London—There never was a London June like this. In the early hours of this morning, with ash still in the air from last week’s catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower, a man shouting “I want to kill Muslims” drove a van into a crowd of worshipers leaving a mosque in North London after taraweeh prayers for Ramadan. The attacker was caught and held by members of the congregation, while the imam urged the crowd not to harm him. One man (already receiving first aid before the attack) died at the scene; eight people are injured, two of them seriously.
This is the third terrorist attack in London and the fourth in Britain since March—and the first to target Muslims. Something is building, frightening, uncertain, anxious, hopeful too. Last year’s Brexit vote, this year’s wave of atrocities, Labour’s unexpected success in the June election, the terrible high-rise inferno—all have uncovered sharp edges ignored for years by the comfortable, glossed over in politics and the mainstream media. They won’t be easily buried.
The Grenfell Tower fire was the lethal consequence of years of putting profit before people’s lives; it happened in London’s wealthiest and most unequal borough, which, for the first time ever, elected a Labour MP this month. Kensington’s Notting Hill was once a lively, mixed community, settled in the 1930s by refugees from Franco’s Spain and in the 1950s by Britain’s first wave of West Indian immigrants. In the 1960s it was split in two by the Westway, an elevated highway; the cut-off northern end was left to sink into poverty while a tide of gentrification swept up from the south. The stuccoed Victorian terraces that line its leafy crescents were snapped up by yuppies in the booming ’80s; many of its luxury flats now stand purposely empty, occupied only by overseas investment capital.
The brutalist, 24-story Grenfell Tower was built as public housing in the 1970s, one of several high-rises clustered near the Westway. Home to 120 families, many of them first- or second-generation immigrants, it was mismanaged on behalf of the Kensington and Chelsea council, which failed for years to respond to urgent warnings about fire safety from a tenants’ organization, instead threatening the group’s blogger with a lawsuit for defamation. An £8.7 million refurbishment was completed in 2016, with cladding to improve insulation–and the view of the building from the posh streets to the south. The polythene core in that cladding, which went up in flames like a nylon nightdress last week, is banned for tall buildings in Europe, the United States, and—according to a senior government minister—in Britain. It was installed instead of a fire-resistant version, against the manufacturer’s strong warning, for a total saving of around £5,000.
“And that,” said a shattered man I met near the tower this weekend, “is what our lives are worth to them. It’s about class. They don’t care if you live or die. You mean nothing to them. They say they’ll give 5 million [to survivors]. Really? Really? Tell that to the child who died in there. Tell that to the mother who saw death coming and couldn’t do nothing.”