An Update on Grenfell

By ChiralJon (Grenfell Tower HD) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
[Ed. note: Earlier this issue, we featured an essay by Anna Viola Sborgi on media response to the Grenfell crisis this summer in London. Given the rapidity of developments and their far-reaching implications, we asked Anna to revisit the topic in a brief update to her earlier essay.]

At the end of the summer, the media debate about Grenfell was still unfolding at an extremely rapid pace and generating such an amount of daily news that was almost hard to follow and process. In the past month, media attention started to wane and other events took place in London, which –­ in different ways – contributed to further shape the representations of this tragedy and the wider discourse on social housing. In this follow-up to my previous article, I will trace the most recent developments of the debate and see which directions it might take from here.

The News Cycle Slows Down

In my previous article, I mentioned how reporters received hostile responses from local residents as they gathered on the site immediately after the fire. YouTube videos widely documented it, showing both Ishmahil Blagrove, filmmaker and coordinator at residents’ association Justice 4 Grenfell, vehemently responding to Sky News Jason Farrell and Channel 4’s veteran Jon Snow being struck dumb by the residents. On August 23, Snow admitted the failings of the media in a public lecture, where he claimed that “reporting on Grenfell” had made him “feel on the wrong side of social divide”, admitting the responsibilities of the media in not picking up the numerous health and safety concerns raised prior to the fire by local groups. Although this important apology could have had the effect of re-negotiating the whole terms of the debate, in actual facts, Snow’s mea culpa remained isolated.

Grenfell came up extensively in the news in a couple more occasions: just before Notting Hill Carnival, some debate aroused on the opportunity of running the event this year, as the route would come close to the tower. Eventually, Carnival went on as planned on August 27 and 28, with a deployment of extra security on the one hand, for fear of van-plough terrorist attacks and riots, and on the other, to prevent “grief-tourists” taking selfies with the tower as a backdrop.1Although “no photos” signs in respect to the grief of local residents are now in place all over Bramley Road and around Latimer Road tube station, where most people have left their tributes to the victims, this ghastly phenomenon does not seem to have stopped. The heightened array of police was strikingly visible, but Carnival emerged as a powerful moment of unity and resilience of the local community and it was reported as such: it opened with a tribute to the victims and the celebration halted for a minute at 3pm each day, as the people, many wearing green as a tribute to Grenfell, paid their respects to the victims in silence.

Widespread attention was driven to Grenfell again on September 14, the day that marked the third-month anniversary of the fire and also the official start of the public enquiry, but much less so on September 22, marking one-hundred days since the tragic event. Overall, however, while up until September Grenfell was making headlines almost on a daily basis, the main news cycle seems to be over at the time of writing. The fire and its consequences still come up in the news from time to time, but the sense of urgency is somehow now lost. This decrease of attention was partially to be expected as a part of the economy of news cycles and also because other news regarding London life came to the spotlight: a new terrorist attack on the underground at Parsons Green, West London, which fortunately caused no fatalities; new acid attacks in Stratford, East London; the Uber ban. This last event highlighted – though, obviously, at a different scale from Grenfell – similar issues: inequality in the neo-liberal city and the opposite political strategies at the two levels of local and national government.

With this slowdown in the news this appears to be the crucial moment where we can either move onto a long-term, capillary coverage of Grenfell and of its implications for social housing problems, or lose the potential chance of transformation, reverting to the previous modalities of the debate. Within this climate, it becomes particularly important to draw attention to those initiatives that attempt to keep the discussion going and to represent the widest variety of points of view on the subject. As earlier, activists’ networks – in particular Justice4Grenfell through its partner ‘Grenfell Speaks’ – use social media to share news and information daily, both keeping track of political and judicial developments and recording solidarity initiatives at the local level. At the level of mainstream media, instead, the series of BBC Radio 4 podcasts Streets Apart: A History of Social Housing by Lynsey Hanley2A visiting fellow in Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores University and author of Estates: an Intimate History (London:Granta Books, 2007). carries out precisely the kind of work that is needed in contextualizing Grenfell historically at a time where the original social housing project has been dismantled. Thoroughly researched and at the same time extremely accessible in style, the programme does an excellent work in deconstructing the biased stereotypes often attached to social tenants, drawing on archival materials, interviews with housing experts and commentators, Grenfell survivors and those social tenants who moved into council properties at the heyday of the welfare state. But the most moving representation of Grenfell that has been circulating in the past month comes directly from the frontline.

On the Ground at Grenfell

On September 1, I had the chance to attend the screening of the documentary On The Ground at Grenfell at the The Maxilla Social Club, right under the Westway. The screening – followed by a Q&A with survivors and volunteers – took place within an evening of performances from community artists and residents, A Song for Notting Dale, and was part of the Portobello Film Festival. The documentary, which eventually won the Best Film Award in the Festival, directed by filmmaker Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky in collaboration with “a group of 9 young people: survivors, local residents, and volunteers”, was presented in London for the first time in August. A shorter, edited extract shown on Channel 4 News on August 8 is available online. The filmmakers involved in the project were at the site when the fire broke out, working on a documentary on the closure of the Stowe Youth Club. When the fire happened nearby and directly affected members of the team they decided to film what was happening and the local people’s testimonies.

The documentary does a remarkable job in merging together different materials to give back to the viewer the immediacy of the moment: direct interviews with the survivors, footage of the fire from inside the tower (both CCTV and made by the people who were trapped indoors, such as Rania Ibrahim, who was stuck in her 24th floor flat with her own three children), videos and stills from the news and a mix of noises including screams, hear rate monitors, the actual sound of the burning fire. These, together with people’s voices are the only sounds in the score, there is no emotional use of music in the film. The result is an immersive, often touching viewing experience, which has, at the same time, a kind of sobriety and rawness – most of the interviews are conducted in bright daylight and alternate with other images with the tower looming in the background – reminding us very effectively of how the people who survived the fire have to resume their everyday life and at the same time deal with the enormity, almost surreal nature of the tragedy that has hit them.3A special thanks to Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky and Stowe Films for allowing me a second viewing of the film for this article.

The film re-centres the narrative around the residents by devoting a great attention to the different traumatic implications that are rarely dwelt on in the mainstream media. Delicately, it gives space to people’s feelings and observations: their initial incredulity at the sight of the burning tower itself – “hell on earth”, says Sohaib, who had family on the 18th floor – a sight of such a scale that was almost unbelievable at first, the sense of impotence of looking at the tower and thinking what the people inside might have been going through. Ibrahim (who also had family on the 18th floor) says: “My whole body was shaking at thinking of what they were going through.”4 One of the messages that struck me most on the railings around Latimer Road Station when I was there was: “Sorry I couldn’t help”. Space is also given to the aftermath of the fire: the attempt to process grief and the sudden change in their lives all the people involved in one way or another had to come to terms with, combined with the haunting memories of the fire creeping into their daily life – Olu Talabi, one of the survivors from the 14th floor recounts not being able to sleep without the TV on to shut his constant thinking about the dead, while Mohammed (Rania Ibrahim’s brother in law) recounts being haunted by images of kids in hospital long after the fire.

Samiah Anderson, a local resident who grew up with Khadjia Saye, the young artist who died with her mum on the 20th floor, mentions how her tragic death affected a common friend who already suffered from mental distress. She points out the further strain of this experience on those who are already suffering from mental health problems: “everybody’s talking about the community coming together, but you need professional services to deal with those issues because they are not going to go away anytime soon, this is something that is going to affect people for the rest of their life.”

The film singles out survivors as human beings with their individual life stories and different ways of coping with the tragedy. The survivors must not be seen only in terms of “what they can be given” and as “statistics”, one of the filmmakers, Adrienne McKenzie, points out. She also adds: “people are fighting a lot for the deceased, but not as hard for the people that are still here.” The film attempts to make them stand out one by one, it does not simply depict them under the wider, but sometimes vague category of community only.

In his 1976 Keywords Raymond Williams devoted a whole entry to the word community, remarking:

Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important, perhaps, is that unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) it seems never to be used unfavourably, and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term.5Raymond Williams, Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society (Fontana Press: London, 1988), p.76.

In a way, the fact that the word is always used with a positive meaning, allows its generic – ­when not exploitative use – from all sources. In discourses on urban regeneration, the word community is ubiquitous and more importantly, its positive connotation is emphasised by all the agents in the regeneration arena. Not just residents, tenants and activists belonging or representing the community described, but also estate agents and politicians all agree on the idea that community is something that, at least in theory, must always be preserved and valued. The paradox is that, oftentimes, commercial and institutional rebranding of deprived areas are artfully exploiting the vibrancy and diversity of the communities that inhabit them while, at the same time, they are displacing them.

The media discourse emerging from Grenfell has made a wide use of the word, often without keeping account of both its richness and its shortfalls, in a simplified way that does not develop more than a generic understanding of the area. Awareness of the differences – and, sometimes, divisions – within the community is the first step in hearing their voices carefully. As Adrienne further adds, three days after the fire: “no one was looking at each other’s colour […] I know this area can be very divided in terms of race, in terms of whether you’re from Ladbroke Grove or Westbourne Park, but there was no animosity, it was kind of overwhelming how many people came out in abundance to help.”

Unity emerges through the comprehension of difference, and another aspect that fails to be fully understood through an unproblematic, indistinct view of community is the historically difference in the distribution of wealth within an area. As Zoe Dainton, one of the 4th floor survivors points out at the beginning of the film (while the camera combines stills of gold-plated buildings flats in Kensal Rise and images of Grenfell Tower before the fire): “In Notting Hill Gate, you’re in a rich house or you’re in a building like Grenfell.” Another local resident, Reem Berrada, points out how this is a place where separation has been fuelled and the residents of the tower were, in fact, a “mixture of minorities.” At the same time, Mahad Egal, one of the survivors from the 4th floor describes the residents’ growing physical and mental exhaustion after the fire and points out that, before, in spite of all difficulties: “we were living a happy life, we were businessmen, businesswomen, workers, taxpayers, you know, contributors to the society.”

Michael Dipple, a local community worker for over 33 years, points out: “that block is the prime example that, you know, English wasn’t their first language, and they were just chucked into this place and just left there, like, we’re doing you a favour. Many of them have seen things that none of us have endured, they’ve seen war, they’ve seen family members murdered in front of them, they’ve endured famine, you know, all sorts of things, and then, we bring them to the West where we are meant to be bright and shiny and fantastic and we then don’t look after them.”

The documentary also draws attention to the anger in the first days after the fire and how the frustration of the residents has been exasperated by the lack of a dialogue with the council and, at the same time, how this refusal to discuss has deep roots in the misconceived assumption that “because people come from some areas might bring anti-social behaviour”, says Reem. Swarzy Macaly, a young volunteer from Ilford, East London, who has been helping out since the day after the blaze, recalls having just finished reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography before the fire and thinking how that text represented “almost like a manual, a tool guide on how you you deal with community, how you love and serve people, and how you don’t reject anger but you love people through it.” The film ends with the powerful image of a drawing created by children living in and around the area with the help of artist Constantine Gras, on Grenfell Tower Fun Day, on May 14 2015, and children’s voice reading some of their writing.

The closing titles, listing all the names of the people involved, reinforce the idea that this is a strongly collaborative project that has the aim to re-gain control over the narrative against stereotyped and superficial representations of the community. Since August, the film has been screened in a few more venues and, in particular, it has been well received at The World Transformed, a festival of ideas and politics that took place in conjunction with the Labour Party Annual Conference in Brighton (24-27 September 2017), were participants in the film were also invited to speak.6For detailed and updated information on upcoming screenings, see the main site for the film.

As mainstream media attention starts to wane, the people affected by the fire are still facing a state of emergency – for example, many of them have not been rehoused or have not received aids. While it is possible that the debate will increase again consistently – most likely, in proximity with the announce of the final death toll or the one-year anniversary of the fire – the circulation of this documentary, and other films that will be produced with the same level of depth, can testify, beyond the mainstream news agenda, the survivors’ resilience and emphasise their strong will to have their narrative not spoken for, but rewritten in their own terms.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Although “no photos” signs in respect to the grief of local residents are now in place all over Bramley Road and around Latimer Road tube station, where most people have left their tributes to the victims, this ghastly phenomenon does not seem to have stopped.
2. A visiting fellow in Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores University and author of Estates: an Intimate History (London:Granta Books, 2007).
3. A special thanks to Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky and Stowe Films for allowing me a second viewing of the film for this article.
4. One of the messages that struck me most on the railings around Latimer Road Station when I was there was: “Sorry I couldn’t help”.
5. Raymond Williams, Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society (Fontana Press: London, 1988), p.76.
6. For detailed and updated information on upcoming screenings, see the main site for the film.

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