As the news of London’s Grenfell Tower has swept the globe in the last few weeks, I was struck by the raw empathy I felt for its inhabitants, an emotional bridge that tied this South Bronx girl to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
In the hours and days that followed, as I watched interviews with survivors, I saw my neighbors. Working-class people of all races, but who were mostly Black and brown, living in a neglected tower block that has now become the world’s tallest unmarked grave.
The accents were different, but they were my people. They were the people I grew up next door to in the projects, the people I still live next to in my current apartment building—a red-bricked postwar edifice that rises like one of many identical monoliths here in the South Bronx, with a population of color that looks much like those who made Grenfell Tower their home.
I’ve been to London many times and have a deep connection to the city, but that wasn’t why the Grenfell tragedy struck home for me. It’s because Grenfell was home. When I looked at the despair in the faces of Grenfell’s survivors, the earnestness of those who came to help, and the anger of the protests that followed, I saw a constituency that has been ignored across the political spectrum for far too long. If there is a “revolutionary class” in the modern world, it is not the idealized proletarian coal miner or factory worker—so often carved in the relief of socialist-realism as a white man. It is, instead, the residents of those tower blocks.
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Grenfell’s residents were poor people considered by the right-wing press and political class to be disposable nuisances, obstacles to gentrification, easily villainized “chavs,” or immigrants fit only for monstrously scapegoating headlines in angry newspapers. They are, and always will be, the people I come from.
The death toll is estimated to be 80. Even that hideously flexible number tells its own story, of how emergency services in the heart of a fabulously wealthy financial capital are unable to pin down with any certainty how many have died—residents and volunteers are currently trying to fill in the blanks. The building’s condition, with its flammable exterior cladding, spread the fire so quickly to the upper reaches that many had no chance to escape and firefighters had no way of safely reaching those people through the building’s only stairwell; bodies may have been obliterated, and every occupant of some 23 units remains unaccounted for, with no one able to confirm how many people were in each flat.
Further, as is often the case with working–class people, our homes can become the homes of our families and friends in need—we house people whose names will never appear on a lease, so that we share what little we’re fortunate to have. This practice of “subleasing” means that there may be no official record of people who are now dead, their inability to affix their identities to a capitalistic contract all but ensuring they are forever lost in the ashes of that desiccated skyscraper.
The Times of London reported in the aftermath of the fire that the exterior cladding of the building was flammable and banned in both the United States and Germany, believed by investigators to be the primary cause of the extent of the damage. The cost savings between that cladding and the fire-retardant version, the Times also reported, was a mere £5,000 (approximately $6,300). It is rare that the low value placed on the lives of the poor, especially the non-white poor, is given an exact figure. But there it was in black and white: The lives of Grenfell’s residents weren’t even worth £5,000. The Kensington and Chelsea council authority, responsible for local public housing and run by the Conservative party, was running a budget surplus of £274 million at the time; it elected to spend some of that money on tax breaks for the borough’s wealthiest residents.
This isn’t just a London story, though there are many, many ways in which the British government—with its vicious cuts to emergency services and repeated failure to pass stricter housing safety legislation—will have to answer for this. Those buildings go by many names around the world. “The projects,” here in the United States; “council flats” in the United Kingdom; “commie blocks” in Canada. But their residents are part of a global constituency of the new working class: multiracial, often with women-led households, who labor not in factories but in civil service jobs, sweatshops, and service industry positions.
Such buildings warehouse and segregate their residents. They are where the popular scapegoats of white nationalists and the far right live: They’re the home of the “welfare queen” or the home of the potential “radicalized” Muslim.
In the United States, I see portable police towers wheeled into place to watch over the courtyards of local public housing complexes, looking to all the world like guard towers done up in NYPD livery. Just across the Harlem River, a stone’s throw from Columbia University’s colonnades, a much-mythologized “gang war” between the Grant and Manhattanville projects was exacerbated in 2014 by police raids. There, “criminal conspiracy” charges required so low a burden of proof that many young men, even those going to college, found themselves facing more than a decade of prison time. Meanwhile, the violence in the buildings hasn’t abated. Fixing these problems requires far more than tabloid-friendly police action.
Further parallels to Grenfell are easy enough to find. Health and safety violations in New York City’s public housing may have led to widespread lead poisoning; certainly the ongoing tragedy of Flint, Michigan, is also relevant here, as a neglected area left to rot due to the races and class of its residents.
The frequently neglected, often overpoliced public housing in the United States contains 1.2 million households. The people who live in these buildings and neighborhoods rarely fit into the ideal demographics of mainstream Democrats or the radical left. The former are usually excited about young, upwardly mobile, usually white and university-educated voters in the suburbs of states like Virginia and Colorado. The latter, meanwhile, are compelled by the figure of the heroic (also usually white) worker, in a factory or mine.
These public housing residents are the voters who could flip districts, the ones who wouldn’t flee from socialism or feminism, who could turn out in their thousands to vote for candidates who would’ve been written off in the past. For example, in the United States, people of color are more likely to accept that men and women are treated unequally. Latinos generally believe that inequality is a problem that must be addressed collectively. Though this is anecdotal, in my own rather large Puerto Rican family, many of whom lived in tenements and public housing, there’s always been high rates of support for trade unionism—getting a union job was their only way out of poverty—and, among the women, plenty of support for feminist ideas. Yet none of my family, or their neighbors, are really sought out as political activists or voices in Democratic Party politics, much less any other party.
The whiteness and elitism of so much mainstream politics, even on the far left, is blinding. Redressing that imbalance—a lofty goal touted by so many different political groups—would have to begin with attention to the problems of where we actually live.
It would mean a Democratic Party that was around even when they didn’t need our votes, and socialists who weren’t just trying to organize white people on university campuses. Where movements like Black Lives Matter have been successful is precisely to the degree that they mobilized people that are often left out of “traditional” approaches to activism. It would mean recognizing the organizing that is already going on in these towers and neighborhoods. Just as Grenfell’s residents were involved in vocal advocacy through blogging, so too do the projects in the States have community groups that give a voice to residents. We shouldn’t only be hearing about them in the aftermath of tragedy, whether it’s Grenfell or the Grant/Manhattanville raids.
And in the aftermath of Grenfell, we have seen the same patterns of response that afflict Black Lives Matter in the United States. Overpolicing, racist terror, a press and government seeking to contain outrage rather than address its causes. Manufactured outrage from the Fleet Street press made Grenfell survivors a target when they were falsely said to have been given “luxury flats” by the government. Cue ample racism on social media. Meanwhile, as residents and radical groups marched to assert their rights and call for a full investigation, liberals wrung their hands and debated whether the demands are too impolite or radical.
Yet to look at the streets of London now is to see a new wave of Grenfell-prompted public protest that brings together more than just university students. It’s a movement that links together the interests of everyone from firefighters to immigrants to single mothers to young people priced out of housing. That might very well underpin a popular revolt against corrosive austerity and media racism and classism.
The script may have a few extra vowels in it, but it’s functionally the same as the one used here in the United States. It’s worth extending our empathy across the Atlantic to embrace Grenfell’s survivors and learn from them.
One image that arrested me from Grenfell’s immolation was a distant, wide-angle shot showing a towering column of smoke rising over London’s skyline from the infinitely smaller building. It reminded me of what I saw as a 13-year-old on 9/11. Except this iconic, terrible image was caused by a terrorism that was fully homegrown, one meant to suffocate and confine both the poor and the non-white.
The other memorable image was of the beautiful memorial that sprung up near the building. One person wrote in marker “We are all one Ummah,” a term referring to the community of Muslims—words that could’ve been written by someone living down the street from me here in the Bronx.
If “intersectionality” is to have any meaning beyond a buzzword, it must be taken up as a perspective by a wider Left that works with those Black and brown people now protesting their immolation, amplifies their voices, elevates the nonwhite women who often lead, and recognizes that any real progress against the twin evils of capitalism and white supremacy cannot be made without them. The day for fetishizing the factory floor as the cradle of class consciousness is over; the radical movement of our time is being born in these tower blocks.