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The Politics Behind the Fire in London's Grenfell Tower

Early Wednesday, at least 17 people died and dozens of others were injured in a blaze that enveloped a high-rise “social-housing” building in London. Grenfell Tower, which consisted of 24 stories and housed about 600 people, was run by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, which The Atlantic describes as “a for-profit company in charge of refurbishment and maintenance of the building.”

There have been reports that one of the materials in the tower that may have helped the fire spread as quickly as it did was cladding placed on the exterior of the building during a recent refurbishment not only as insulation but also to make Grenfell less of an eyesore. (Grenfell impedes views from the luxury buildings surrounding it.) The material has also been “linked to other fires,” according to the BBC.

Labour Member of Parliament David Lammy has labeled the incident “corporate manslaughter,” demanding people be held accountable for their part in the fire.

In a piece for Jacobin, journalist Dawn Foster writes, “Rather than diverting blame from those responsible, or treating [Wednesday’s fire in London’s Grenfell Tower] as an act of nature, our responsibility is to ask why it occurred.” Foster begins by brushing aside claims that there is an attempt to politicize the tragedy, which is, she argues, “explicitly political.” The factors that contributed to tragedy in the social-housing tower located in the wealthy Kensington borough of London raise questions about income inequality that should not be ignored, Foster insists.

Time and again, residents reported serious concerns about the safety of the building to the management organization, the local council, and the member of parliament (recently unseated in the general election). They were met with silence, and several told me on the scene they were convinced it was because they were poor, living in a rich borough that was determine to socially cleanse the area as part of a gentrifying project.

[Wednesday’s] fire in Grenfell Tower is not outside of politics — it is a symbol of the United Kingdom’s deep inequality. The block of 120 apartments housed between 400 and 600 people, some in very crowded conditions. Tenants reported problems with elevators, emergency lighting, wiring, and boilers. Even the most minor improvement required constant badgering. People were given the message that they were lucky to have any home at all, let alone in a borough that harbored such wealth. … Housing has become the barometer of inequality in the UK: home ownership levels are falling and rents are rising. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has mounted an attack on social housing, ramping up private sales of council homes. Meanwhile, Theresa May’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, was one of a series of housing ministers who sat on a report warning that high-rise blocks of flats such as Grenfell Tower were at risk of fire. He failed to carry out the review that had been requested.

The Conservative Party makes no bones about which side it represents in Britain’s housing divide. When Labour proposed an amendment to the government’s Housing and Planning Bill last year that would have required private landlords to make dwellings “fit for human habitation,” seventy-two Tory members of parliament who were landlords voted against. … The only way to stop tragedies like Grenfell Tower from happening again is to accept that adequate housing is a right, not a privilege. People on low incomes deserve governments and local authorities that value their lives. Our homes should protect us, not put our families at risk.

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Overworked firefighters labored through the night and into Thursday as the death toll, which is still expected to rise, continued to increase. Government cuts to emergency services, pushed through by conservative politicians, have also come under a spotlight as both the Grenfell Tower fire and the recent attacks in London revealed the perils of underfunding the city’s police and firefighter services.

Meanwhile, over 1 million pounds ($1.27 million) has been raised for the victims and their families as of Thursday by a number of individuals and organizations as communities came together across the city to help those in need as well as cry out for thorough investigations.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor and Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. She also holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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