If it hadn’t been Ramadan, even more people would have died, firefighters told me on the scene at Grenfell Tower, the apartment building in West London that went up in flames on June 14 and is believed to have left more than 80 people dead.
The building had a high number of Muslim residents, and when the fire began, in the early morning hours, many people were returning from prayers or were awake, breaking their fast, and were able to raise the alarm. None of the survivors I spoke to, or saw interviewed in the media, had heard a fire alarm: Instead they were woken by smoke, screams or their neighbors hammering on doors to wake them before escaping themselves.
The tower and the area around it are ethnically diverse, with many families from Moroccan and Somali backgrounds. One of the first people confirmed dead was Mohamed al-Haj Ali, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee.
In the evening on the day of the fire, survivors, volunteers and locals held an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast. Many of the volunteers I spoke with were exhausted from carrying donations and supplies on a hot day while they abstained from food and water.
The residents of the Lancaster West Estate, the development that envelops the Grenfell Tower, are typical of the modern British metropolitan working class. While there still exists a widespread nostalgia among some quarters for a beleaguered white working class, the truth is different. Poverty rates are lowest among the white population — at about 20 percent — while 50 percent of people of African descent live in poverty. Overall, two-fifths of ethnic minorities live in a household earning below average income.
Indeed, Britain’s racial politics are the key to understanding the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s difficult to imagine this disaster — caused by a huge dereliction of duty and refusal to listen to residents’ concerns — befalling a community of white Britons.
Tabloid media and political parties like the nationalist U.K. Independence Party have attacked the changing demographics of urban Britain: Salacious, false rumors circulate on the far right of “no-go” areas in London and Birmingham, areas where deadly crime makes walking the streets unsafe or where patrols enforce Shariah law on a neighborhood. The truth is that these neighborhoods, though poor, are often tight knit, with a sense of solidarity overriding any supposed lack of ethnic cohesion.
Community centers ringing the towers were deluged with donations, and volunteers of many different faiths arrived from across London and further afield. Two young Sikh men told me they’d driven nearly an hour from Slough with friends from their temple. Many volunteers wore green T-shirts stating they were working for the Muslim Aid charity. Christian vicars and Catholic priests opened their churches to the relief effort.
Survivors and former residents told me many of the tenants did not speak English as a first language, and felt this meant their concerns were dismissed during and after a refurbishment project that, it now seems clear, exacerbated the fire.
The former chair of the Grenfell Tower residents’ association, David Collins, told me many residents received threatening letters from lawyers for the contractor completing the building work, and they felt intimidated by visits and complaints from managers of the company.
The blaze happened after a yearslong attack by the Conservative government on low-income housing. The amount of public housing being built has dropped for more than two decades, even more drastically since 2012 to reach a 24-year low. Meanwhile, more and more is being sold off and demolished, even though demand is higher than it has been in decades.
Many local councils have been desperate to build, but have instead had their funding slashed, meaning they are closing homeless shelters when they want to build more homes. As well as funding cuts, changes in the classification of homelessness have seen more families turned away when they need help: Over 100,000 children in England are currently in temporary accommodation, while single adults are routinely turned away.
The reported failings in the run up to the disaster have a clear class element, but also a racial one. White tenants said their concerns were ultimately ignored, but officials were more likely to listen to them. Black and South Asian survivors told me they felt the implicit message from everyone they contacted before the fire for help with the building was “you are a guest in this borough, and a guest in this country, you have no right to complain.”
The local authority the estate sits in, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is the richest borough in Britain. Houses there routinely sell for several million pounds — many times higher than the average in Britain. “If someone in those houses complained about their rubbish bins, the council would sort it out immediately,” one Grenfell resident told me. “But because we weren’t white, no one cared when they said their homes were dangerous.”
In London in particular, gentrification has seen a rise in redevelopment projects on public housing estates that, more often than not, involve evictions and the land the demolished houses stand on being sold for hefty sums to developers. The evicted tenants are usually poor, and often from diverse ethnic backgrounds, similar to the community in Grenfell Tower.
When Prime Minister Theresa May visited the site last week, she refused to meet residents, citing “safety concerns.” (Meanwhile, both the queen and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, met with Grenfell tenants.) On Sunday, Mrs. May had a few survivors visit her at Downing Street — but only after she was forced to flee angry protests by locals a few days earlier.
Fixing Britain’s public housing crisis will not be easy. And it’s not likely to happen as long as Mrs. May and her Conservatives are in charge of the government. But the level of public anger right now since the Grenfell disaster is forcing people here to confront the issues of class and race, gentrification and public policy that, it is now clear, can be deadly.
Dawn Foster is a contributing editor at The Guardian’s Housing Network and the author of Lean Out.