“I can’t breathe” – these were the dying words of not only George Floyd, who was murdered at the hands of US police last month but also were the final words of many people who died in the Grenfell fire, which claimed 72 lives three years ago.
Now, just as the Grenfell survivors marked the third anniversary of the blaze on Sunday (June 14), they are calling for an investigation into the role that institutional racism played in the fate of the dozens of Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAEM) people who lost their lives that night.
Hisam Choucair, who lost six relatives in the Grenfell fire, told Channel 4 why he believes racism must be investigated in the on-going Grenfell inquiry.
“If that were in Knightbridge for example and the building was on fire and the majority of the people were from a white background, maybe you might have got a different response,” he said. “The fact that a majority of the people living in the [Grenfell] tower were of an ethnic background and culture, I don’t feel the urgency was there.”
Choucair, like others throughout the UK who are calling for racial justice both here and in the US, took the knee in support of George Floyd last week. But he also has done so as he sees the parallels between the systemic racism in America and here in the UK in how the Grenfell disaster was handled.
“When I took the knee I did it in respect of George Floyd’s family because I feel his pain, because I’ve shared his pain,” Choucair told the Evening Standard.
“When my sister rang the London Fire Brigade control room, she told them ‘we can’t breathe’. The LFB control room failed to act on the seriousness of her comments
“You only have to look at Grenfell. The majority of the people were from ethnic backgrounds. Their lives mattered.”
But Grenfell survivors and campaigners’ demands have so far fallen on deaf ears. They want the Grenfell inquiry to include institutional racism in its terms of reference but those leading the inquiry have so far refused to do so.
A Grenfell inquiry spokesperson told the Guardian, “The inquiry recognises that there are those who feel strongly that factors such as social background and race played a significant role in the Grenfell Tower fire…”
“Although the chairman shared the concerns of those who felt these were important questions which required urgent examination, on careful reflection he came to the conclusion when recommending the inquiry’s terms of reference that the inquiry was not the best way to answer them.”
Commenting, Unite national officer for equalities Harish Patel slammed the decision to refuse to look at racism as part of its inquiry.
“That the vast majority of the victims and survivors of the Grenfell tower disaster are of BAEM or migrant origin demonstrates yet again the racism that so many of our BAEM communities face,” he said. “It is no coincidence that the voices of Grenfell residents, who are overwhelmingly black, Asian and ethnic minority people, were not listened to long before the fire when they warned of a looming disaster and they are again not being listened to now in their calls for justice.
“It is totally unacceptable that the inquiry’s chairman has refused to include institutional racism in the terms of reference of the inquiry,” Patel added. “At a time when systemic racism is at the top of the agenda amid Black Lives Matters protests, it is time that we come to terms with our racist institutions. The Grenfell disaster was the result of multiple failures and if we don’t explore every possible contribution factor, include racism, then we will never achieve justice for the victims and their families.”
Beyond questions of institutional racism, the Grenfell inquiry has been plagued by delays. The second phase of the inquiry only began in January. It didn’t meet for most of February and was suspended entirely in mid-March. The inquiry is set to resume next month via online streaming and limited attendance.
The devastating fire is all the more infuriating given that Grenfell residents had for years called for new fire safety advice and had warned authorities long before the blaze that the tower and how it was set up was a major fire hazard and a disaster waiting to happen.
Now, new research from the Labour Party has found that incredibly, more than 55,000 people live in homes that are still bedecked with Grenfell-style flammable cladding.
The Labour analysis found that 300 buildings in the UK have the exact same ACM cladding used on the Grenfell tower at the time of the fire. Three quarters of the people who found their buildings covered in the deadly ACM cladding after the Grenfell fire have still not had it removed.
Official figures published last week show that the government has badly missed its June 2020 deadline to remove all Grenfell-style cladding from buildings – at this rate, Labour estimates that it will take nearly four decades before all forms of dangerous, flammable cladding are removed.
Commenting, Labour’s shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire said, “Three years on from the Grenfell tragedy, it is a national disgrace that so many people are still living in the shadow of deadly flammable cladding.
“Ministers have missed their own deadline for cladding removal and must now take the enforcement action they promised to make buildings safe,” she added.
“Grenfell-style cladding is just the tip of an iceberg. At the current pace it could take decades to end the cladding scandal. This vital work must speed up. It is a matter of life and death.”
Unite has long campaigned for justice for Grenfell victims and their families, including through grassroots support through Unite Community, as well as through legal channels representing dozens of families affected by the fire in the official inquiry.
Unite has previously pursued a judicial review over the failure to rehouse people, in addition to taking on personal injury cases and legal action in the United States over the tower’s cladding.
Commenting on the day of the anniversary on Sunday (June 14), Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett said that the union would not stop in its fight for justice for Grenfell families.
“[It was] a tragedy that was so easily avoidable,” he said. “And three years on the shame is that there are three hundred buildings with the exact same cladding and over 2,000 buildings in the UK with similar cladding – that’s 23,000 homes that are similarly vulnerable to the same tragedy. And [we have] an inquiry that has delayed and denied truth and justice to the victims. There’s not been a single criminal prosecution. We are three years on and yet more delays until the inquiry re-opens in July. The families deserve better. Unite will continue to fight for justice on behalf of all of the victims of Grenfell.”
By Hajera Blagg