Crawling down Ladbroke Grove, we can still see flames in the top floors of the now blackened edifice of Grenfell Tower. Turning into the narrow, congested Acklam Road in the sweltering heat, we have to stop on an awkward corner due to the number of people on the road and decide to unload the car there. Emptying the back seats full of water, food and toiletries, we pass it all over to the crowds who have rallied together to provide something for the residents of Grenfell Tower who are currently wandering helplessly, aimlessly, just a few roads away.
I see people of the Al Manaar Islamic Centre organise items into sections, panicking over how to get water to the people immediately and how to store the rest of the donations for the coming days. This centre was not promoted by mainstream media as a key organisation in providing and accepting help only 10 minutes from the scorched block of flats. As we help to organise food and strategise on how to drive aid over to the victims, it becomes clear that many voluntary organisations have not been mentioned by news reports, or online, as places accepting and providing food aid, clothing, organising shelter and search parties. Thus, many civilians wanting to help in some way are left without the necessary information to successfully contribute to those in need.
“It becomes clear that many voluntary organisations have not been mentioned by news reports”
What is a shocking display from the media to many is unfortunately not a surprise to local community affected by the fire. Many of those lugging bin bags full of important supplies look around at the lack of officials and all come to the same conclusion: “You know why they aren’t here yet? We’re migrants, immigrants, refugees.” Although there has been some coordination from emergency services, the acute absence of local authority delegation and coordination on the ground is difficult for the community to digest.
For residents, it becomes difficult to understand the situation as anything other than classism, even racism, as they stand organising amongst themselves, unaided, in the poorest and most diverse part of one of the richest boroughs in London. Kensington and Chelsea is one of the smallest London boroughs harbouring some of the most expensive houses in the world. Yet, it also has pockets of poverty which are somehow overlooked due to the glamorous reputation perpetuated by shows like Made in Chelsea and Forbes lists detailing the prices of some of its homes. Today though, it is clear that in this tiny borough the wealthy and the working class live side by side in starkly differing conditions. The borough’s façade melts away as quickly as Grenfell Tower did in the early hours of this morning.
As we make our way to where the residents are currently being supported, the Latymer Community Centre and the Westway Sports Centre which stand side by side. It becomes painfully obvious that beyond the police who are manning the traffic, there is no one but the community scrambling amongst themselves to aid the survivors, even after 12 hours of waiting for some structured plan from their local authority.
One frustrated witness explains that he used to work for the council and feels that there is a lack of organisation and care for those most in need: “My job was to empty out voids, which are vacant houses. I had three or four a week! Why no one from the council has suggested that these voids be used to house some of the families, I don’t know. There is no one in power here creating a robust plan for the people. I know for a fact that right on this road, there are habitable, vacant houses that should be used as shelter right now. The community are doing what others are paid to do, others who are not even here”.
Another local has taken it upon herself to design a transport system with other members of the community to get as much food and water directly to the victims using crates and trolleys. She explains that she lost four family members and has heard nothing since about what can be done to organise those in need. “I didn’t want to talk to the media because all they were doing was highlighting one helpline and one church, both of which are now overwhelmed and cannot take any more aid. They weren’t listening to our experiences or needs, or even other organisations that can provide further support”.
“There is no one but the community scrambling amongst themselves to aid the survivors”
Now, 13 hours later, she says: “I am frustrated, I will try and talk to the media because I have had enough, we were offered the pitches for storing the food and supplies but now they have been emptied and locked. I have called the local authority to ask them to source venues for us to store the donations as this catastrophe will be here longer than just today. The families need to rebuild their lives and we want to help them during that time… I hope that they listen”. This all came from a bereaved person who still showed more leadership and strength than those paid to do so.
There were also civilians from various parts of London who travelled down to help. Three young girls from Tottenham clarified: “We have donated what we can, but now we don’t know where to give the rest that the mosque and church cannot store. There’s no one here apart from locals who are trying to use the Westway sports centre as a larger storage space. We don’t know what more we can do”. I see one woman guard the door to the Latymer community centre and accept bags to take in. She provides others with information on where else they can go to help and so I assume she has been sent from the local authority.
However, she explains, she is just a volunteer and the entire building has been prepared by a local voluntary organisation. Mary Negash of Shepherd’s Bush exclaimed: “All I can see is the community helping each other. I can see members of the churches, the mosques and local charities trying to provide some structure. I can see residents helping each other. I can’t see any government officials. My friend sent out a message for help at 3am on Facebook. We haven’t heard from her since. What do we do? It’s been over 12 hours; would this lack of information and organisation happen across the road where there are private residents?”
The structure of the building also lends itself to intense questioning on how little regard there is for council residents. Many have already used the label “corporate manslaughter”. The event is even more horrific when you read the details of the building’s design. It comes to light many people are at risk in council flats and new builds. Grenfell Tower had one flight of stairs for 24 storeys and 120 flats. No fire alarms were heard by many residents. There were no clear fire escapes. The materials used for these buildings such as plastic cladding, to make it look neat and new, made this block burn faster.
“So many people are put in danger due to the profit gained by others”
Corporations and councils must be pulled up on constructing inadequate buildings in a few quick weeks and stuffing hundreds of people, mostly the working class, in there without ensuring complete safety. The less time it takes to build, the more money they save. So many people are put in danger due to the profit gained by others. The bottom half of this building was a new construction and it is a common sight in London to have new builds that are cramped and unfit for habitation, fall apart after a few years with facades falling off, balconies subsiding, and damp.
These issues have been noticed by residents who complained about the fire risks in the tower and who cannot comprehend how a regenerated building became engulfed by flames within half an hour. By now, I too am at a loss at what else to do for these people, as local centres are filled to the brim without any plan for the coming days on how best to support the victims of the fire.
I stay and help as much as I can, but eventually, I have to leave, as the roads become even more blocked with people wanting to help and drive donations over to the affected residents.
Donation links for the victims of the fire:
If you are able to make donations in person: