Grenfell Stereotyping Examples Of Institutional Classism and Racism
17 months ago, 72 people were tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower Fire and many more families displaced. Residents of the tower were mostly working class, Muslim, and many of North African descent.
Recounting the events of the night, one survivor told the story that the first official he encountered after fleeing the burning tower wasn’t a firefighter or ambulance medic, but was instead armored riot police.
Such a blatantly inappropriate decision to deploy riot police reveals the instinct of the state to see working class people as a problem group, rather than as victims - even as their homes burnt.
17 months on and some families have still not been permanently housed. Residents have spoken about a ‘culture of Grenfell’ and the bureaucratic decisions that enabled the fire in the first place; decisions which betrayed a disregard and casual indifference to the lives of working class families. Decisions which led to a decline of the social housing in which they lived.
Lowkey put it perfectly in his tribute, Ghosts of Grenfell 2, when he described the “slow creep of bureaucratic violence” that over many years finally culminated in the events of that fateful night.
The story is now well-documented and perhaps doesn’t need reiterating: residents and the Grenfell Action Group forewarned of a “catastrophic event” and were dismissed as rabble-rousers. Most sobering of all, those residents were vindicated in death.
The question remains how, and why, did those voices go unheard for so long? Edward Daffarn, in an interview with the BBC, said: “We'd been blogging for three or four years and you go back over that time there's a lot of abusive behaviour evidenced forensically about what was happening to our community, but it wasn't sexy so it never got picked up.”
Instead, the press actively besmirched the character and credibility of tower residents. Headlines read: “Man whose flat started Grenfell blaze ‘packed luggage before raising alarm’”; “Grenfell fire activist gets taxpayer-funded hotel room despite still using flat” and “Grenfell fire survivor caught running cannabis factory in tower block”.
What role does the media have to play in creating the culture of contempt for working class people? Parts of the media regularly attack immigrants, wrongly claiming they exploit our public services and undercut wages, and portray those on benefits as cheats who are too idle to work.
Sneering shows like Benefits Street and Immigration Street expose the level of contempt toward working class people, especially those living in social housing. However, perhaps most adversely, politicians also reinforce these caricatures of working class scroungers and skivers. These depictions have real repercussions as residents in Grenfell were treated as undeserving, second-class citizens - even as their homes burnt in Britain’s most deadly fire in living memory.
As Grenfell fades from the headlines it is business as usual for politicians and journalists. Meanwhile families living in hotels, and those attending the inquiry, are re-traumatised everyday, unable to move forward with their lives. Grenfell should have signified a watershed moment in housing policy, however we have yet to see any substantial reparations of the scale needed.
What amount of money would be sufficient recompense for the lives lost? Edward Daffarn was right to say: “People need to go to jail and companies need to be found guilty of corporate manslaughter – but people will come out of jail so we need cultural change.”
What would this cultural change look like? In part, any change must entail a reckoning with this country’s unaddressed institutional racism and classism and the role of those forces in the events of that terrifying night. For too long, we have been able to disassociate from Grenfell as a moment of sickening and exceptional violence, antithetical and contrary to the values of this country. We hear “never again”, but until we reckon with these truths and begin to have frank conversations about race and class, there is little to reassure us that Grenfell will not happen again.
Dhelia Snoussi works on race and class for CLASS and the Runnymede Trust. She will be speaking at a workshop on the working class this coming Saturday (17th November), at the #classbootcamp For tickets visit: www.classbootcamp.com