven years. After a series of inquests, in April 2016 a jury finally concluded, after several inquiries that glossed over the true nature of events of the day, that the ninety six people who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed. This decision overturned the verdict of accidental death at the original inquest, and exonerated Liverpool fans who had originally been blamed for causing the tragedy.
We cannot let Grenfell families become yet more victims of a flawed justice system that is more concerned about protecting the establishment than seeing justice be done.
Residents were repeatedly failed
The story of Grenfell has been littered with systematic failures by the local council and the government. According to Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, writing in the Independent yesterday, the ‘six key ways the government has failed survivors and their families and loved ones of the bereaved’ includes cuts from the top, a failure to heed warnings, a failure to house the majority of residents – in spite of Theresa May’s promise – and no proper amnesty for migrants and undocumented people.
The Grenfell Action Group repeatedly warned of fire risks at the tower block (and in the local area), due to inadequate provision of basic safety regulations and the use of dangerous cladding. They had concluded that their concerns were falling on deaf ears, and predicted an inevitable catastrophe. The residents were also failed by our media, who, as outlined by journalist Jon Snow, failed to listen or provide an opportunity for this story to be told.
To add insult to injury, in the immediate aftermath of the fire it was the community who rallied to provide practical support to survivors and help look for the missing – not the authorities.
The contrasting images of Jeremy Corbyn comforting local residents and Theresa May speaking only to emergency service workers, spoke volumes about the divided response to the tragedy, and, on a wider scale, the general response to people like the Grenfell residents across the UK.
Then – if they hadn’t already been through enough – the traumatised survivors of the fire were lied to by Theresa May about being rehoused within three weeks. Over 80% are still living in hotels and struggling to find homes.
Although after the fire there was a sense that the country was grieving, it soon became clear that some were shedding crocodile tears – tears which quickly evaporated as public opinion shamefully turned against the survivors.
Reports that Grenfell survivors were being subjected to a torrent of racist abuse on social media emerged just weeks after the fire. The focus of the rants, which were found all over social media, was that the Grenfell survivors were undeserving of help; this was often based on the survivors’ presumed ethnicity.
For some – our government, affiliated mainstream media and an increasingly nationalistic, victim-blaming, ‘gerrout-my-country’ section of the British public – Grenfell represented all that is supposedly ‘wrong’ with modern Britain. We are ‘too soft’, letting ‘too many of *them* in.’ There are too many ‘scroungers’ and benefits claimants.
Many presumed that Grenfell residents were immigrants, and illegal immigrants at that. Some have voiced concerns over illegal subletting. Yet whether the people who lived in the tower block were white British, European, British-born ethnic minorities, or immigrants (illegal or otherwise) should not come into this.
Many residents – some of whom were children – died in a horrific way, and the ones who survived have been inconceivably traumatised, as have members of the local community who witnessed the death and destruction. The survivors have lost everything – their homes, possessions, families, and friends.
Human lives should never be valued according to ethnicity, nationality – or wealth.
A symbol of austerity Britain
Yet for many of us, the blackened tomb of Grenfell Tower looming into the sky is a poignant symbol and constant reminder of austerity Britain under the Tories. It represents wider issues – the intersection of class, poverty, housing and race – and the fact that our present government simply do not care about the lives of ordinary Britons. Diane Abbott described the tragedy as ‘the culmination of years of Tory cuts and neglect’ and said that:
‘Addressing the systematic failures requires a systematic overhaul in how the poorest and most vulnerable are treated by government. The limited terms of reference for the inquiry are a disappointment to residents and many others.’
Changes since Tories and Brexit
Since Brexit, some areas of the country have witnessed a noticeable rise in hate crime and a general feeling that it’s now perfectly OK to openly discriminate against minority groups.
Under a Labour government in the late 90s and noughties, whatever your thoughts about Blair, it certainly felt as though we had become more tolerant as a nation. There was support for the most vulnerable members of society, no-one wanted to be called a racist, and we seemed to be progressing, in a fashion, towards a future of greater equality.
But the election of a Tory government brought with it a sea change which rippled out into our media and into the hearts and minds of the public. We regressed, as a nation, into having a polarised view of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. We travelled back to a dark, not-so-distant past where human beings were dehumanised for belonging to a particular group, and are now witnessing another disturbing rise of the far right.
By 2016, it had apparently become acceptable for servile hatemonger Katie Hopkins to describe refugees fleeing war-torn countries as ‘cockroaches’ in the tabloid press. Empathy for other human beings appears to have hit an all-time low, and although social media has a part to play in this, having access to a platform in which to air your political views doesn’t directly cause people to have a lack of empathy for others.
Scapegoating in times of austerity
So what has caused this ever-decreasing human empathy towards the suffering of others? Much has been written on the theory of scapegoating, which suggests that in times of economic difficulties or when resources are scarce, people will blame the most recent arrivals, or the most vulnerable members of a society.
It has been widely documented that ethnic minorities in the UK and beyond, have been repeatedly blamed for a lack of resources. The ‘they’re coming here taking our jobs’ mentality is nothing new – concerns over ‘waves’ of people washing up on our little island and stealing everything they can get their hands on have been present for centuries. If a group of people are seemingly fighting over resources, it’s almost inevitable that blame will be apportioned.
Owen Jones wrote about a lack of empathy towards refugees in 2015, and then again (about a lack of empathy towards a range of people) in 2016, when writing about Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series and the dangerous consequences when we no longer see a specific group as human. Jones said:
Dehumanisation, leads to the tolerance of suffering at best, to murder at worst. Restoring our shared humanity isn’t easy, not least because powerful interests – from media outlets to politicians – relentlessly seek to undermine it. But it is the only hope for a troubled world.
Divide and rule
And then there is the theory of divide and rule. If the elite – our government and closely affiliated mainstream media – can whip up enough of a frenzy about Muslims, immigrants and/or benefit claimants, the focus will be on them rather than our corrupt leaders and what is really going on.
Instead of attacking the establishment, people will attack each other. It amazes me what mainstream media outlets are allowed to get away with, and that many people willingly believe what they say.
Grenfell survivors deserve the very best
Like the Hillsborough families, or any other human being who has experienced immense trauma, the survivors of Grenfell Tower deserve the very best. They deserve decent homes, so that they can begin to rebuild their lives and try to move on from what happened – although it is hard to imagine they will ever completely forget.
They deserve support, counselling, and yes, holidays. They deserve our empathy, and for the British public to dig deep into their hearts and try to really imagine what these people have been through. Imagine how desperate you would have to be to throw your own child out of a window to try and save their life.
They deserved the British public, in the aftermath of the fire, to lay a metaphorical blanket around their shoulders and stick the kettle on to make sweet tea for the shock, instead of being subjected to abuse.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the Grenfell survivors and their community deserve justice: for those with blood-stained hands to be held accountable for their failure to protect human lives in spite of repeated warnings. The people who were caught up in the fire were real human beings; it could have happened to any of us.
The mistakes that were made during the first Hillsborough inquiries cannot be allowed to be repeated. Grenfell families should not have to spend decades of their lives fighting for justice. The Grenfell inquiry provides an opportunity for Britain to put compassion and basic human empathy back on the agenda. I hope that Sir Martin Moore-Bick and others responsible for carrying out this inquiry can find it in their hearts to do so, and that justice will be done.
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