The Luxury of Not Being Burned To Death

“Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.”

Eduardo Galeano

 

This has been the longest week ever for many. The agony of the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire continues. So many lives lost and so many people still unaccounted for. We are all still in mourning.

In the streets below the burned Grenfell Tower this afternoon, everyone’s saying where was the emergency response from Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea? Few council officers have been seen in the multiple help centres local people have run or chatting to people by the flowers, memorials and ‘Missing’ posters. Instead they lock themselves behind closed doors in the Town Hall and wonder why people tried to get in to demand answers.

Yet from a tragedy that had been so desperately predicted by residents in Grenfell Tower for many years, comes a sense that little can be the same again. Listening today at the perimeter to the charred tower to the angry voices from that community has been both sobering and inspiring. It’s been such a long time since working class voices and in particular black working class voices have been heard so loud.  It’s amazing. It’s fresh fucking air finally. We can breathe once more.

We have no particular faith in the mass media to represent those voices. There have been so many instances this week where journalists or reporters cannot simply just let people speak what’s on the mind. But we don’t need balance or to be calm right now. People have been rightly saying from Day One – you can’t depoliticise this! Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or whatever else spreads the word, there has been a massive highly sussed community response to the criminal business at hand.

 

The Fire In Which We Burn

We are still making sense of this crime in the City that we love and that is being destroyed and socially cleansed faster and faster. Every day we come across new injustices, new indignities, new outrages. Many, like this one, have been committed in the name of regeneration, a process steeped in everyday violence against us.  Regeneration has long been publicly unmasked as a massive act of social engineering where profit is the central machine that drives us out. Homes become investments. People get ‘decanted‘. People get Compulsorily Purchased. No longer are we welcome in the communities we have all had a hand in growing. Our communities are airbrushed away in architect’s plans. The other side of the story is disinvestment, our estates breaking down from a planned lack of care and funds. We are stigmatised here there and everywhere. We are told we are shit. We often live in shit – mould, damp, overcrowding. We are felt to be surplus to the remaking of the City as one massive cash machine that dispenses profit making unaffordable homes be they luxury towers or shared ownership apartment blocks. And if much needed refurbishment is done, the imperative of covering and making housing pretty for the area around it leads to criminal decisions, such as using cheaper flammable cladding.

It’s tragic that the fire, the terror and the deaths at Grenfell Tower have had to be the final potent symbol of all that has been brought down on our heads in the last 30+ years. It’s like everything has been exposed now – the greed behind gentrification and the greed behind cutting corners when maintaining or refurbishing, on materials and fire safety equipment. It’s as everyone has been saying this week – they don’t care about us!  Well, if they don’t care about us then it’s only up to us to come together and overthrow the rotten system at heart.

 

The Problem Is Not Towers, It’s Greedy Bastards!

The liberal chatterers in the press or TV wants us to be silent and wait for ‘the findings‘. The Tory media counter attacks that our anger is ‘a lynch mob‘ and that we should calm down. They want us to be silent and believe what phoney urban planners (like Create Streets) say so that the blame is shifted onto things and technicalities: obsolete buildings, faulty construction, ‘complex’ outsourcing. ‘The problem is tower blocks’ say many, including Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn: “It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.

By the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, he doesn’t mean the three 42-stories high residential towers of the Barbican, nor the now luxury refurbished Balfron Tower, but those that are still our council estates. Tower blocks do not seem a problem as long as those living in them are not poor, nor as long as millions of profit can be made on – (often) – public land like at Heygate or Aylesbury Estates.

Since 2007 in London have been built at least 20 luxury flat towers taller than 29 floors, 10 of which have over 35 floors. There are tens and tens of high-rise luxury residential towers under construction across the city, 10 of which will be taller than 50 floors.  Not only this, but high rise towers such as the Skyline at Woodberry Down in Hackney (31 floors, 2016) replaced the low and medium rise council housing estate by the same name. So let’s not be fooled: tower blocks are not to be blamed. High-rise living is not to be blamed. The blocking of the two alternative exits of the Grenfell tower is to be blamed, not the height of the building. Bad maintenance and murderous refurbishment are to be blamed, not the 24 floors.

 

Mourning & Organising Together

What heartens us, as always, is when the distant horizon that we walk towards seeking social justice decides every now and again to turn tail and run towards us. This sad and angry week is just that moment. Whatever story they stuck to in defence of their greed or arrogance has dissolved. The story has changed overnight. It’s our story now and it’s rushing up to us as fast as it can. It’s often dizzying to keep up with. A fortnight ago, no politician would say ‘occupy, compulsory purchase or requisition’ the empty new posh developments! A fortnight ago on no news TV would could you hear the words ‘working class’ as much as we’ve heard in the last five days. This opening is one entirely of our collective making but one we need to safeguard and keep widening out. The Tory government or the shameful local Labour boroughs burden of holding the story together has burst – the truth is out. As ever it takes our pain and our suffering to move us a few steps towards the horizon.

There are many roads we need to keep open and many horizons we need to chase. No going back to our suffering and humiliation that seemed horribly normalised only two weeks ago. Keep on mourning and organising!

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