At Grenfell Tower
‘Do you know any of them?’ a man asked me as I was looking at pictures of missing residents of Grenfell Tower on the railings of the Methodist church nearby. I told him I didn't. ‘They're all dead,’ he said.
There was a protest on Friday at Kensington Town Hall. The council owns Grenfell Tower, which was managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. ‘Don't destroy where we live. We've got people sleeping on lawns. We can't let them destroy where we live,’ a young woman said into a megaphone. ‘You told them to stay inside,’ another woman said. ‘You killed them. Justice will be served to them. We're not dumb. Our eyes are not closed. We know exactly what you've done. Don't let them sell your house. Don't let them kill you.’
A group of people had entered the town hall during the protest and there were reports of an occupation on social media but the crowd outside was calm. No one from the council came to talk to the protesters. ‘We're going back to the scene of the crime. Let's go back orderly. We'll represent Notting Hill,’ a man announced.
The crowd marched through Kensington and Notting Hill, demanding justice. Drivers blew their horns and raised their fists in solidarity. Teenagers in school uniforms joined the march, men on motorcycles.
‘Let's use our energy to find these people who are missing,’ a man looking for his uncle said. ‘They're dead, man,’ someone answered.
Paul, who had fled the tower, said he thought people were being lied to by the police and the government. ‘The only reason I woke up is because people were screaming,’ he said, staring into space. ‘They spent money making the building look good on the outside but there were so many problems inside. Fire alarms weren't working properly. You couldn't see anything. If you put your arm out you couldn't see it. I banged on people's doors and no one was answering. I saw two or three dead bodies and I ran for my life. The fire was going through like paper. You had women on the 22nd floor screaming “What do I do?” They were holding flashlights and screaming “Help!” I want to see an inquest into what actually happened. Now they feed us the number of dead slowly to calm us down. It's doing the opposite.’ He said he hadn't heard from the council and was staying with a friend.
On Saturday, people came from all parts of London to see the burnt-out tower. They walked around the cordoned-off area, stood and took pictures. A woman who lives on the Blake Court estate in Kilburn, due to be demolished as part of a ‘regeneration plan’, told me that the local TMO had ignored residents' concerns about safety and living conditions.
‘They are expecting to find bodies,’ I overheard someone say. ‘They will find ashes.’
On Bramley road, volunteers were distributing food. Under the Westway, people sang hymns: ‘Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus, we are the victory.’
I met up with Melvyn, who grew up here and had spoken at the protest the day before, in front of the Methodist church. We walked through a low-rise estate close to Grenfell Tower. There were children cycling around us and he kept bumping into people he knew and asking them if they had lost someone. We walked past two men embracing each other in silence.
We ran into Stewart, who lost a friend in the fire. The two men, both in their mid-thirties, used to play knock down ginger in Grenfell Tower when they were children, back when large walkways came in and out of the building, when there was still a youth club, before the basketball court had a lock put on the door and started charging people, before the two green hills where everybody used to meet disappeared, before what another resident called the ‘corporate takeover’ took away the free common spaces.
‘An £8 million refurbishment has burned people alive,’ Stewart said. ‘They built a gas pipe next to a staircase. It's ridiculous. People have died because of stupidity. They're blaming the guy on the fourth floor whose fridge broke down but any appliance could break down. It was criminal to put that cladding up. Forget terrorism. They've shown true terror to a group of people they haven't given a shit about for years.’
Melvyn, who works in IT, grew up in Hurstway Walk, next to Grenfell Tower. He lives a bit further away now, but has been a lifelong KCTMO tenant. We sat down on a low wall by a small lawn. ‘The authorities should have been here giving us information but they have no intention to pay attention to us as a community,’ he said. ‘We are the poor cousins. They only deal with us because they feel they have to. Growing up in the TMO I've seen them ignore complaints, ignore requests, intimidating people. They're very good at gaslighting people, particularly people who don't have very good English.’
A woman came out of her flat to pick something up in the garden. She wiped her eyes. ‘Gentrification is part of their plan,’ Melvyn said. ‘They are annoyed they gave us this land when it was worthless. The community turned it into what it is now. And now Portobello Market is not the food market it used to be but a tourist spot with food stalls and franchises and we can't afford to buy food there anymore. Now when KCTMO put people in the estate they give them intermediate tenancies. They're looking at the money, at how much they could sell the land for. In Waynflete Square they knocked down properties and built so called affordable housing that's unaffordable.’
After the sun had set, I stood in the vegetable garden of Whitstable House. A couple who had come from Essex to offer help to victims were breaking their Ramadan fast. The woman had managed to sneak into the Westway Sports Centre, where a few families were still sleeping, after a Red Cross manager had refused to let her in. She spent six hours there talking to people. After they had eaten, the man looked for the Qibla. The app on his phone showed him they should pray in the direction of Grenfell Tower. ‘People will think I'm crazy,’ his wife smiled.
One of the women standing next to me handed me a piece of burnt debris she had found on the grass. It was dark, left ash on my fingers and felt very light, like polystyrene, so light the wind had blown it away.