Monday, May 20, 2019
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Grenfell fire: Residents demand justice

Pressure grows on local council and PM Theresa May to hold those responsible for safety failings to account.

A member of Al Manar mosque in West London opens up the doors to its prayer area in a vain attempt to cool the community hall where hundreds of people, including survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, have gathered.

The temperature is 30 degrees Celsius outside, but the inside of the hall offers little relief to those dabbing away sweat and trying to fan themselves cool with leaflets.

Nevertheless, an unrelenting stream of locals, Muslim and not, continues to flow through the mosque's entrance further cramming the room.

They have come to listen to a group of local lawyers and social housing experts who have taken it upon themselves to advise those who have lost their homes on the best course of action.

Those addressing the crowd urge a united front and call for support in their attempts to bring to account those responsible for the failures that led to the fire.

The crowd listens attentively and calmly with sporadic interruption until the floor is opened up to the survivors, many of whom have lost family members and friends on Wednesday.

What follows is anguish and raw anger.

"I’m ashamed," shouts one man.

"I work for this borough but I’m ashamed."

Another directs his anger at the council’s chief executive for failing to meet survivors, and a woman breaks down into tears as she describes the horrors she witnessed trying to escape.

The local council - The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea - has faced intense criticism for its conduct after the fire and its purported failings leading to the tragedy.

Survivors complain that it has failed to provide them with adequate information on what happened in the building and on where and when they will be rehoused.

The council has also accused of negligence by using a cheaper and more combustive cladding on the building during its refurbishment in 2015.

Tensions culminated on Friday, when locals descended on Kensington Town Hall, briefly entering the building to confront officials before being forced back.


At the ashened shell of Grenfell Tower about a mile away, where during the day crowds of locals gather to mourn and vent their frustration, the council’s responsibility for the disaster is spoken about in terms of a certainty lacking only in the names of those responsible.

"They shouldn’t have put flammable cladding there in the first place," a local, who only gives his nickname, Dub, says.

"Who were the people who ordered the material, who were the people who put it there?

"The person who ordered the material should be facing criminal charges."

His friend Abdel Aziz nods in agreement, before venting at the time it has taken to identify the bodies that have been recovered so far.

"The underlying issue for me is that the families don’t have any closure. Nobody is telling them what happened to their loved ones," he says, adding: "Those families need to know what happened to their loved ones."

"How are they supposed to sleep? How do they get on with their lives."

Pressure on PM

The issue of blame is far from limited to just the local borough council. British Prime Minister Theresa May also the focus of anger.

After meeting survivors on Friday, she was heckled by angry locals and rushed to her car surrounded by a ring of police officers.

A week that began with a lost majority in parliament her biggest problem, has ended with calls for her to resign over her party’s record of fiscal austerity, which many of her critics on the left are blaming for what happened in West London.

Conservative MPs, both past and present, are being blamed for ignoring or failing to act on reports that warned of risks to tower blocks. Among those included are the prime minister’s recently appointed chief of staff, and former housing minister, Gavin Barwell.

May has pledged an immediate release of funds totalling £5m to help those affected and has committed to rehousing those displaced within three weeks.

In a statement, she said "everyone affected by this tragedy needs reassurance that the government is there for them at this terrible time and that is what I am determined to provide".

However, that hasn’t stopped the barrage of criticism.

Anti-Austerity protests

In front of her residence in Downing Street, crowds gathered on Saturday for a demonstration ostensibly against her parliamentary partnership talks with members of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has earned notoriety in the UK for its ties to loyalist factions and socially conservative views.

A majority of the chants and placards, however, demanded "Justice for Grenfell".

"Grenfell symbolised pretty much everything wrong with a capitalist society, where profit is put above everything else including people’s lives" said Rod, one of the thousands protesting.

"The fact is they looked at profit above safety and that says it all."

At Al Manar mosque, frustrations are less rooted in political ideology, but the scale of the disaster and early indications that it was preventable mean it is likely to remain an important fixture of British politics for years to come.

The one variable; whether May and the Conservatives remain in power.

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