The Grenfell Disaster: The Aftermath Part Two
27 July 2017
For The Benefits of Foresight
Thirty years ago the deep alienation and anger felt in the Black Community that followed the New Cross fire in south London in which thirteen young black people died at a birthday party - was simply not understood or accepted by socialists least of all the Labour Party. Those socialists who did attend the Black Peoples Day of Action in January 1981 which had been called to protest the inaction of the police over the New Cross fire, did come away with some impression of the depth feeling and the rage. Contrary to fake reports of the 20,000+ demonstration by the press - no rioting took place. There was also no rioting when the police decided to cut the demonstration in half producing more frustration and anger. The lesson being: when people are angry and grieving and not rioting - they must non-the-less still be depicted as a violent destructive force ready to destroy society.
Brixton 1981: Finding A Place Beyond The Front Line
Three months later extensive rioting did however take place. It took place as a consequence of the Metropolitan Police's notorious “Swamp '81” operation in Brixton south London. Looking back one police officer began his account of his role by saying, “I wasn't a racist when I joined the police force but I became one”. This statement was made not to justify his and other police officers prejudice, but to state that a culture of common brutality existed in the London Metropolitan Police before “Swamp '81”. In Brixton after three days of rioting in which some twenty plus police vehicles were destroyed and several hundred police and locals were injured, Socialists again (rightly) - wanted to become politically involved.
What happened next at one of the larger community meetings called in the immediate aftermath, was not what socialists expected. Rightly or wrongly, for some left socialists, those who had fought the police, came to symbolise the meaning of revolution – a class revolution that is. And in the contributions the socialist speakers made and the articles they had written - this is what was stressed about what they had called the “Brixton Rebellion”. Understandably, it was this approach that informed the context of their analysis and conclusions. I will not dwell on the actual outcome of the meeting, suffice to say there were no resolutions or proposals passed or agreed - for the simple reason that no common ground was found and nothing, could or would, be agreed upon. Why?
For those who had fought a bitter battle with the police, they simply found it increasingly difficult to listen to (mostly white) socialists give contributions about what they should do. The meeting then took a number of decisions and divided on who had the right to speak about what had happened and what should be done. First those who didn't live in Brixton were asked to leave. Then when it became clear that of those who remained - some were also socialists who lived and worked in Brixton and who were now making similar points and contributions – they too were asked to leave. For those who lived and had fought on the “front-line” (as the heart of Brixton was known) - simply did not think it right that someone else should speak for them, or about what they had experienced or, what it had meant.
For although a number of black socialists who lived in Brixton and on the front-line made important contributions on why the community, and those who had fought, must do to reach the place beyond the front-line - that place – the place of a mass, multiracial socialist party, became ever more distant. In the cities and large towns across Britain in and outside the Labour Party, socialists viewed the deep unpopularity of the Thatcher government as meaning that more people would become involved in (revolutionary) socialist politics when the opposite was the case. For as the factories closed and strikes and workplace action were made illegal, socialist politics went into a steep decline.
Theory and commentary can only do so much in stressing the differences between then and now. Today in contrast to previous times of deepening social and political isolation, the disaster at Grenfell has shown the wider social connections that were there to be drawn upon. People have taken over from the authorities and organized their own structures of support. Kensington was and is part of the growing sea change in national and local politics. Urban communities in distress that were once pushed to the edge of society – to the extent they had to fight to walk their own streets – are now offered support by the wider community.
A Rising Sea of Political Change
Outwardly, the Labour Party gains under Corbyn's leadership are a symptom of wider social change and Momentum represents a change in quantity and quality of activists involved. Any socialist organization worth its salt needs both. The Left outside the Labour Party - contrary to the conspiracy theories of some MPs and newspapers, is organized and focusing on the revival of open socialist politics in the workplace and not secretive infiltration.
The mammoth task of ensuring that public housing is made safe for human habitation again will not happen without effective political and social change. There is only one effective way that that can be achieved: by taking back ownership of the political process locally and nationally - to rebuild it from the ground up. Socialists outside the Labour Party have been active and have been gaining support as candidates in trade union elections on issues of pay and conditions. But it is the issue of community wide organization were they must also work to connect those struggles so as to ensure that the urgently needed public works take place and that existing jobs and services are not cut to pay for it.
Note: the author lived
in both Brixton and North Kensington in the late 1970s.