"Grenfell should have been a catalyst for change, but we’re still awaiting justice"

Yvette Williams
Photo credit: ADRIAN DENNIS - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

My father always said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” His words were ringing in my ears on the night Grenfell Tower caught fire. After a frantic call from a friend at 1am, my daughter and I drove to the tower block to find her. The three of us watched as an almighty bang erupted and flames shot up the building. We saw screaming faces at the windows, people crying for help. I was numb, utterly powerless. Could this really be happening? Are we asleep and this is all an awful nightmare?

However, the flames climbed higher. Firefighters were telling people to “stay put” rather than try to escape. We later learnt that this diminished their chances of surviving. The highest loss of life was amongst those on the top floors - if you were above the eleventh floor by 2am, nobody was coming to find you because the stairways were full of smoke. I am no expert, but I am sure that it was not solely the flammable cladding on the tower that caused the inferno—it was government neglect that let it happen. 72 people died that night.

Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - Getty Images

Three years on, I am still horrified. It has become apparent that the cladding was applied to make the building look less of an eyesore to shoppers at Westfield and wealthy people who live nearby. The government cared more how the building looked rather than the people actually living in it.

My way of coping is to act. It started the next day when I walked to church, stepping over fallen pieces of cladding, to alert our vicar. By 8am, I was in a nearby Christian Centre where donations were already coming in. No one from the local authority had turned up yet — were they too busy shredding documents at the town hall? Who knows?

I was asked to support a new response centre that had been set up locally. The response of the great British public was overwhelming. I stayed there for three days, organising baby and children’s clothes, trying to meet the urgent needs of those who had been affected and locate missing people.

A man asked if I had seen his 12-year-old niece, showing me a photo of a young girl on his phone. I instantly recognised her as Jessica Urbano Ramirez, one of my daughter’s friends. She had been ringing from the building that night, saying she could see smoke and flames, but now her phone was off. Jessica did not survive, she was found in a flat on the 23rd floor.

I often think of Moses, too, a friend of mine who lived in Grenfell Tower for over 30 years. I had been to his top-floor flat for parties years ago. He usually stayed at his partner’s place so it didn't occur to me that he might be missing, until I heard people asking if he had been seen. He'd had an argument with his girlfriend so went back to the flat with his dog an hour before the fire started. He was the 56th victim to be found.

Photo credit: Justice4Grenfell

We set up Justice4Grenfell a few days later, organising a silent walk on June 19th 2017. In the absence of adequate support from authorities, a group of us decided to take action, campaign for justice and to quell the growing anger that was rising. The bereaved families, survivors, evacuated residents and the wider community want to see arrests. All responsible authorities and individuals should be held to account for their failure to provide safe homes, for the death of loved ones and a lack of proper response.

Today, as we mark the third anniversary, we are still waiting. In fact, things only seem to get worse. The first phase of the Public Inquiry blamed the firefighters, which is wrong; they approached the fire unaware that the flammable cladding on the façade of the building would react in that way.

Additionally, the inquiry started with what happened on the night of the fire rather than the issues that led up to it. The terms of reference for the inquiry left out two crucial issues: the state of social housing and the part institutional discrimination played prior to the fire. These two issues are what keep people at the heart of the disaster.

Photo credit: Justice4Grenfell

Phase two of the inquiry began in January this year to determine the factors that led up to the fire, but hearings are on hold due to coronavirus. We already know that the people who selected the tower's cladding and those who were supposed to be responsible for fire safety have been granted immunity from the attorney general so their oral evidence will not even be considered. Will this bring resolution and peace for the families? I doubt it.

The Grenfell disaster should have been a catalyst for change. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry should have been our George Floyd moment. We need to learn from flashpoints of institutional discrimination and interrogate injustice. We cannot walk backwards from here. Write to your MPs, join the protests, and use your voice for good.

Our community didn't just come together on that night. We have a history of being a strong community resisting and fighting for equality. Millions of people join our community every year to celebrate the Notting Hill Carnival. We saw an outpouring of grief and compassion on the days following. We saw that the majority of people are kind; it is just sometimes that they stay silent, allowing a small minority of evil voices to be heard.

As our campaign continues, we have built deep alliances with others who have experienced similar tragedies. The Hillsborough group has offered outstanding comfort, we visited Aberfan where the mining disaster killed 144 people, and the founders of Black Lives Matter US visited Grenfell with us. The Trade unions have given tremendous support too. High profile figures have also got involved, from the Duchess of Sussex to Adele and Rita Ora. They didn't just send donations from afar, they got stuck in and met people at the heart of our community. Sometimes the humbler you are, the bigger impact you make.

This network proves we have more in common than that which divides us. An electrical current connects us around the world. The more alliances we have, the more likely we are to affect change. Together, we can move forward.

As told to Jessica Vince

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