On Friday 16th June, two days after Grenfell Tower burned, I visited the area in an attempt to find a way to lend some support. Over the two days after the fire, local community centres and faith organisations were inundated with donations sent from all over London and beyond, an incredible and spontaneous expression of solidarity that had resulted in tons and tons of clothes, toiletries, bedding and other items accumulating at collection centres. From the information that came through online it seemed that what was needed on the Friday was a hand in sorting the donations – so a friend and I headed to West London with a list of addresses that were looking for volunteers.
The first few places turned us away because they were full – they already had enough volunteers to help. Then by chance, walking along the Westway, we came across a collection point that still needed volunteers. We spent the afternoon sorting through bags of clothing and separated it out in cardboard boxes by type: women’s trousers, men’s shirts etc. Dozens and dozens of people lined up on the pavement and sorted, sifted and carried for hours on end. Every now and then a van would turn up and take a load of boxes away, to another storage facility.
Volunteers kept turning up, alone and in little groups, until the area became completely congested. It wasn’t clear whose collection points this was, who was in charge, and who was just there in passing like us. That withstanding, people got organised, asked each other for advice and worked out what to do. A determined and industrious energy pervaded the place, as people focused on their task, talking and sharing, but mostly just getting on with it.
The great majority of volunteers here were women, many very young, many arriving from all over London, and many local to the area. The spontaneous surge of so many people collecting donations and then coming together to help, in the total absence of local and central government, is a testament to the strength, cohesion and community spirit of a grassroots and working class London that cuts across ethnic and faith lines – the great diversity of people involved a reflection of a London miles away from the wealthy enclaves of Kensington borough. Working class, Muslim, brown and black communities that mainstream political discourse and the press vilify and criminalise are organising a grassroots self organised aid effort of unprecedented scale.
After leaving the sorting centre, I headed west along the Westway towards Grenfell Tower. As I drew nearer the determined energy fueling the collection centres quickly gave way to a sombre air of mourning and grief. At Latimer Road people were paying their respects at a memorial site, leaving flowers and candles and leaving messages, crying and talking quietly. So many people out in the street, standing together and staring in disbelief, in eerie, tense silence, in a collective grieving and feeling. Underneath the grief, a smouldering anger. A crowd had just left the area, headed to Kensington Town Hall.
The Town Hall is a long walk from Grenfell Tower, but when I finally arrived, having crossed some of the wealthiest streets of the capital, the Territorial Support Group had just kicked the angry crowd out of the building. A group of people remained by the doors, confronting the police, demanding a response from the Council. I saw a school girl pressing the picture of a missing person up to the glass, screaming in frustration, young women in hijabs standing tall blocking the police, and a many more expressing their anger at a local administration that ignored and silencer them for years, and at the police for protecting them.
People kept gathering and then marched, in a crowd of a few thousand, back to Grenfell Tower. The messages from the crowd pointed the fingers at the Tory government, demanding May’s resignation, and demanding justice. They also spoke loud and clear of the solidarity of this swelling movement across racial, ethnic and faith identities. The connections that are being created in the immediate aftermath of the fire will be hard to unmake.
But what is next? Residents, survivors and local groups are the ones that know what is needed, but it seems important to us a that in the first instance the following demands are met:
– The council must re-house all residents within the Borough in high quality housing
– The land Grenfell Tower stands on cannot be sold off and the Council must reconstruct without loss of any social housing
– Residents living at the foot of the tower must be also re-housed and supported.
These demands require this surging movement to keep fighting and pushing the council and the government for an adequate response. It seems that this organising effort will be really important, and we will continue to follow and support it. We also want to hold and honor the need for quiet grieving, for silence, for privacy and for prayer, as well as the drive from people all over London to help in the ways they can. Anger, organising, quiet mourning and solidarity are all modes that are needed in the response to the fire.