Racism is above all a technology aimed at permitting the exercise of biopower, ‘that old sovereign right of death’.
(Mbembe, 2003: 17)
A year after the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, as the inquiry unfolded, the survivors, local community and wider society continued to reel from the loss of 72 lives and the institutional indifference that followed and preceded it. Emails from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council released through Freedom of Information revealed one unnamed worker’s racialised view of the tower’s residents: ‘language problems, lack of education and understanding how anything works’, with parts of the community characterised as ‘territorial ’ in nature and apparently comparable to ‘gangs’ (Booth, 2018b).
By contrast, residents knew enough about ‘how things work’ to have chosen fire-resistant cladding during a 2012 consultation on the tower’s refurbishment. The fire-resistant version of the cladding that was ultimately installed would have cost just £5,000 more, according to The Times (Mostrous, O’Neill and Joiner, 2017). The smoke ventilation system failed eight days before the fire, with a proposal to fix it for £1,800 reportedly unanswered, and no maintenance contract in place (Booth, 2018a). A year after the fire, two-thirds of affected households from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk were without a permanent home (Grenfell Support, 2018).
Grenfell Tower was home to families from countries all over the world, including many from North Africa. It takes its name from nearby Grenfell Walk, itself named after Francis Wallace Grenfell, who fought numerous colonial wars there on behalf of the Crown (Mount, 2017). While many residents were British, or had secure immigration status, some did not. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, an impromptu campaign for an immigration amnesty gathered pace. Health workers and legal representatives found that some people were too afraid to seek support from the emergency services or other officials, fearing that any contact with the state would be used as a pretext to detain and deport them under the auspices of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ (Quinn, 2017).
The government eventually set out a tortuous route to settlement, but it was no amnesty. People would face three rounds of applications over five years and the state reserved its right to refuse and deport them on the basis of their perceived ‘character, criminality or associations’ (Home Office, 2017–2018). In the meantime, family members wishing to attend the inquiry from overseas to ascertain precisely what happened to their loved ones were unable to obtain visas (National Newsdesk, 2018).
One year after Grenfell, a further state-enabled cruelty made its way into the light: what has come to be called the Windrush scandal. People who had travelled to the UK as British subjects, or, more technically, ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ after the Second World War had, in a context of target-driven deportations, been informed in their hundreds by the government that they were suspected of being in the UK unlawfully, and would have to prove that they were not, or face deportation.
When the 1971 Immigration Act came into force it regularised everyone in the UK who had settled there from the colonies up to that point, while simultaneously ending the ability of others to do so without proving close and effectively white family ties to the metropole, in a bid to stem the flow of black and brown arrivals. The 1981 Nationality Act further did away with birthright citizenship, leaving those Windrush citizens who had not applied for citizen- ship with recourse only to a lesser right of abode, and their children and grandchildren at risk of statelessness and deportation. Thus, it was that as internal immigration controls tightened in the 2000s, first under New Labour and then under the auspices of the ‘hostile environment’, people who had lived essentially their entire lives in the UK were forced to attempt to prove their immigration status to an administration that had adopted a rigid, box-checking culture of refusal, even when they furnished extensive proof of long residence.
While Windrush is less immediately fatal than the fire that over- whelmed Grenfell Tower, the effects of a ‘hostile environment’, intentionally devoid of everything a person needs to live (as Theresa May proudly described it as Home Secretary – see Kirkup and Winnett, 2012) cannot be ignored. Windrush citizens were denied or charged for health care, and lost their jobs, accommodation and access to welfare benefits. People were unable to buy presents for their grandchildren; unable to visit dying mothers or attend loved ones’ weddings and funerals, and in some cases left the UK for holidays only to be told that they could not return home. They were un-documented by the state; their proof of long residence suddenly inadequate, landing cards destroyed, and protection from deportation quietly repealed.
While scientists have suggested that racism may damage us at the deepest cellular level, accelerating the ageing process (University of Maryland, 2014), the health effects of destitution are more prosaic: Windrush citizens who were stripped of their homes and livelihoods can only have been made poorer and sicker as a result. At least three people wrongly deported died in exile (Gentleman, 2018c). Sarah O’Connor, a formidable campaigner for the rights of the Windrush generation, died in September 2018 at 57 years old, a naturalised British citizen at last, but still staring down the barrel of homeless- ness (Gentleman, 2018d). The mother of Dexter Bristol, a second Windrush citizen who died in 2018, attributed his death to the stress he experienced in trying to prove that he was entitled to an immigration status that had always rightfully been his, and which should never have determined how he lived and died. ‘This is racism,’ she said, ‘he was a victim of their policies’ (Gentleman, 2018a).
At a time when racism is increasingly flattened into a container marked ‘individual racially discriminatory acts or unpleasant views’, ‘hate crime’, or, indeed, ‘free speech’, it is right that we make a renewed effort to abandon ‘the habit of considering racism as a mental quirk, as a psychological flaw’ (Fanon, 1967: 38). This is not an abandonment that I find difficult: I am the granddaughter of the migrations that followed the Second World War, and the English working class. Two of my grandparents were Windrush citizens, and my other grandfather was an African-American stationed in England during the Cold War. Racism is what undergirded the teacher who suppressed my infant mother’s school grades, closing off who knows what possible futures; it is the logic of the police who let skinheads roam free to harass my grandfather, and who saw fit to burst into his home and trample the clean washing (but picked it up with deference when my white grandmother came into view). It is what left him with little financial option for survival but Vietnam, and only drugs to blank out what he saw there. It is what stops and searches my young cousins three times each day in our hometown, and leaves them with nowhere to turn when they fear falling victim to violence themselves. Racism foreshortens the possibilities of people and peoples. At its most intense, it is, like poverty, condemnation to a life and death of drudgery, exploitation, illness and want. Racism forecloses any meaningful sense of security: the security of knowing that we will not be ripped from our homes and families and die alone in an unknown land or in a Kafkaesque battle with an implacable bureaucracy; that we will not die by fire in our sleep or terrified waking. Of course, racism does not do all of these things by itself; it is ‘only one element of a vaster whole: that of the systematized oppression of a people’ (Fanon, 1967: 33). And this in turn is how race as the modality in which class is lived comes into relief; because of course, not everyone who lived in Grenfell Tower was a migrant, and some who have been dispossessed in a similar vein to the Windrush generation are, in fact, white.
The responses of the state to Grenfell and Windrush mark similar tracks. First came the careful demarcation of the victims: the Home Office took great care to define Windrush citizens with a criminal record out of the numbers of people wrongly deported (Gentleman, 2018b). Next came the state’s regret and apology at the most narrow and extreme manifestations of the harm that it had caused or allowed, but no acknowledgement of or remorse at the systems that enabled that harm – be that the widespread managed decline of social housing and rampant property speculation across the UK, the hostile environment, or, more broadly, a political consensus that disavows Britain’s imperial past and for the most part, is prepared to tolerate the lawful entry of only the richest and the whitest would-be immigrants, meting out the violence of destitution, detention and deportation to the rest. In each instance, the institution of some kind of formal redress – a public inquiry; a euphemistic ‘lessons learned review’ – in effect functions for calls for immediate or radical policy change to be labelled premature. Victims are encouraged to come forward, compensation schemes and faux-amnesties are promised, and the media furore dies down.
And of course, all of this happens in such a way as to reinscribe the logic that enabled those initial catastrophes, and the responses of the well-meaning outraged all too often reinscribe that logic too. Some parliamentary Windrush campaigners were quick to aver that Windrush was about cherished, law-abiding citizens who had been wrongly treated as ‘illegal immigrants’, with little mention of why excluding undocumented people from health care, housing, or work might be cruel and unjust in and of itself; or indeed the practice of forcing anyone to apply for citizenship at all. In discussions that I observed, some residents and charities responding to the Grenfell Tower fire were quick to label mention of undocumented residents ‘unhelpful’, or to reiterate that they weren’t here illegally. Thus, Windrush citizens who have braved making applications to the Home Office, in the absence of any legal aid or avenue of appeal, are still liable to be refused leave on grounds of criminality, insufficient evidence or bad character (Bulman, 2018) – the same grounds on which undocumented Grenfell applicants may be denied settlement, and the same grounds on which hundreds of children – the majority of them black – are routinely refused citizenship (Mohdin, 2018). Up and down the country, thousands of people sleep each night in buildings still clad in material very similar to that which turned Grenfell Tower into a ‘death trap’ (Tobin, 2018).
Grenfell and Windrush represent an unremitting reminder (to those with the luxury of forgetting) that racism is ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’ (Gilmore, 2007: 28). Each of these catastrophic events lays bare the sometimes lethal intersections of race and class while at the same time demanding that we rigorously interrogate them. Those of us who respond to that call must commit to doing so with sufficient care, attention and humility as to avoid reinforcing the institutions and practices that allowed Windrush and Grenfell to happen in the first instance. We cannot be content to divide the dead and dispossessed into those who are worthy of popular anger, and those who are not. Nor can we satisfy ourselves with partial demands for amnesty, compensation or citizenship. We should do the work of building solidarity across struggles against racial, economic and all forms of oppression; and we should not be constrained by national borders as we do so, because the ‘systematized oppression of a people’ calls for a systematic and intersectional response. As Barbara Smith reminds us in her reflections on the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective statement, coalitions are ‘how we win […] and how we survive in the meantime’ (Smith, 2017: 64). So our horizon of justice must be broad and brave enough to contemplate not only retrospective reparation, but also the opening up of foreshortened and foreclosed futures, and the simultaneous possibility of ‘never again’. And even then, far from the end, that will be only the beginning.
This article is an extract from After Grenfell, Violence, Resistance and Response, edited by Dan Bulley, Jenny Edkins, Nadine El-Enany, and published by Pluto Press.
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Booth, R. (2018b) ‘Grenfell Emails Reveal Turmoil at Council in Aftermath of Fire’. The Guardian, 8 June. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/08/grenfell-emails-reveal-turmoil-at-council-in-aftermath-of-fire.
Bulman, M. (2018) ‘Windrush Generation Members to be Refused UK Citizenship, Government Announces’. The Independent, 21 September. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/windrush-citizens-latest-citizenship-refused-home-office-sajid-javid-a8549101.html.
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Tobin, O. (2018) ‘Almost 500 Buildings in the UK have Same Cladding as Grenfell Tower, Government Report Reveals’. The Evening Standard, 30 June. www.standard.co.uk/news/london/almost-500-buildings-in-the-uk-are-using-the-same-cladding-as-grenfell-tower-government-report-a3875396. html