Stop Denying the Grenfell Residents' Right to Anger
Amazingly, some people seem to think that they should try a little harder to not be so angry.
A protest march for justice for Grenfell on Friday (Photo: Simon Childs)
At Al Manaar – the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in Ladbroke Grove – on Saturday, displaced victims of the Grenfell Tower and their neighbours gathered to hear from representatives of the legal community who have offered to help them get justice.
They discussed concerns about the slow identification of the missing or dead; whether police liaison officers are there to give families information or merely placate them; the need for trauma councillors; visas for families in foreign countries wanting to attend funerals; and issues of burial. They urged people to get behind a public inquiry, rather than an inquest, because the scope of an inquiry is larger.
Considered legalese sat uncomfortably with raw trauma, with people loudly interrupting to berate the council, to question why they weren't present at meetings such as this. Some residents who spoke were clearly distressed; people started sobbing at an explosion of emotion from one resident, who started shouting after being asked to wait her turn to speak.
Some locals urged people to engage with the legal system, and applauded calls for a unified response. Others vented their anger at the lawyers. One questioned what power these lawyers had, when they had been let down by the system for so long. To some, it seemed that the justice system would bring another in a long line of institutional responses which, so far, have been completely inadequate. "Bring criminal charges. If you can't do that what are you doing here?" one man shouted. "If you can't do that, leave. Go… there is no justice without criminal charges."
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In the polite comment pages of the press, meanwhile, anger and fury are discussed as an unfortunate mood swing rather than a visceral outrage. People are understandably beside themselves, having watched their neighbours get incinerated in a preventable disaster. However, some seem to think this is equatable with someone getting a bit hangry after an annoyingly long wait to be served at a restaurant. Congratulations to the Guardian's Debora Orr for the most insipid of these takes. She suggested that "Anger doesn't help people to listen." Two residents of the tower, Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair, were threatened with legal action by KCTMO for campaigning about fire safety. They are now missing, presumed dead.
While the traumatised survivors and local community are urged to bottle up their anger, politicians are criticised for not hamming up their supposed humanity enough. Theresa May has been criticised for her failure to meet survivors when she visited the scene. In a typical line of argument in the Standard, Andrew Gimson concluded, "Most of the politicians we have heard speaking after the fire have failed to express the deep emotion felt by Londoners. Only those who manage to do this deserve to have a future in politics." However, he failed to grasp the blindingly obvious: it's very difficult for politicians to convincingly empathise with anger that is directed at the political class.
That may go some way to explaining the state's lackadaisical response in general. Professional buck-passers, politicians know what to do when an outrage is perpetrated by one of their bogey-men, such as Islamist terrorists. They have no idea how to react when they are considered the ones who should bear the weight of shame.
The disaster has been politicised beyond doubt. Few people are daring to suggest that this was simply a "tragedy". Nevertheless, there's still a question over who gets to respond politically.
Following the protest outside Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, the Telegraph ran a headline, "Militants hijack inferno protest", claiming, "Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn were accused of exploiting the grief of Grenfell Tower residents, as despair spilled into angry protests". You have to assume the paper was being wilfully obtuse in order to smear the protest as somehow "radical" and illegitimate. Times columnist Iain Martin went one further, telling people not to protest because he doesn't like it: "I don't like direct action. I don't even much like demos. And I really despise tin-pot revolutionaries whipping up the mob."
Mustafa Almansur, the "militant" organiser who the Telegraph chose to smear, despite him having a family friend die in the fire, was keen to make sure that his protest was deemed respectable. After the disorder at Kensington and Chelsea town hall, he said, "The people didn't storm the building; they walked into the building," adding that "things got out of hand" after extra police entered the building.
Following the protest, a notice on the council's website read:
"The town hall has been closed following damage caused during a protest. Volunteers planning to attend tomorrow and Sunday to help sort donations should not come until further notice. Please check this website for further updates."
This comes across at best as a deeply unserious reaction from a council whose attempt at relieving the situation has been branded "not good enough" by other councils that stepped in to help. At worst, it appears to be a dig at the protesters from a body that has seemingly ignored the complaints of its poorer residents. When the official channels of dissent have failed so disastrously, it's weird but not surprising to see concern about a protest transgressing agreed parameters.
After the meeting at the mosque, people hung around remonstrating and discussing what to do, with some feeling it necessary to give some context, arguing that the politicians hate poor people and making it clear that the feeling is mutual.
Apparently it doesn't go without saying that people are right to be angry. The fact that it needs to be said at all leads to more illuminating questions. Whose opinion and political expression is deemed important? Who gets to mediate the frustration? Who is told, again, to shut up? Answer those and you start to get to the bottom of what went wrong.