Grenfell Tower: Do not come to us now dressed in the sackcloth and ashes of repentance

A Grenfell Tower apartment today

The Grenfell Tower went up in flames, quickly, and many lives were lost, or better sacrificed. At first, the reports were of the spectacular fire itself. Then they were of those who had lived in the building, a public housing tower, and the many, like Khadija Saye, who died in the inferno. Others reported on the firefighters who risked their lives to save others. Then the reports were of the cladding, the material that covered the building, material which we learn tonight was already banned in England, but really who cares? The residents were working poor, largely immigrants, largely people of color, and majority women and children. The Queen visited the site and talked to residents, while Theresa May dithered, yet again. Now people are writing of the spatial apartheid of London, but where were they, and where we, when this slow-moving quickly erupting massacre was in process? Nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be seeing. You know who saw all this and described it in detail? Friedrich Engels, in Manchester, almost 150 years ago.

Walking the streets of Manchester, Engels explained why and how Manchester was a great city: “The town itself is … built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that … the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle- class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity.  Manchester contains, at its heart, a rather extended commercial district … Nearly the whole district is abandoned by dwellers, and is lonely and deserted at night … This district is cut through by certain main thoroughfares upon which the vast traffic concentrates, and in which the ground level is lined with brilliant shops. In these streets the upper floors are occupied, here and there, and there is a good deal of life upon them until late at night. With the exception of this commercial district, all Manchester proper … are all unmixed working-people’s quarters, stretching like a girdle … around the commercial district. Outside, beyond this girdle, lives the upper and middle bourgeoisie … The members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left … Anyone who knows Manchester can infer the adjoining districts from the appearance of the thoroughfare, but one is seldom in a position to catch from the street a glimpse of the real labouring districts …  I have never seen so systematic a shutting out of the working-class from the thoroughfares, so tender a concealment of everything which might affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeoisie, as in Manchester.”

In the end, writing of the attitudes of the bourgeoisie towards the proletariat, Engels commented, “The English bourgeoisie is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter, makes a bargain with the poor, saying: `If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery. You shall despair as before, but you shall despair unseen, this I require, this I purchase with my subscription of twenty pounds for the infirmary!’”

In the late 1880s, Friedrich Engels studied the greatness of Manchester and discovered contemporary London, and every other real estate and service economy driven global city, and he saw the inevitability of the Grenfell Tower massacre. Grenfell Tower was wrapped in illegal materials and toxic policy as “so tender a concealment of everything that might affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeoisie.” So, do not come to us now, dressed in the sackcloth and ashes of repentance. You did start the fire and then kept it burning, and so did we all. Grenfell Tower resident-survivors demand justice. What is justice in a world where humanity is reduced to ashes, where a massacre of innocents has been part of the urban planning of great cities for over 150 years? What is repentance in that world?


(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.