Some of the causes and the effects of the Grenfell Tower Fire disaster are best understood in the context of imbalances of power. Before I attempt to explain this, in the spirit of highlighting social positions often unspoken I should perhaps first declare mine. I didn’t know anyone who lived in the Tower. However as part of a working class family, the two homes in which I spent the duration of my childhood and early adulthood were council blocks. In other words, in another time and/or space I could have been a resident in Grenfell.
Power asymmetry in action pre-fire. There was a struggle around fire safety at the Tower. Some Grenfell tenants were actively petitioning the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and their local Tenant Management Organisation for standards to be improved. Challenging a powerful institution, especially one that is intent upon protecting its profits, can be frustrating to say the least. The concerns of residents were rejected while the conditions imposed upon the residents of Grenfell by others with decision-making authority proved deadly.
Power asymmetry in action post-fire. Beyond the sensational, the voices of people directly affected by events at the Tower, those living in similar circumstances and the groups to which they belong, mostly working class and/or migrant communities, are not being given room. A comfortable chatterati narrates and interprets the tragedy as it unfolds, dominating the conversation. In Yearning: Race, gender and cultural politics, bell hooks wrote (p.151-152) that arrogant, authoritative speech by ‘others’ on those deemed less powerful can act as erasure.
For her the attitude is:
‘ “No need to hear your voice when I talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. […] Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story and then I will tell it back to you in a new way […] I am still author, authority” ’
Members of the commentariat have surreptitiously linked themselves to the Tower in order to legitimise their co-optation – their child ‘had school friends who lived in Grenfell’, they ‘rented a house in the area in Nineties’, they ‘used to live a quarter of a mile away from it’. These comments are uttered with full awareness that such hellish circumstances would never touch their lives. Meanwhile the majority of those who have perished remain unnamed, unpictured and therefore unacknowledged by the public. This unusual response in a disaster – albeit in a rare and extremely difficult one – perpetuates the notion of certain migrant and working class people as a monolithic mass not worth differentiating, defined by their apparent victimhood and powerlessness. Who the deceased were remains largely unknown. We are still waiting to see their faces, recognise their humanity and learn of their individuality, their dreams and their achievements.
There remains a narrow image of who is deserving. Deserving of a safe decent home, worthy of being heard and taken seriously and worthy of remembrance and respect. Those who wield power define it so for their own advantage. For too long such distorted perspectives have been able to dominate and shape society – it is time to redress the balance.