Friday, 21 July 2017

I went to Grenfell Tower. What happened there is a national disgrace

The acrid stench infused the air. The landscape, adorned with messages and memorials, struggled to reconcile the veneration of dignified grief and irreverent, visceral anger.

I oscillated between both. Grief hung in the ether like a flammable fume. Volatile, toxic, debilitating. The photos of those whose lives were lost. The prayers, the pleas, the eulogies. The human faces behind the headlines.

Days before, some of the dead and feared dead would have taken the train journey I just took, walked the route I just walked to get there, sat in the park around the corner that I just sat in and exchanged perfunctory pleasantries with the local shop keeper like I just did.

The photo of Isaac caught my eye. He left school at the same time as my little boy that day. He will have had his tea, maybe smearing ketchup on his school jumper, like mine did and went to bed, forgetting to brush his teeth, like mine did. Wrapped in a blanket of love he may have told the spiders lurking in a corner of his room a story, like mine did, before drifting off to sleep clutching his threadbare teddy, like mine did.

The difference between Isaac and my child is, Isaac lived in a tower block with no fire sprinklers, exposed gas pipes, combustible cladding (cheaper than the non-combustible yet aesthetically pleasing variety) and dodgy electrics prone to potentially lethal surges. Illegal? You’d think so, but Tory cuts to legal aid means rights are now only available to those who can afford to buy them. That ruled Grenfell Tower residents out.

Five weeks on and survivors are still homeless and dependent on sporadic, demeaning state handouts. A hundred quid here and a voucher for a hotel there isn’t good enough. Survivors need certainty, security and dignity. That starts with a secure, safe home. Some children don’t know if they’ll be returning to the same school in September because they don’t know where their new home will be. Some survivors say they’ve been told to accept homes without being allowed to see them first. Others say they fear being forcibly rehoused outside the borough. I’ve been told of survivors who’ve been threatened that declining housing they’re offered, however inappropriate, would be deemed as elected homelessness, and would incur benefit penalties.

Even now, survivors are being excluded from key decisions that will impact their future. Security firms were employed, at tax payers expense, to “keep them out” of Kensington and Chelsea’s council meeting on Thursday. Scenes of survivors being kettled into a public gallery, side-lined and silenced, prevented from participating in decisions about their own lives, were a national disgrace. The footage of Tory councillor, Mathew Palmer, mouthing “Don’t let them in” spoke volumes about the Tories’ contempt for humanity, decency and democracy.

Making my way back to the tube, I was stopped in my tracks by a child. She was surveying the messages pinned to the street railings and was transfixed by an elaborate picture of a dove. She asked her Dad what the text around it said. “I don’t know love, it’s written in a foreign language”.  I squinted to read it, “It says, Suaimhneas stíoraí da anam, which is Irish for, may your souls rest in peace”.

If the souls that perished in Grenfell are ever to find peace, they must first be afforded truth and then justice. We owe Isaac, and all those who died with him, that much.

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