This isn’t about London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, the horrific inferno that killed approximately 79 people, and likely more. It’s about how that tragedy is being used by a range of groups who are claiming it as part of their own pre-existing narratives. And what that shows about the state of public debate and the media in the United Kingdom.
First the facts, as we currently know them. Just after midnight on 14 June, a fire started on the fourth floor of the 24-storey building. Grenfell Tower was built around 50 years ago as “council flats” (government-owned, low rent apartments for those with low or no income). It is in one of the wealthiest areas of London.
During the time of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, council tenants were offered the right to buy their flats under certain conditions. Some did. At the time of the fire, Grenfell Tower had some private owners, some renters, and some sub-letters, but there was still a high proportion of apartments that were “council flats”. There is a very long waiting list for these sorts of apartments.
The building landlord is the local government, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In that Borough alone, around 2,700 families are on the waiting list for council flats.
Last year, as part of a £10m refurbishment to the building paid for by the Borough, new external cladding was installed. Following the renovations, the residents’ organisation repeatedly voiced safety concerns in the time leading up to the fire. It now seems as though that cladding may have contributed to undermining the fire safety of the building and the fire’s rapid spread.
And people died. Many, many people died.
Volunteers immediately came in large numbers from all over to provide clothes, food, money, emotional support and more to the survivors. That’s some of what we know about the fire itself. What happened next gets more complicated. It was the battle for the narrative—different groups vying to use the tragedy as proof of their own positions.
Soon after the fire, businessman and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn-supporting political activist Mustafa Mansour, called for a demonstration in front of Kensington Town Hall. Mansour doesn’t live in the area, though he said he had a family-friend who died in the fire. Once the list of the missing and dead started to be compiled, it became clear that a large proportion of the victims were Muslims. The first announced death was a Syrian refugee. Mansour’s family friend was an Egyptian national. An entire family from Bangladesh is missing. Mansour used to be spokesman for the Finsbury Park Mosque. While the Mosque now condemns its former extremism, it is the former home of Imam Abu Hamza, currently serving life in prison in the United States for terrorism. A decade ago, Mansour himself had been arrested, and released, on suspicion of terrorism offences. His choice to be the one to call a demonstration served to tie the fire to other, much larger debates. And he would have known that.
Two days after the fire, hundreds of demonstrators answered Mansour’s call and showed up at Town Hall. He presented a list of demands, including fire victims being rehoused in the same area. The demonstrators became violent. Town Hall was stormed. One man, who had volunteered to help the survivors, was mistaken for a council worker and beaten.
Then the Movement For Justice By Any Means Necessary (MFJ) organised a “Day of Rage” march of around 500 people carrying signs reading like “this is class war” and “defy Tory rule”. However, an organisation working closely with some of the victims stated: “We cannot emphasise enough how against this many of the affected residents we’ve spoken to are and they do not want their grief hijacked for any violent or destructive means.”
In the meantime, Jeremy Corbyn was also advancing the narrative that the fire was the fault of the Conservatives and the “rich”. He called for the vacant homes of overseas investors to be “requisitioned” to rehouse those left homeless by the fire.
On the left, among the loudest voices, there was a clear conflation of poverty, race, religion and politics.
Which began to spark a pushback. When an article appeared in the Independent reporting that the true number of victims may never be known, because those in the Grenfell Tower who were illegal immigrants or refugees may not come forward for fear of deportation, the comment section of the normally middle of the road newspaper lit up with those railing at why recently arrived and illegal immigrants seemed to be getting housing when many others were not. Those were the polite comments.
And on 19 June, a mentally disturbed Caucasian British homeless man drove from Wales to London to ram his rented van into people standing near the Finsbury Park Mosque. After the attack, former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson tweeted that “The mosque where the attack happened tonight has a long history of creating terrorists & radical jihadists & promoting hate & segregation.” And “I’m not justifying it, I’ve said many times if government or police don’t sort these centres of hate they will create monsters as seen tonight.” He was widely attacked in the mainstream press. At the same time, his 2015 autobiography suddenly became a bestseller.
Frankly, the situation is a mess. The Grenfell fire disaster and how it was used brings to the fore many complex issues that need addressing, or at least discussing. But it is unclear how that will happen. So, the situation is likely to continue, feeding division and hardening positions, until the next disaster notches it up one more level.
As for the fire victims, millions of pounds have been raised for them, Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry into the disaster, and there are possible manslaughter charges being investigated against some of those involved in the renovations. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has announced that the government will permanently rehouse many former Grenfell Tower residents in 68 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in the luxury £2 billion Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent for North America.