In the ashes of empire: Remembering Grenfell five years on
While we’re constantly told Britain had an empire, understanding Britain was an empire had been harder to explain. That was until Grenfell, the night our eyes changed.
Five years ago today, a psychopathic concoction of private industry and state deceit caused 72 people to lose their lives, in a modern British act of murderous neglect.
"George Floyd’s last words 'I can’t breathe' and breathlessness as a symptom of COVID-19 reinforce the idea that suffocation is a lasting metaphor for the globally oppressed"
In the minds of administrators employed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the residents of Grenfell Tower were a gang of misfits, undeserving of the council’s estimated £300 million budget surplus.
They weren’t to be spoken to, and certainly weren’t to be appeased in London’s most affluent borough. In a country where race and class reign supreme, the lottery of birth meant those residing in the tower were state-defined outcasts.
Eighty-five percent of those that died that night were ethnic minorities, 44 percent of those that died that night were of Middle Eastern origin and 20 percent of those that died that night were disabled.
One can imagine when Michael Mansfield QC said the council saw Grenfell Tower as an “eyesore that required cosmetic surgery”, they weren’t only referring to the building itself.
Five years on, we mustn't lose sight of how abysmally governance, press, and wider society treated this community. Only after we take stock of state reaction to Grenfell do we realise that this systemic smearing isn’t new and hasn’t stopped.
Let’s cast our minds back. In November 2016, eight months prior to the fire, the Grenfell Action Group issued a foreboding statement that “only a catastrophic event” would expose the “ineptitude and incompetence” of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the body which owned the building.
Not to be outdone, Britain’s right-wing press would also play its part in the demonization of Grenfell’s inhabitants. Three days after the tragedy, The Daily Telegraph chose to populate its front page with the headline: “Mustafa Al Mansur: Who is the leader of the Grenfell Tower protest movement?” The article would later go on to accuse Mustafa, a man with no prior convictions of terrorist-related offences, as a “terrorist sympathiser”.
This was a time where British policy acted under the pretext of the “War on Terror”, a Britain still gripped by the Islamophobic hoax of the Trojan Horse Affair. After being militarised by Brexit-laden sentiment, the silent majority were making sure their voices were heard.
In true Ballardian sense, the deeply sinister forces of Middle England – with its facades of bucolic country clubs and shiny labyrinthine malls – would once again whir into gear to lap up press narratives. Grenfell would be their next target.
Eight months after the Grenfell fire, five men were arrested for burning a model of the Grenfell Tower on a bonfire, shouting “All the little Ninjas getting it” and “Help Me! Help Me! This is what happens when they don’t pay their rent.”
All this is symptomatic of a nation that refuses to believe that it may be to blame. Since the post-colonial movements of the mid-20th century - and the UK’s decision to recruit former colonial subjects to rebuild the country – policy and procedure have been enforced to ensure the natives know their place.
Encouraging perceptions of the “coloured” migrant have long since been condoned, with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act the first piece of legislation which restricted the rights of Commonwealth citizens.
In brief, the act afforded racial discretion to immigration officers and provides a stark illustration of the difference between an immigration policy based on loyalty, and an immigration policy based on fear of the admission of non-white people.
Winston Churchill’s proposed slogan of “Keep Britain White” in the 1955 election and Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech are but further footnotes in a long history of a politics that mobilises ostensibly racist topics into broader themes of blame and exclusion.
When Leader of the House of Commons and Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested those burning in Grenfell lacked “common sense”, it’s clear this isn’t some lone wolf spouting nonsense, but centuries of engrained thinking where one group of people is better, smarter, and more deserving than the other.
Today, the British state retains the ability to craft its own image, in continuance of “the white man’s burden”. The nascent state of this thinking is injustice, with the British government’s role to deflect, diffuse and direct the force of the law in any direction other than its own.
This remains the case with Grenfell. Each day, tens of thousands of motorists pass the burnt-out tower on their drive into central London, the white wrapping an embellishment of the council’s complicity. The Public Enquiry into how the fire took place is a £149 million-pound sham.
Was it not for the enduring spirit of the North Kensington community and its multi-cultural allies across the country, one could well envisage a reality where Grenfell is no longer a talking point. And yet, five years on, it is, and will continue to be so.
Activists are now joining the dots from Grenfell to Gaza. Industries linked to human misery have been stormed, with UK-based Palestine Action returning to occupy Arconic – responsible both for the flammable cladding around Grenfell and the production of vital goods used in Israeli military aircraft.
It’s also no coincidence that, in the years since the tragedy, a number of global movements have sprouted. George Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” and breathlessness as a symptom of COVID-19 reinforce the idea that suffocation is a lasting metaphor for the globally oppressed.
In the last few weeks, the UK government's proposal to outsource its refugee settlement infrastructure to its Rwandan counterparts is a devious extension of a Conservative government that acts with impunity.
One only has to read the MoU signed between the two countries to see a leopard doesn’t change its spots. We saw that same disregard at Grenfell, we’re seeing it again today.
It’s therefore incumbent on us to protest and disrupt these policies, to stop them at their root. Grenfell is our focal point, proof that empire lies on our own doorstep.
By adopting a critical lens, we retain our ability to tease out invisible histories. As we have seen with Grenfell, our counter-narratives are, in fact, too integrated to be separate from the more dominant ones.
So, every time Grenfell Athletic FC. play, or the Hubb Community Kitchen sell timam bagila on Portobello Road, the spirits of those that once lived in that fateful tower live on. And in continuing their legacy, we will indeed find out that our story is not the other story at all, but the story of the modern world.
Benjamin Ashraf is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab’s Editorial Team.
Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca