Matthew Bolton, Deputy Director at Citizens UK and author of How to Resist, looks at what actions might be useful following the Grenfell fire.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster we need resistance, not rage. Please don’t misunderstand me - I’m not saying don’t be angry. Watching the videos of people stuck in the tower as it burned, seeing the posters with pictures of lost children, knowing that this tragedy happened in the middle of one of the wealthiest places on earth, this is a truly sickening tragedy that warrants our collective ongoing fury. The roots of our word ‘anger’ are in the Norse word for grief and this is avoidable catastrophe and indescribable pain on a once in a generation scale. The question is what we do with the anger.
Channelled into effective resistance, this anger could drive the residents and neighbours in North Kensington to hold those responsible to account, to recreate their community and rebuild their lives. It could see the rest of us make Grenfell become a turning point, a watershed moment where we no longer accept that people in different income brackets have different rights to a home safe from fire. By turning that anger into action, we can create a national movement to say ‘never again’. Not just in a cathartic release of rage but in persistent and dogged campaigning. Success wouldn’t bring back those who died, or cancel out the trauma that will live on in people, but it would save many more lives and might just bring some sense to the tragedy that’s taken place.
Rage, on the other hand, is a passing howl resulting in some broken windows and placards left in the street to be cleared away. The problem with the ‘day of rage’ protest that took place last week was not just that it was ineffective, though it was. Unsurprisingly several hundred protestors did not bring the Government down and such symbolic protests and one-off mobilisations rarely achieve their grand aims. The more serious fault is that it risks repeating some of the same dynamics that got us here in the first place - that the voices of residents that were not listened to for years, are now not being listened to again. The Lancaster West Resident Association, which covers the estate around the Grenfell tower, has been in membership of Citizens UK for two and a half years. The residents that we’re working with who are connected to scores of local families are more concerned right now with the fundamentals. They want accurate information about the identities of those who lost their lives, they want to know that the air is safe to breathe and the building isn’t going to collapse, they need hot water, since the boiler that serves the whole estate was destroyed in the Grenfell tower. The people truly embedded in local communities tend not to be the voices we’ve read in the newspaper or seen on TV over this last week, myself included. That could be due to class bias in the media, or that journalists gravitate towards those who are most controversial, or more simply that such people are too busy visiting their neighbours and supporting those in need to be spokespeople. Bigger change must come, but let’s try to listen to those that have not been listened to.
Understanding the different causes is essential to finding the right responses. The Day of Rage event page says ‘we will not settle for less than the destruction of May’s coalition of austerity’. And the organisers of that protest are not the only ones pointing the finger at austerity. Had it not been for Tory cuts, so the argument goes, the Tower would not have burned, and no lives would have been lost. Without doubt, austerity has had a terrible impact on many vulnerable people with two examples being the bedroom tax and the scandalous cuts to Local Authorities that are having to cope with spiralling social care costs. But in this case, the local authority has nearly £274m in reserves, recently spent £5m on the Holland Park opera, and had a housing department that ran a £15m surplus. This points to a gross misallocation of funds, not an absence. The problem was that the residents were not listened to. When it came to allocating budgets and demanding attention the opera lobby sung louder than the residents of Grenfell.
The other narrative out there is that the problem lies solely in the incompetence or ideology of the leadership of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It’s right that there have been resignations in RBKC and there should be more. If the evidence is there, then there should be prosecutions. But if it’s solely the fault of certain politicians and officers, then why are Councils of all stripes now rushing to test and take down combustible cladding? This is a story of powerlessness and negligence up and down the country. By laying responsibility solely at national or local government we write the residents out of the story once again. Their voice, their agency, their power. Why weren’t they listened to when they complained about inadequate fire escapes and electrical surges, before this tragedy took place? And there are residents in hundreds of towers in exactly that same situation, whose complaints and requests have been long ignored.
There is a gross inequality in the distribution of power in our society and Grenfell demonstrates that with painful clarity. It may be one person, one vote, but people’s ability to get local and national government to listen is wildly different depending on their access to power. So, the answer cannot just be a new set of regulations and more funding, though we do need those too. People need to be equipped with the tools to build and use power, to demand not just that they are listened to, but that their interests are met. This means taking political action beyond the ballot box and the one-off protest. It means organising and campaigning, strengthening the tenants and residents’ groups, the churches, schools, voluntary sector and campaign groups. So that people and their local associations can stand up to the market when it tends towards exploitation and to the state when it tends towards bureaucratic negligence.
As it will have been for many, the Grenfell disaster was close to home for Citizens UK. The Lancaster West Residents’ Association, Kensington Aldridge Academy and Middlesex University Student’s Union are three communities that we know had members living in the tower, that are themselves member organisations of Citizens UK, and there are probably more. We have had community organisers on the ground in North Kensington for the last 10 days, supporting the residents’ association and some of the local faith communities and voluntary sector organisations that have been providing immediate relief to those affected and evacuated.
The flood of volunteers and donations of clothes, food and money was critical in those first few days given the woeful response of the state. But soon the food was piling up, needing to be disposed of, and the problem was more about where to store it all. The situation shifts rapidly from day to day, and for all the goodwill in the world, it’s impossible to know what’s needed and what’s not without being close to the ground. One surprising recent need was for volunteer accountants to support local community organisations to process the substantial funds that had been donated. With a range of partners, we are now working to try and build the capacity of the residents’ association so that by developing local leadership and fully engaging the community, they can articulate and secure what it is that they need and want. When the immediate needs of accommodation, hot water and some space to grieve and rest are met, that community can turn the conversation to how it will shape its own future and realise the justice it is owed.
For the rest of us there is a moment of urgency right now. There is a total of 600 buildings that have similar cladding to that which covered Grenfell, currently being tested to see whether they are flammable. That’s a sentence I can’t quite believe I am writing, and that’s tens of thousands of people going to bed last night scared. St Mary’s church by the Chalcot Estate in Camden is a member community of Citizens UK and they’ve had members of the congregation evacuated this weekend because the cladding turned out to be combustible. We know that in communities in membership from Newcastle to Milton Keynes and from Cardiff to London there is appetite for a campaign to say ‘Grenfell – Never Again’. So, if you’re angry then it’s time to channel that into effective resistance. If you want change, you need people power. So, join a local campaign and if there isn’t one to join then start one. Map out where the towers are in your area and reach out to residents’ associations, remembering to listen first to where they’re at and what they want. Let’s campaign and protest but let’s make it specific. First step, let’s persuade all Councils to follow the example of Croydon and Birmingham and commit to install sprinkler systems in all their towers. Beyond this issue, it’s about how we address powerlessness, equipping citizens with the tools to organise so that it doesn’t take a disaster to get their voices heard.