AWTWNS for 19 June 2017 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.
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Burned to death for the crime of being poor or minority in capitalist Britain
19 June 2017. A World to Win News Service. Their names read like a roll call from some United Nations register – Mohammed, Khadija, Sheila, Felix, Marco, Antonio…. They were of all ages and came from dozens of countries and spoke as many languages. But at least 79 of them, and perhaps more – outcasts, poor, refugees from other countries or in their own land – all suffered the same fate, burned alive or plunging to their death in an inferno with a single source: a murderous capitalist system based on profit and not human needs.
When the fire started in a small flat in the 24-story Grenfell Towers, a public housing complex in North Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest boroughs in the United Kingdom, the residents initially thought it would be easily contained. What they didn’t reckon on was the systematic undermining of almost every safety standard that could have been taken to protect them.
1) The cladding that had been used in the year-old refurbishment had no fire retardant – a practice outlawed in dozens of countries, including much poorer Serbia and Slovakia. The building was literally wrapped in flammable polyethylene. The supplier estimates that the fire-retardant version would have cost an extra 5,000 pounds – less than 100 pounds a life.
2) There were no sprinkler systems in the tower block – even though a coroner’s report six years earlier on a fire in another London social housing tower block, Lanalka House,had recommended retrofitting sprinklers. The government had concluded that this would cost too much. Only 18 of Britain’s 4,000 social housing tower blocks have sprinkler systems. Virtually all luxury high rises and office buildings do. Fire safety experts all say that sprinklers would either have stopped the fire or at least slowed it enough to prevent the significant loss of life.
3) Not a single resident reported hearing a fire alarm – again, a simple cheap preventive measure that is routinely implemented in Britain – except in the homes of the poor.
4) Not only was there only a single fire exit stairway, but there was no pressurised air system for the stairway – a measure that AWTW News Service was told by a university building manager is simple, cheap and generally applied in office and luxury buildings. The input of pressurised air from atop the stairway minimizes smoke in the stairs as firemen rush in and residents rush out.
Measure after measure – simple, cheap and any one of which would have saved dozens of lives and the homes of as many as 600 people – was omitted. Why?
It must be said clearly: the deaths of the Grenfell Tower residents are on the hands of the Tory-dominated elite who run Kensington Council, responsible for managing the housing complex, callous and indifferent to the lives of these, “the least” of their residents – a council that pinched pennies on life-saving measures for the poor, while their government lavishes 400 million pounds on refurbishing the palace of the Queen! A council more concerned with making “eyesores” like these tower blocks look more “presentable” and thus protecting property values in the surrounding wealthy areas than with protecting the lives of those who dwell within.
The deaths are on the hands of government regulators who chose to ignore expert advice and retain rules that sooner or later were bound to lead to exactly the kind of terrible loss of life that occurred.
The deaths are on the hands of big business that turns a blind eye to the way its products are used, their eyes focused instead grimly on the bottom line.
The deaths are on the hands of the politicians who oversaw this entire process. The Tories of course, whose austerity measures have closed down 10 London fire stations, who slash regulations in order to “let the market do its work”, and who are pursuing Brexit avowedly, among other reasons, to escape the “regulatory red-tape” of the European Union – to evade exactly this kind of regulation! But it also includes Labour, who did nothing in the wake of the Lakanal House fire disaster on their watch in 2009 in South London and who in their 13 years in power up to 2010 presided over the benign neglect of Britain’s social housing, building almost no new units.
The result of all this was that dozens of residents were trapped in their flats by the rapidly rising flames. One desperate mother on the ninth floor threw down her bundled infant, caught by a man. Others driven by the flames jumped to certain death. Many texted heart-rending good-byes to loved ones. Onlookers spoke of the churning in their guts as they watched faces pressed against the upper floor windows, tortured by a feeling of helplessness as they could do nothing but look on.
The response to the disaster was just as revealing of the murderous workings of this barbaric system as was its inception. Hundreds of people immediately poured into the area, taking off work, driving for hours, providing support to the hundreds who’d lost everything, even as the fire-fighters still battled the blaze. Within mere hours the outpouring of support had provided enough of most supplies. In stark contrast, those who were supposed to be leading the support did very little.
The local council was, day after day after day, largely out of sight. Foreign journalists reported in disbelief how as late as Saturday, over 72 hours after the fire, there was not a unified command centre as is routine even in remote areas struck by natural disaster, like the hurricane in Haiti.
But most damning of all was the response of Theresa May, the Prime Minister. Finally, on Thursday, she showed up at the scene, but talked only with the chiefs of the emergency services, with photos showing her looking up at the still smouldering tomb, not speaking with a single survivor. Prominent news sites place her photo side by side with the infamous photo of US President George Bush as he gazed down from his airplane at the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina – and that was just the pro-Tory news sites! Her defenders said that she didn’t dare meet with survivors for fear that they would boo her and more, bringing her even more trouble politically when it ended up on the TV news – and endangering her ability to push through her Brexit programme. If that was her calculation, that’s even more damning than her apparent indifference.
The Kensington Council simultaneously announced that it might not be able to re-house the survivors in the borough itself. For years now the vertiginous rise of housing costs, driven in part by rampant speculation in the housing market, has combined with government policy to steadily drive the poor out of central London. Rather than help those who’d lost their homes and even loved ones, the politicians were coldly seizing their chance to engage in further “social cleansing” of their neighbourhood. The anger that was mounting as the facts behind the criminal responsibility for the death and destruction emerged spilled over into a mass outpouring of rage on Friday. A march to Kensington Council started by only a 100 or so immediate family and friends was quickly joined by many more. Chanting “Murderers, murderers” and “Shame on you”, hundreds of protesters overran the entrance to the Council building before police arrived and forced them out. In an effort to calm the troubled waters, the Queen herself visited the next day and spoke with the families of survivors.
Wall posters have sprung up, with many thousands of inscriptions by neighbours and others touched by the events. Many speak of how friends and loved ones will be missed, but the anger seethes too. Typical is one that speaks of the writer’s helplessness while watching the flames spread and concludes: “Your memories will be forever with me. RIP. Go to hell all those responsible!”
The fire opened up deep wounds festering in British society. Every major organised political force is seeking to turn this tragedy into an opportunity: powerful opponents in the Tory Party who want to displace May are circling, and Labour activists are seeking to narrow the target of anger to the Tories, to drive out May and perhaps even force new national elections – even though most tower blocks are in Labour-run councils. One of the larger ones, Camden Council, recently used the same firm to refurbish tower blocks that house 700 families, quite possibly with the same cheap fire-hazard cladding. Across the country, many of the approximately two million people living in similar tower blocks are tossing and turning as they wonder whether they too could become victims to the same murderous logic that killed so many at Grenfell.
Coming on the heels of the election setback suffered by Theresa May and the Tories, this political crisis has weakened the government at a critical time, with Brexit negotiations with the European Union beginning Monday 19 June. It ripped the cover off the way the routine functioning of capitalist society deals with the provision of something as basic as housing for the population – the fact that despite whatever any of the parliamentary parties may say or do, for everyone under the capitalist system people’s residences are not their rightful homes, but commodities, structured by the class and other divisions that grow deeper, more oppressive and more deadly as the capital produced by global exploitation accumulates. Even in the most immediate sense, the drive to secure the great wealth to be harvested from London’s housing market – wealth ultimately produced by the global exploitation of labour – can be said to have been the main factor in the situation that led to the Grenfell massacre. Only through socialism and ultimately a global society of freely cooperating human beings – a communist world – can all the facets of human potential be freed to overcome these harmful divisions and meet human needs in the broadest and most emancipatory sense as well as providing the basic requirements of life.
When basic contradictions in the way society is organized burst into view, with the intense anger and widespread revulsion produced by crimes like the Grenfell massacre, this needs to be connected to an understanding and plan for a revolution to put an end to a situation that is intolerable for millions in the wealthy imperialist homelands as well as for the vast majority of human beings in the world whose lives are blocked, stunted and often prematurely and brutally ended by the capitalist-imperialist system.
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Photo: AWTW News Service – The charred tower, rising amidst the mansions of Kensington – a constant reminder of the outrageous continued relevance of the scathing portraits of savage inequality in 19th century Britain by Charles Dickens, evoking A Tale of Two Cities