How Grenfell Survivors Are Organizing in the Wake of a Tragedy

Lawmakers are dragging their feet and a wounded community is pissed about it.

Jul 17 2017, 9:30pm

Photo courtesy of the author

Inside the church of St Clements and St. James there is a palpable sense of dread, anger and exhaustion. On June 14, Grenfell Tower, a 24-story high-rise apartment building in London was destroyed in a massive fire. Most of the survivors from the fire are still displaced.

Nestled underneath the remains of Grenfell Tower, this church has served as a makeshift warehouse for relief efforts, a place to grieve for the traumatized survivors and neighbors and a focal point for visiting politicians. Outside, its gates are covered in messages of condolences and photographs of the missing. Opposite is Lancaster West estate, over which Grenfell Tower looks over. Sheets hanging from the windows are covered in paint pleading 'Justice 4 Grenfell'.

On Wednesday evening, four weeks following the tragic night that saw the building engulfed in flames, in which at least 80 people are believed to have been killed, it is the chosen space for the second community public meeting. The first one was held a week earlier at the Al Manaar, a Muslim cultural center following calls by Justice 4 Grenfell, a community-led coalition established to obtain justice for its residents, that the community needed to be held up to date with how the government would act.

The panel is made up of a number of senior figures involved in the Government-led response on the ground.

The aim: give the grieving survivors and locals an update from the response team.

The result: a vivid reflection of the community's raw trauma, pain, sense of outrage and injustice. For them, the response has just not been enough.

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Hilary Patel who is assisting with community engagement for the Grenfell Response begins the meeting by answering queries that had been brought up by locals the previous week at Al Manaar.

"Last week we had lots of questions about the safety of the building," she begins, as the audience listens in anticipation.

"We don't have someone in today to answer questions about this but we will do next week." You can almost hear the sound of the residents' shoulders dropping in disappointment.

But the answers can be found in the daily newsletter produced by the Grenfell Fire Response team, or online she adds.

"The building was never and has never been a risk of falling down. I know it's hard to believe," Patel continues. She knows her audience is understandably a very skeptical one, "but it is the honest truth."

"I promise you," she emphasizes, "that's where we are now".

The response teams supporting the survivors is not only asking for the survivors' trust but also their patience .

The response teams supporting the survivors is not only asking for the survivors' trust but also their patience. According to the panel, everything to do with Grenfell is "complex." No one denies that. However, in practice, it means survivors and those affected have to wait for answers while trusting that the authorities are doing all that they can (after decades of doing the exact opposite).

"Can the building be covered up?" asks one of the survivors.

He receives the same answers again. It is "complex" and "will take time." Covering the windows would change the humidity of the building, which would have an impact on the "things inside that building that relate to people" and "we need to give people their loved ones back," Patel justifies, "it would also affect the investigation."

Three phrases are reiterated countless times throughout the 90-minute community meeting.

"It takes time because of the heat that was generated," and "so there are things that we can't do right now," "we don't want to risk hampering the investigation."

It is the answer the panel gives to all the below questions:

"When will the building be covered up?"
"Why haven't charges been pressed?"
"Will anyone be charged?"
"How long will the investigation take?"
"When will all the victims be identified?"
"Will Lancaster West estate [the estate Grenfell Tower was part of] be closed down?"
"What are we supposed to say to our children who walk past Grenfell Tower every day?"
"Why hasn't anyone from the Council been to see me?"

"I am sorry we can't do this faster," she ends. But that is understandably not good enough of an answer for those in the room who have lost everything.

And so the silence in the room is replaced with anger.

"Why are you not protecting us, we know you exist, we know councils exist, but we don't exist, we don't count for anything."

"Everyday, 100 times a day, we burn and come back again, it has been four weeks now, it's gone on too long. Why are you not protecting us, we know you exist, we know councils exist, but we don't exist, we don't count for anything," a survivor cries.

Overshadowing the meeting is the fact that the government response following the fire was inadequate. Relief efforts were largely provided by local volunteers and the government and council were heavily criticized for not stepping up.

Following protests led by Justice 4 Grenfell, the government which was under pressure made some promises. One month on, these are far from being fulfilled. For example, Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to rehouse those displaced by the fire within three weeks. But today, only 14 out of 158 families needing housing have accepted offers for temporary homes.

The reason? It is complicated, the response teams reiterates. "Choosing a temporary home for families that have undergone unimaginable loss and trauma is a big decision, and we are at pains to ensure they have the time to select a home that is right for them at a time that is right," wrote the Grenfell Response Team in a print out given to the audience, justifying the low numbers. "We are doing all we can," reiterates the panel.

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But are they? The survivors and activists are not convinced. A draft statement of Kensington and Chelsea's accounts for 2016-17 confirmed their suspicions. The document disclosed that the council itself has "usable" reserves of £274 million.

The sum allocated to the families who have lost their homes? £5,500 per household through the Grenfell Tower Residents' Discretionary Fund.

"You need to buy permanent properties for the survivors!" called out a member of the audience. A request many supported with claps.

"We were there and saw what happened, we can't even describe the pain. Those who we've lost, we can't bring them back, but what about those of us who remain? You're not doing anything for us," cries a lady in Farsi who used to live in Grenfell Tower.

Also promised mid-June was an investigation that would get to the truth of the matter.

Detective chief inspector Matt Bonner, who is leading the police investigation, attempted to reassure the audience that he would bring those responsible to justice.

"Unfortunately an investigation of this scale will not be quick but it will be thorough, it will get to the bottom of whatever happened and hold those to account, anyone that needs holding to account whether that be an individual or an organization."

But he struggled.

"We will do all of that but we won't do that all tomorrow."

The emotions from the 200 people present in the church were raw.

"The pace is too slow." "Our friends were murdered, our neighbors were murdered." "This is state terrorism." "It's mass murder," survivors called out.

Bonner said a team of about 250 officers was working on the criminal investigation. In an attempt to illustrate the scale of the operation, he said the team would interview about 650 firefighters, 300 police officers, 255 Grenfell fire survivors and residents of the Lancaster West Estate.

"Well if you need 1,000 officers working round the clock, find 1,000 officers. This is a national disaster, a national disgrace, a national tragedy."

The survivors and families of the bereaved want nothing more than Justice 4 Grenfell, like the painting hanging outside the church illustrates. Their raw anger is a troubling sign of the possibility that not enough might be being done.

You can support the Justice 4 Grenfell campaign here.