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Editorial: The Grenfell anniversary and the fight against racism

THREE years after the terrible blaze that took so many lives at Grenfell Tower, Britain, like so much of the world, is convulsed by the fallout from the racist murder of George Floyd in the United States.

Anti-racist demonstrations have swept the US and demos of impressive size are taking place in many other countries, including Britain. 

At the same time, disgusting scenes in London on Saturday saw the far-right’s reaction, as fascists chanted that they were proud to be racist and gave Nazi salutes, oblivious to the irony of doing so when the supposed purpose of their presence in the capital was to protect war memorials including to those who died fighting fascism.

Yet the vibrant Black Lives Matter rallies taking place across Britain — that in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, movingly addressed by communist veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle Ken Keable — show that it is the anti-racist cause which is winning recruits and growing in influence, as do the movement’s victories from the United States to France.

Grenfell’s anniversary should, though, be a sobering moment. Three years later the families of the victims have not had justice. 

Nor has the likelihood that we will witness similar episodes of “social murder” significantly decreased. 

The Fire Brigades Union points out that 300 high-rise buildings across Britain are still encased in the same aluminium composite material cladding that proved so lethal at Grenfell.

The inquiry into the fire has been a grim farce, with companies involved in the tower block’s renovation scrabbling to avoid any responsibility in what QC Richard Millett called “a merry-go-round of buck-passing.”

Its very remit ignores the wider context of building deregulation and the social housing sector that would explain why it was possible for a residential block to be so unsafe, as well as why its inhabitants were so despised by Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council that their repeated raising of safety concerns was ignored.

For all its cost, the inquiry has yet to improve on author and rapper Akala’s summary within a day of the blaze: “These people died because they were poor.”

Grenfell’s residents were victims of a system that did not care about them. That system is still in place. The decades of deregulation that allow building companies to play fast and loose with workers’ and residents’ safety have not been addressed. 

If we are to get justice for Grenfell, and if we are to secure lasting victories from the current anti-racist upsurge, we have to work for structural change.

That means understanding the role racial oppression, like oppression on the basis of sex, plays under capitalism to divide the working class and increase the rate of exploitation of sections of it.

It means working for unity among all oppressed and exploited people to fight back collectively. 

That cause is not advanced by individualist notions of “white privilege” that tend to erase class struggle from the fight against racism and can render that fight harder by assigning blame to white people generally rather than to the capitalist system and its ruling class, including a political and media Establishment that has done much to whip up the kind of racist thuggery we saw in London at the weekend.

It is advanced by fighting for specific demands that challenge oppression, such as the proposals for wide-ranging reforms of the national curriculum as proposed by the National Education Union, or for bans on dangerous restraint methods as we are seeing in the US and France — though not, so far, in Britain.

And with evidence that the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black and ethnic minority communities is linked to their place in the class system — disproportionately earning less, in more public-facing roles and more cramped accommodation — it is clear the battle for social justice must be waged against capitalism and racism simultaneously.


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