In the months since the fire at Grenfell Tower, 39-year-old lawyer Attiq Malik has heard many stories from many residents - people who've lost family members, friends, their homes and livelihoods.
There’s one that really stands out for him, though. One that is, he says, “indicative of the way the government of this country is treating certain people”.
In July, a group of residents were shut out of the first council meeting held by Kensington and Chelsea after the disaster. “Instead of opening the doors and helping them”, Malik told me, “the residents were shut out. They saw a senior official holding up his hand, mouthing the words, ‘Don’t let them in’. The council’s first reaction was to barricade these residents out. That’s something that so many people remember”. The senior official was Tory councillor Matthew Taylor.
Malik is part of an umbrella action group called BME Lawyers for Grenfell, which was formed one night in June at the Al Manaar centre, a Mosque and community centre just around the corner from Grenfell Tower. Made up of leading black and minority ethnic organisations, as well as residents of the tower, the group’s focus is on legally representing the community as a whole and insuring they are properly treated.
Thus far, the government has chosen to sideline BME Lawyers for Grenfell, denying the group core participant status on the panel of the public inquiry into the tragedy.
Today, the group has launched a page on the crowdfunding platform CrowdJustice, a sort of Kickstarter for legal cases. They are challenging the government’s decision to freeze them out. At a time when legal aid has been smashed to smithereens and the vast sums of money donated to assist survivors remains, for the most, part trapped in limbo, public backing in order to represent the public could be their only hope.
“We’re going up against the government of this country and they’ve got access to unlimited resources, to whatever legal team they wish to put together. So on that note, you want equality of arms”, says Malik. “In an ideal world, in a progressive, modern country like ours, you would expect there to be access to justice for everybody, but the reality is that there isn’t”.
Still, Malik believes that, justice can be done for “one of the greatest tragedies this country has seen. What we feel is that the government is culpable for this tragedy, for the socio-economic context in which it has happened, for the way they brand and treat people from a certain class and background.”
BME Lawyers for Grenfell believe that involving them fully in the inquiry is vital because the group is truly representative of the community in terms of its members’ class and ethnic background and because its members have vast experience fighting for justice for non-white, working class communities.
Having been fatally let down by local and central governments, the survivors of the fire are now in danger of not being properly legally represented. The trauma of the experience is being compounded by the horrifying feeling that they will be let down all over again.
This is partly, Malik argues, because the establishment figures leading the public inquiry couldn’t be less representative of the residents of Grenfell Tower. “When one panel member was asked what their qualifications were, the answer was, ‘I woke up in the morning and I put on the TV and what happened at Grenfell made me really upset’,” he laughs.
This pattern of events, says Paul Gilroy, author of There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and The Black Atlantic, is a familiar experience for black British communities. Gilroy points to the racist murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane in 1959 and the Notting Hill riots of 1976 as two of a number of historical antecedents in this part of West London alone. “Wired into the peculiar political configuration of the neighbourhood as it evolves into this place of great wealth, is the repression on the truth that is applied. That inability to speak the truth about Grenfell is there”, Gilroy says.
“We want to continue to advocate for the community”, says Viv Ahmun who, as part of the group Blaksox, is a member of BME Lawyers for Grenfell. A social policy advisor and organiser who worked for former mayors of London Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, Ahmun tells me that the British state “wants to control the process” of investigating the fire.
“The local authority experienced a catastrophic failure as a consequence of a lack of preparation”, Ahmun says. “That failure to respond is a by-product of what’s been going on with local authorities since 2008”. Cuts have bitten deep. People have been laid off. Budgets slashed.
Between 2011 and 2014, Ahmun did some work for the Home Office that involved going into around 46 local authorities. “What struck me were the empty desks, and the fear and absorption of the people who were still there”, he says. “These are stripped back institutions trying to pretend they are in control”. Under these conditions, we have seen a rise in organised crime as a result of a reduced police presence, as well as the deterioration in public services and a catastrophic fire.
Like Malik, who went to the site of the fire the day after it happened, Ahmun has spent much of the past five months listening to the stories of survivors and planning how to achieve justice on their behalf. Both men have heard how residents could not believe what was happening, how they got final calls from family members inside the building, how they felt bitterly let down by the local authority and the government. “Within seconds of them speaking”, says Malik, “almost every resident I’ve spoken to breaks down in tears”.
Both Malik and Ahmun are hoping to achieve justice for the community, to be the legal and strategic brains that keep the establishment from finding an easy scapegoat or doing the bare minimum. "Personally", Ahmun says, "I don't go into these cases expecting to win". For him, this is realistic rather than defeatist, and besides, he's not finished. "What I want is to make them think 52 times before every move".