On the 14th of June, the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea threw the nation into a standstill. Just before 1 am, the Grenfell Tower caught ablaze due to an electrical shortage in the fridge of a resident’s flat. Over the next day, the tower continued to burn, taking almost 24 hours for the flame to be totally extinguished. The aftermath of the fire has left at least 80 people dead and dozens missing, with scores of others injured. It is considered to be the most fatal fire in Britain in a century. Many say that the tragedy could have been avoided, as the building’s plastic cladding was highly combustible and incredibly cheap. Additionally, some have argued that because of widespread deregulations and outdated building code guidelines, sprinklers were not legally required to be installed.
Questions around the Grenfell Tower fire are being raised by both left-leaning activists and residents of the tower alike. In response to the government’s handling of the tragedy, activists organised a ‘Day of Rage’ to coincide with the delivery of the Queen’s Speech in Westminster on the 21st of June. Many residents of the tower accused the demonstrators of “hijacking the tragedy” for political purposes. These accusation beg the question: how can activists interact with national tragedies to mobilise change and still be respectful in the process?
The circumstances surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire are inherently political. The tower was council managed housing and many of the affected are low income and working class citizens. Some have sought to paint the tragedy as gross negligence from uncaring contractors (and by extension, Government) only concerned with their bottom line. Conspiracy theories about dark motivations abound. While these are not necessarily the most productive responses, there is a vital conversation to be had about whether impactful reforms can ever truly occur when steeped in the language of respectability politics. Respectability politics refers to the practice wherein members of activist groups and marginalised identities attempt to tailor their actions and messages to mainstream culture in order to gain acceptance and recognition from members of the mainstream. Respectability politics essentially hobbles activism, by creating a space where toxic social undercurrents are allowed to continue unchallenged. Furthermore, the vocabulary of respectability politics often ties activism, such as the Day of Rage, with violence. It peddles an idealised version of social movements wherein protest is only validated if it is entrenched in idolised, semi-mythological ‘peace’; such politics often forget that even the most peaceful of protests, such as campaigns lead by the American Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s, have often been met with brutality from social elites and governmental bodies.
It is necessary, therefore, to begin the work of disentangling the assumed correlation of anger and violence. It is possible to be outraged and not be promoting violence. However, social change is not meant to feel comfortable. Growth and conversation, especially around difficult subjects such as public housing, Government negligence, and social reform, often bring into question a lot of deeply held beliefs that are sometimes ingrained in the culture and identity of a nation. While it is never appropriate to capitalise off of the deaths of others in order to make a point, it is important to recognise the ability of tragic events to both instigate crucial dialogues and create opportunities for growth and learning.
Hopefully, the discussions started by the Grenfell Tower fire will continue past headlines. Tragedies often create space for important cross-party communication, and at best could lead to a partial depolarisation of the Parliamentary sphere. Oftentimes, however, the national attention wanes, and no meaningful reform occurs. For the sake of those affected by the fire, I hope this is not the case.