Perhaps it’s because it has come to represent so much of what is broken in our society that it doesn’t seem possible the Grenfell Tower fire started less than three weeks ago. In the days that have followed, our deepest divisions have played out on the streets of Kensington and beyond: rich versus poor, voiceless versus powerful, those the state protects versus those who pay its price.
And, amidst it all, growing accusations of a cover-up around a death toll that has crept up cautiously and incrementally jar against accounts of flats filled with guests breaking Ramadan fasts, and the frantic mental arithmetic employed to tot up the tower’s likely occupants at 1am on a Wednesday morning.
The reasons for this, and the Metropolitan police’s most recent announcement that the final death toll will probably not be known this year, are many and undoubtedly legitimate. But these things have evoked justifiable anger from residents, as noted by the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, who tweeted last week that “trust is at rock bottom in the community. Failure to provide updates of the true number that died is feeding suspicion of a cover-up.”
As quickly as they had embraced survivors as passive receptacles for sympathetic platitudes, some corners of the political class took on an increasingly sneering tone as heartbreak turned to anger, and confusion to suspicion. Contempt for an angry working class returned, wrapped up in incredulity that people whose neighbours had burned to death in their homes might harbour some distrust for the state that was meant to protect them.
The idea of a “conspiracy theory” is a disparaging one, evoking images of wild-eyed outcasts rambling incoherently while polite society avoids eye contact. Nasa faked the moon landings, they might say, or Elvis Presley is still alive and wandering brazenly around Graceland; JFK’s murder is unsolved; UFOs crashed in New Mexico; Bush did 9/11.
These are conspiracy theories, and they are, for the most part, as ridiculous as the title connotes. But what they are not is in any way similar to widespread distrust from Grenfell residents – or Hillsborough campaigners, Orgreave activists or any other marginalised group battling resolutely for justice in spite of a system stacked heavily against them.
Grenfell Tower residents, it quickly emerged, had long been fighting for their own safety and warning of an imminent catastrophe if their calls were not acted upon. On 24 June, they not only saw their predictions come true in the most visceral of forms, but those that survived fought on as responses from the council and government proved chaotic and inadequate. Handwritten names stood in for official lists of the missing, and WhatsApp groups for formal communication channels between surviving residents spread across London in temporary accommodation.
The prime minister visited but met no residents. Councillors refused calls for a public meeting with survivors. As recently as Thursday, Kensington and Chelsea council announced that its first meeting since the fire would take place behind closed doors before abruptly adjourning it altogether upon being forced to admit the media.
Against this backdrop of mass confusion, trauma and a complete breakdown in communication, it seems incredible that Grenfell survivors should have any other instinct but cynicism. Suspicion doesn’t emerge in a vacuum as a way to pass time between protests, but from uncertainty and mistrust, the inevitable result of lives spent being dismissed, and people let down and excluded by the institutions purportedly meant to support them.
It’s easy to sneer at when your interests are protected by the state, and any allegations of wrongdoing by its agencies seem ludicrous and offensive – but for those injured by its failings, an alternative is rarely visible.
Grenfell survivors are not the first to realise that giving voice to distrust of the state will see you consigned to the realm of fantasy and farce, however justified your concerns might be. The Hillsborough protestors, who saw charges brought against state officials last week, fought tirelessly for 28 years in the face of public smears and cover-ups. And those who allege police brutality at the 1984 Orgreave miners’ picket are still doing so. Suspicion from activist groups of state monitoring and investigation is regularly mocked in the mainstream, despite the revelation of long-term and widespread infiltration of protest groupsby undercover police officers. Not all conspiracy theories are created equal – and not all are even conspiracy theories.
Under the widespread inequality and state-endorsed disenfranchisement that contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire, it’s clear that suspicion on the part of the powerless is understandable, even where it’s ultimately unfounded. What residents need now is transparency, communication and the reassurance that their voices do matter. Mocking the marginalised for distrust in the institutions that marginalised them will only reinforce their sense of isolation and paranoia.