I am reminded of the degrees of hostility the profession rightfully received after the first days and weeks following the Grenfell disaster. People thought we, us journalists, penetrated their area in an intrusive manner, and whilst doing so, not really hearing or caring. The distrust was not the least based on the experience of decades-long disenfranchisement in the area.
When it became evident that the Daily Telegraph was going to publish extracts from the report of the Grenfell Inquiry, I discussed the matter with the foreign co-editor of the German newspaper taz, and we took the unanimous and quick decision that us following this premature publication was totally out of the question.
We had no way to check whether what the Daily Telegraph, and soon many other British media outlets quoted (including the BBC) was correct. I could have tried to persuade my contacts in the community to see the report ahead of its time, maybe I would have succeeded, because it was handed out to them three days in advance, but we decided that this was not on.
We understood that the affected community, including the survivors, were the only ones who were supposed to see this in advance. It was their right and not a competition for us to enter. They had the right to digest the report without the media coming to its conclusions in between.
The report was about to be released a few days later anyway. Whilst other papers beat themselves up to catch up with the Daily Telegraph, we did nothing until Wednesday, the day of the publication of the report, when I speed-read alongside some 20 other journalists the entire summary of the report within two hours in an embargoed room inside the Grenfell Inquiry base at Holborn.
I wrote three reports since on Grenfell Tower and the inquiry and community, one about the contents of the report, one comment piece, and one of the reaction of the affected community (this is the fourth comment, if you like). It was hard work, made even more difficult by the fact that on the day of the publication of the inquiry report, I had fallen ill with a massive headache amongst others. In spite of that, I followed a commitment to meet some people of the community I had promised to come for over a week. I would not let them down, two Aspirin helping.
When it comes to Grenfell, I have repeatedly over the years observed outrageous journalistic judgement. They include insensitive approaches, pressing survivors and the local communities for stories, and saying things in their name that were untrue or unsympathetic, or claiming to be “the voice” of the community, without a degree of humility.
As a result, whilst I am familiar with and know a good amount of people of the community, I am also at the deficit, of not having personally met many survivors, or interviewed them, as I respected their rights to live undisturbed lives and not recall their traumas just because I want their story. After all, as son of a holocaust survivor, I have a good idea what trauma is like, In a way this is also interesting for me now, because I still have encounters ahead of me, at a time some, not all people, actually want to communicate their story. That said, the fact that the inquiry offered survivors the space to talk in a safer way, to further knowledge to all as key witnesses, once with full support and for all, and documented, rather than but to one or the other newspaper or TV channel or radio programm, is I think also something worthy to note, here.
Journalism for me is always about respect for the individual a community. I adhere to this always, even when I don’t agree with the conclusions of an individual, I always see a full person in front of me, and am interested in the bigger story of an individual. I am grateful for the time, respect and honour they allow me to hear them, rather than understanding it as a self-declared right, for a story at all costs. What are we for, if not as transmitters of stories from one person to the other, who can not be there, with an attempt to allow readers to come to their own conclusion?
It is an exciting profession, which teaches you much about life, through the stories of others. But never must one use other people’s stories, simply to gain advantage out of a need for self-promotion. This is even harder today, because many of us, myself included, are encouraged to share our reports in social media, or because newspapers sell in accordance to the degree of excitement their headlines provide.
Gentleness, kindness, curiosity, gratitude, respect and a promise to report without changing the meaning people give before you is, most of the time, beside good writing skills, and a good memory and instinct, the guarantee of a good story. Those who lack this skill, need to find other means for their stories. Fill in the void what other means. To do so on the back of the community around Grenfell Tower, is in my view more than bad judgement. It lacks sensitivity, understanding and is all about taking a narrow advantage.
After all the talk on Wednesday, in the evening, a small club in London invited the Grenfell Tower affected community to be together and support each other. There was but one request on the invitation. It was not “wear black ties,” but simply it reminded possible visitors “This is a press free zone.”
Squatting action under the motorway, Political Requests, Self-help: The Survivors and Residents of the London high-rise fire demand not to be any longer victims.
This article was originally published in taz, die Tageszeitung (online taz.de), Germany’s independent left of centre daily and national broadsheet newspaper on 14/12/2017. See here http://taz.de/Nach-dem-Hochhausbrand-in-London/!5467719/ All rights are strictly reserved with taz. For syndicates contact email@example.com This translation into English was made by the author. It is just a quick unpolished translation made on the day of the publication and the six-month memorial service, so that English only readers can get the facts of the feature. Taz has always been carried by a co-operative of shareholders who support taz for the sake of an independent free German press.
DANIEL ZYLBERSZTAJN REPORTING FROM LONDON
Niles Hailstones is resting in a small café in the world-famous Portobello Road. His head cover, beard and clothing, amongst it also a scarf in pan-African colours, are giving already, at first sight, an impression of his life philosophy. The musician and campaigner describes the spirit of his community with the Bob Marley’s song “Natural Mystic“, citing its entire lyrics, including the words “Things are not the way they used to be, I won’t tell no lies,, One and All will have to face reality.”
Just a stone throw from here are the concrete arcades of the West Way, the motorway which connects the West of London with Central London. It is a road that stretches over several kilometres through North Kensington, from Gospel Oak to Latimer Road, where Grenfell Tower stands. Grenfell is that building which is even more (in)famous, due to the fact that it burned down precisely six months ago in one of the worst fire catastrophes in British history. Now, half a year later, a scaffolding structure with a white cover hides about a quarter of the charcoaled tower, and will soon wrap around the entirety of the tower.
Hailstone reports a wind of change. Not only did 71 people perish In the inferno, it also marks, at least the hope for an end of a decades-long process of marginalisation, regeneration and exclusion, and the dominance of power interests, in fact, the end of “social and ethnic cleansing of the area”, as he puts it.
About the many promises which the council Kensington and Chelsea made, he states: “To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect any changes, either before or after the fire.” In the first month after the disaster, there was total chaos. Left to our own devices, the spirit of self-reliance escaped the bottle, and it is out now”.
The campaigner of African-Caribbean background uncovers a fact that was deliberately kept off the awareness of most observers of the area. When donations, packages and blankets for the community flooded the area, Hailstones happened to have a key to one of the larger spaces under the arcades of the city motorway due to an event he had been planning for a while in honour of the anniversary of Marley’s Exodus Album. Facing necessity, Hailstones asked the community coordination of the trust, for permission to to use the room as a storage room. She agreed and the trust eventually supplied a three-month licence whilst aid stocked up to the high ceiling. .The area was soon simply called by all as the “the village” (in line with the name of this trading area – Acklam Village). It became a sort of private and improvised community centre for survivors of the Grenfell Tower.
Six months on, the space appears emptier. There are numerous sofas in communal formation, paintings and pictures give away an Africa inspired atmosphere, a drum set and a piano stand there too. The three-month licence has run out for quite a while now, but Hailstones hopes to be able to stay regardless for longer.
In this most valuable part of Portobello Road, part of what has become one of West Londons most distinguished and expensive zones, Notting Hill, world-famous for its carnival, West Way Trust has huge regeneration plans. “It looked to me like a sort of Westfields on Portobello Road. As long as we are here, we are stopping these plans“, claims the campaigner. Since the inferno, Hailstones was part of all discussions with the council. The community coordinator who passed on the key to him, was on the other hand fired. When she and another sacked employee began to speak out against that dismissal the CEO of the trust suddenly stepped down from office.
Lost Free Space
The Westway Trust, initially running under the name of North Kensington Amenity Trust, was the hard fought for result of a sustained campaign against car park spaces under the motorway by the residents of North Kensington. Instead, they demanded communal spaces. Hailstones claims that the trust became soon however but a cover „At the beginning as many as six members of the board were councillors, of whom many lived far away.”
From his perspective, the trust’s actions over many years can be understood as racist. There was increasingly less space for cultural and social activities and lesser so for African-Caribbean activities. Commercially viable use became the key concern. It was in Notting Hill where in the 1950s some of the first Caribbean work migrants settled – now they could not even have free spaces under a concrete bridge. A communal steel-drum workshop „Bay 20“, was cleared in the 1990s for a metal fence, in part with barbed wire, and an obscure art installation with blue stones, useless and empty. Other spaces were lost too, including for example for the famous steel band ebony. It looked as if the Westway Trust did care little for the annual Notting Hill Karneval, grown out of the resistance against racism of the 1950s as an expressive form that demanded respect for African-Caribbean people and culture. Even the Maxilla nursery had to close three years ago, with council and trust blaming each other, and yet being so inter-twined, whilst a big shopping mall was in the planning for the arcades areas next to Portobello Road, so the story which Hailstones describes.
For about three years Hailstones carries the position of chair of Westway23 a community group, which attempts to hold the West Way trust to account. Even after Grenfell, the troubles continue, however. The latest twist appears to be the intent by the BBC, now supported by the trust, to finance a new room for a boxing club, that used to have training sessions in the now burned down tower. And where is this space to be erected? No other area was targeted but „Bay 20“. The astonishment is huge, and particularly so amongst the African-Caribbean residents.
“The history of the West Way and community through which it cuts, a community which was pushed aside by the decision makers, has many parallels to the way that social housing blocks like Grenfell were managed”, says local campaigner Eve Wedderburn. Shortly after the inferno she won another long local battle: the rescue of the only library in Ladbroke Grove.
Similar to the establishment of the Westway Trust, the foundation of the “independent” body that administered social housing KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) was the result of demands for communal self-governance. But the reality of that management appeared rather distorted. When residents of Grenfell Tower began to express concerns over the fire safety KCTMO threatened them with judicial steps rather than to examine and respond to the concerns. WIth its credibility, after the fire destroyed, KCMTOs administrative role has only now ended.
Since about three weeks residents from the entire area around Grenfell Tower – an action supported also by Niles Hailstones and Eve Wedderburn – have occupied a huge zone under the arcades, but not without historical presidents. 40 years ago the Free Republic of Frestonia was declared in a street very close to here, when it was facing plans of complete demolishment. Occupation is not the word which Hailstones is using, however. „We have reclaimed this space“, he says and speaks of the revolution of the people. On his mobile, he shows images on which one can see renovated sparkling rooms, studios, therapy rooms, kitchens in fine design, all created by the community with generous donations. The space has already a name, “The City” with direct relation to The Village, its predecessor, which came into existence after the fire. The city is to open its doors to the public on Thursday – following the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the morning and the monthly Grenfell silent march in the evening, which always ends in an open space, the “Wall of Truth” under the arcades near Grenfell Tower, full of street art and murals, mostly expressions regarding the inferno.
Hailstones says that he has invited the councillor of Kensington and Chelsea with responsibility for rehousing Kim Taylor-Smith for a tour of The City. „He came and was taken aback,” recalls Hailstones. Taylor-Smith had stopped the eviction order for now. For the community, it is a prestigious and symbolic display project. It wants to shows that such rooms are not just necessary, but that the community is able to create and implement such spaces into existence.
There are also a few counter voices to the City project. An artist known as Livingstone, who looks after the Wall of Truth and has painted much of it, states that he feels excluded by Hailstones. „I should have moved in there because I was here from the beginning“, he states angered over the question what his opinion is regarding the city.
Sophie Lodge, the artist who reacted to the inferno, which was hard to grasp for survivors, with the expressive communal art 24 heart campaign and the slogan Comeunity – a play between come and unity – says the disagreement symbolises nothing more but the articulation of two strong voices, with, in the end, similar intentions. Lodge herself has spent the last two months working with all schools in the area. She stands at Ladbroke Grove and watches the attachment of a large panel onto the underground bridge on which is the sentence of a young boy. We are special because we are the future of Ladbroke Grove.“
Right to Speak and Human Dignity
The public inquiry regarding Grenfell has only just started to run properly this week, after months of collecting data and documents. There are exchanges on its methods and process. The main issues is the current lack of access to the process by those affected by the disaster.
The legal representatives of the victims, survivors and affected request They demand respect for diversity, dignity, increased access and right to shape the kind of questions the inquiry asks. Instead of a single judge, they ask for a panel to lead the inquiry, in which the affected should then also be represented, and it is also the opinion of Chris Imafidon, one of the survivors of the inferno. „What happens when the judge is ill, or when he dies? Then it does not continue!!“ Regarding such matters, there was a surprise declaration over the weekend by the British equality and human rights Commission, who announced the opening of their own inquiry.
At least there are things happening in the building and housing sector according to the expert in building regulation, safety and building forensics Gerard McLean the UK building regulations were clarified as soon as one week after the inferno „Buildings higher than 18 Meter may now only have external material that are of limited combustibility,” he explains. “That is a quite high standard, although not the highest because it is possible to build with totally non-combustible materials.” All public housing owners, such as local authorities have since removed exterior materials such as cladding, even those in private ownership quietly removed questionable cladding.”
Many of the concerns of the survivors and Grenfell surrounding residents remain however still unsolved. Especially because six months after the inferno only one-fifth of the victim families and affected people have found a new home, says Judy Bolton of the Campaign Justice4Grenfell, who has lost friends and relatives in the tower and does not live far from Grenfell in Ladbroke Grove.
Asked how he is these days, Professor Chris Imafidon, who used to live on the 14th floor in the tower and survived to tell his story, falls into cynical laughter. “I still live in a small hotel room,” he says „I don’t need any collective service in St. Paul’s Cathedral but a set of keys to a home. It is all a joke. Enough with the talking! We do not need a service for those who are dead and who already had their funerals, we need service for the living!”
Elizabeth Campbell, the leader Kensington and Chelsea, assured that her team would work hard to “house all until Christmas”, and that the council purchased on average two flats a day in the area. The delay was due in part to changing circumstances. For example, there would now be a need for almost twice the figure of units than initially assumed. More than 300 are needed now. This was because some families lived in overcrowded conditions with several generations, whilst others wanted to move in together with family members and friends due to inferno.
But apparently, there exist over 1000 empty social housing flats in Kensington. “Nobody understands why they are not being offered,” states Judy Bolton of Justice4Grenfell. “Amongst the around 1000 homeless due to the inferno, there are also 40 children. According to UK law, it is illegal to keep them longer than six weeks in temporary accommodation like hotels. Those responsible are for many months breaching the law!” On the other hand, due to rehousing hierarchies can single persons, who have the lowest priority not move into available empty flats, even if families with higher priorities cannot move into one bedroom apartments, due to their small size.
In November the UK government made at least 28 Million Pound available in order to help the affected, in addition to the 5 Million which the government had promised immediately after the inferno. Finally and slowly there are essential services available, such as therapy for the affected. Judy Bolton has taken on the offer for counselling, as the last six months have affected her, she admits. In spite of that, there is still a lack of services for children. Not just those directly affected, but also for those children who lost their friends in the fire are left vulnerable. Another problem that existed until recently, when the issue was raised in the scrutiny meetings, was that help was only available in a special centre, without outreach to possibly traumatised people, who sometimes would bury themselves indoors in the hotels in which they are housed.
Chris Imafidon says he feels tired and stretched in energy as well. His GP advised him to rest, but he is unable to do so fully, “because of the government, local and national alike, claim that I say too much and they push people like myself to the side. He said that he intends to boycott the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral and will instead posture in front to express himself. „First and foremost I need a roof over my head, that I can call my home. After that one can look into the question of therapy, if one still requires it then.”