Grenfell From The Ground Up: Getting Angry and Getting Organised

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It is 890 days after the Grenfell Towers tragedy which took the lives of 72 people, injured hundreds and left over 200 households homeless. Victims are survived by their families memories. Karim Mussilhy is Vice President of Grenfell United with other bereaved families and survivors. Today, he stands in a lecture theatre in Leeds to call on students to think critically, not believe what they hear from the so-called ‘Mainstream Media’, and to stand with the community as they seek justice and heal.

Mussilhy fights every day on behalf of his uncle Hesham Rahman who died on the 23rd floor. Before 14th June 2017, he’d never been an activist, campaigner or public speaker. He had played football, enjoyed fishing and was a family man. His uncle was 57, lived on the top floor and had trouble walking. He loved being in his flat. He was a very religious man and said the height of the building made him feel closer to God. He could see where Mussilhy played football and would always text him saying how rubbish he was: “the banter was good”. He was a father figure, and the whole family grew up and was raised in Grenfell Towers, which they still view as the hub of the family. 

Unlike his uncle, Mussilhy wasn’t there on the night of the fire. When he got there in the morning, there were flames, firefighters and media everywhere. “It was like being in a movie scene”. He made the decision to not look up to the tower again until he found his uncle. In the weeks that followed they put up posters and spoke to survivors. He recalls the first day at the Rugby Club when Grenfell United formed while they were still in their pyjamas. They started to organise. “They put their arms around each other and tried to form a humanitarian group as they quickly realised no one was going to help them.” 

Stormzy performing at the Brit Awards 2018, during which he asked ‘Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?’ (Image: Wireimage)

Mussilhy’s plight is being supported by hip-hop artist and activist Kareem Dennis (‘Lowkey’). The two are travelling the country (not just universities) talking about their experiences, the aftermath, what could have been done and what they would like to see done in light of the event. They are welcomed by Dr Stuart Hodkinson who is a lecturer in Human Critical Geography at the University of Leeds. He knows the men through a “friend-of-a-friend” as is so common in grassroots communities. He has recently written a book about “private greed, political negligence and housing policy after Grenfell”. His research has led him to believe Grenfell United is “leading the way in getting the lessons in Grenfell understood.” Mussilhy explains that Grenfell United is all volunteer led, with both survivors and bereaved memebers. The money goes to the foundation and they have “I think about £11 for pens and papers”. They have received support from Stormzy, and while they did not know about the Brit performance beforehand, he texted a community organiser afterwards  saying ‘that was for you guys’.

Lowkey got involved with Grenfell United because he lives opposite the tower. He “witnessed the fire, had cladding in my hair and all over my window for quite some time.”  He looks a little traumatised as he recounts the night. “It felt like the sky was falling down to be honest.” His emotional investment in the area came before the fire and is based in his residency and permanent spot in the community. He feels efforts before and after the fire have been insufficient with too much focus put on the night and not enough on the wider community. 

The so-called ‘mainstream media’ is responsible for encouraging the victims to talk about their trauma in a way which may be detrimental for individuals, according to Lowkey. When asked to appear on traditional media outlets he has felt censored; “they much prefer me to relay details of the night and how it affected me”. Over the last two years, this has been one of the most “frustrating” parts of the process for him. 

Warnings projected onto other tower blocks that activists say pose a serious risk to the safety of residents (Image: Grenfell United)

Concerns were raised about what the repercussions of speaking out, as both men have done, may be.  Mussilhy worries that as a result of being vocal about what he perceives to be wrongdoing by organisations related to his industry, he may have been “blacklisted”. Since speaking out, he has had jobs dismiss him because of ‘orders from HQ’. Lowkey believes that “because of their pushing on the council, there are people who died with the threat of legal action.” In his mind the council are not the only ones to blame and austerity measures put in place nationally also contributed to the damage. “The way that we see this policy of austerity affecting public service there is no doubt in my mind that is affecting the ability of the fire service to deal with this”.

The idea of “slow violence” is raised. “Often we expect the incident with violence as if it’s a snap action”. However, they suggest this is the impact of years of neglect and slow attempts by the Council to wither down the community. They mentioned other campaigns as part of gentrification which also nearly saw the local library sold to a private school. Lowkey calls it a “cruel twist of fate” that they were organising a campaign already to “save”  the area. The regeneration and ‘refurbishing’ of Grenfell led to the building of a school, an academy under the tower and the gym next to it. It is believed the building of that school cut off fire brigade access, meaning fire brigades could only access from one corner. “Ironically, we were saying to those in Grenfell Tower you’re the only ones who are safe.” 

They both call for the fire to not be ‘exceptionalism’ but instead to be viewed in a wider context. Their rationale is if the country can see themselves in the community, they will act on behalf of the community. They worry there are other communities sleeping thinking they are safe who are “the next Grenfell”. Lowkey believes that “greater work could have been done (by media) to talk to communities who are living with the risk of Grenfell over their heads.” They paint an alarming picture of how the cladding is still being used in halls, cinemas and hotels, and point to Bolton as evidence.

Moving forward, their focus is on justice and the second phase of the inquiry. Mussilhy has seen the evidence which is going to be coming out in phase two of the enquiry. “None of it has shocked me about how they were treating normal people”. However, he was shocked by “the blatency of it and how they weren’t trying to hide what they were doing”. They called for extra panel members, which have now been given. He doesn’t think the second phase will actually start when it is scheduled to, “because they’re still waiting on documents from Arconic – they don’t want you to know their name or who they are but I urge you to remember that name”.

He rhythmically chants the name of those he holds responsible for the death of his uncle: “Arconic, Arconic, Arconic” and urges us not to forget. 

Image: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty