Summing up the silent march for Grenfell that took place to mark the anniversary of the disaster in words is hard, but thankfully there are powerful images which help round out what I want to convey, writes Veronica Fagan
Coming up the stairs at Latimer Road tube, it was clear that most of those I’d travelled west with were here for the same reason as me. There was an enormous wreath inside the station and a notice on the official notice board. Outside the narrow pavements are thronging – not only with the obligatory paper sellers but with people waiting for friends to walk together.
I’d not made it to any of the eleven previous marches – I’ve always meant to but other commitments or exhaustion have meant it’s been pushed down the list. My contempt for the Tories led me to dismiss their decision to light buildings up in green as a gimmick. It is – but I should have remembered that green is the colour used by United for Grenfell. The overwhelming majority of those thronging to the area did – people were wearing green scarves, and many were dressed overwhelmingly in that colour.
The anniversary had been brought to my attention not only from emails, and friends in the Labour Party and in my union, Unite, asking me if I was going, but through the media coverage. It’s not often that a political event is previewed so much in the press – or indeed gets so much space afterwards. One of the significant reasons for this was the opening of the public enquiry into the fire – and the hugely powerful testimonies to each one of the seventy two people who died that night.
This didn’t feel like most protests I have been on over the decades. This was a community in mourning – and in resistance. It was one of the most diverse marches I have ever been on – in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and religion. There was an iftar build into the events in the park at the end. People who didn’t themselves walk the route stood by the side of the road to watch us go by or waved from walkways and balconies.
And virtually the whole route was decorated with posters – Grenfell forever, Grenfell in our hearts etc. Some were individually made, others represented particular blocks or estates. Others were stenciled and obviously produced by local campaigns – but no one defaced or removed them. The most moving were those made by children.
I think the only time I experienced anything like this was in Genoa in 2001 after Carlo Giuliani had been shot dead by the police and people stood and saluted the demonstrators – and threw us bottles of water in the baking heat. Mourning, angry, determined and strong.
I think it was the slowest march I have been on. Not in the sense that the time dragged. Despite spending an hour and a half in silence, that wasn’t the case. Often I use demonstrations as a time to catch up – either with people I see rarely – or with those I see all the time but don’t have time to just relax and exchange news with. I think that’s fair enough, but it means you are less focused on what has brought you here.
In the silence, in the slowness the energy of the whole crowd was focused on the crimes that brought us here.
I remembered what I had read a year ago of the many times the Grenfell Action group had tried to get Kensington Council and the TMO that ran the estate to respond to their complaints that the building was a fire trap. ( The prescience of the post KCTMO – Playing with fire!, posted in November 2016, which starts: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders…” is truly chilling.)
I remembered the disbelief and fury I felt when I read Theresa May’s article in The Evening Standard, in which she supposedly apologised for her refusal to meet residents on her first visit to the Tower. Her aloofness was strengthened by the contrast with Jeremy Corbyn’s much more human and genuine response. In fact, it was a self-serving piece which noted that this act had led people to believe she didn’t care. Too right it did. That and the fact that she was continuing to lie about the fact that many people still don’t have a permanent home a full twelve months after the disaster.
I remembered some of the interviews with or speeches I heard from local people about the impact of the fire on their lives. They spoke about the people who had died that night – or subsequently – in testimonies that showed the diversity of their lives so needlessly cut short by callous negligence. They spoke with understated fury about the fact that they were still being treated as second class citizens, whose need for material and emotional support was not taken seriously by the powers that be.
And as we parade the streets around the Tower, I realize that this context of silent thinking is so different from that in which I normally visit the area – the vibrant noise of August’s Notting Hill carnival. I wonder if, with that exception, this is the largest gathering the area has ever seen. (Certainly the press reports of 5000 are an underestimation – I hear later from Justice for Grenfell it was at least 12,000. That makes more sense).
One of the most powerful moments of the evening comes shortly after we pass Ladbroke Grove station. The route is lined on both sides with fire fighters in uniform, with their helmets removed in tribute. Many of the marchers approach and shake hands or embrace them. Everyone is choking back tears more or less successfully. I remember the reports I read of firefighters breaking the rules to go back into the burning building without oxygen cylinders, or without waiting the requisite time after their last trip to try to save more lives. No one minds that at this point we have almost come to a stop.
Some of us got to the park not so long afterwards (some were wrongly told it was full – not true, but the entrances are extremely narrow so you had to queue). If there had been speeches they were over by the time we got in but there was music – and a chance to catch up with some of the people I hadn’t seen earlier.
That evening will stay in my memory for a long time – and I won’t leave it another year before I come back.
I wasn’t done with remembering Grenfell for the week because I also made it to the start of the march in Central London on June 16th called by Justice for Grenfell and the FBU. I couldn’t go on the demonstration itself or even hear all the speeches in advance because I had another commitment.
But it was worth being there never the less – and this time I managed to get a green scarf – which again almost all present were wearing.
There was more noise – Justice for Grenfell and No justice, No peace being the most popular – and more banners. This time however it was the speeches from the platform that concentrated the mind. I heard passionate speeches from firefighter Lucy Masoud and from Shadow Chancellor John McDonell and Paula Peters, from Disabled People against the Cuts. Paula is always a powerful speaker and as I expected indicted the TMO for the crime of leaving disabled people on high floors at Grenfell – one of the many inexcusable causes of death that night.
But the person who had the greatest impact on me was Greenfell Action Committee’s Joe Delaney. Joe didn’t live in the tower, but in one of the low rise blocks just next door. He was there on the night and you could have heard a pin drop as he told how his evening unfolded. If people like Joe had been heeded June 14th wouldn’t be an anniversary we will mark in anger as well as in grief.