No escape from the death-trap

The first victim of the horrific fire in Grenfell Tower in London to be named was Mohammad al-Hajali,  a 23-year-old civil engineering students and Syrian refugee.

Mohammad Al-Hajali

Three years ago, Mohammad escaped from the modern hell that is the Syrian civil war. He fled his home in Daraa – the birthplace of the Syrian uprising against Assad – with his parents and four siblings, endured the perils and privations of the journey to Europe, crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, and found refuge in London. The family might reasonably have expected a measure of safety and security there.

Grenfell Tower fire. Photos: BBC

But instead, they found themselves in another pit of hell, and this time the escape routes were even more tightly closed. Grenfell Tower, in which Mohammad and his brother Omar were living, was totally ill-equipped to withstand a fire. It had no sprinkler system at all, and therefore no means of extinguishing or even containing a serious fire long enough to allow residents to escape. There was not even any central alarm system in the building. It had, in any case, a totally inadequate system for evacuating the building, complete with deadly instructions advising residents to stay in their apartments in case of a fire elsewhere in the building. Those who followed this instruction mostly died. A central staircase was the only escape route, and this passage had been retrofitted with gas pipes, which means that it is highly likely that in this fire at some point the staircase was blazing like a furnace.

Mohammad’s brother Omar managed to escape the fire, but in the darkness and confusion of the thick smoke, the brothers became separated and Mohammad ended up back in his apartment, from where he phoned his brother to say goodbye.

As soon as the scale of this disaster became clear, the UK government sprang into action, in an effort to soothe public anger against the criminal actions and inactions that led to the disaster, to deflect responsibility from those responsible, and to paralyse public protests. And as always for capitalist authorities caught in this situation, the aim is to delay, and delay, and delay. This began on the day of the fire, with the drip-feeding of information about the true number of casualties. As a neighbouring resident pointed out, the authorities are micro-managing people’s grieving process.

The ‘inquiry’ announced by the government of Theresa May is the centrepiece of this process of deflection and delay. Is an inquiry needed in order to discover that sprinkler systems are needed on high-rise buildings? When last year the regulations were eased to allow for new schools to be built without sprinkler systems at all, against all the advice of fire safety experts, it was not because the benefits of sprinklers were unknown.

Fire at The Address Hotel, Dubai, December 2015, spread through flammable exterior cladding. Photo: Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters

It was also already well known that the flammable cladding materials used in the cosmetic ‘refurbishment’ of the tower block were hazardous. That was demonstrated in the New Year’s Eve fire in Dubai over a year ago, where similar cladding materials contributed to the rapid spread of the fire in exactly the same way that they did in Grenfell Tower. Anyone who really wanted to learn the lessons of that experience could have done so already.

In fact, even in capitalist-ruled New Zealand, building regulations require that any building over eight floors must have a sprinkler system, and the regulations were amended after the Dubai fire to ban the use of these materials on high-rise buildings. (Whether these regulations are strictly enforced, and to what extend they are applied retroactively to existing structures is another matter – capitalist profit ultimately determines such questions in New Zealand as well).

The failure of the UK government and local administrations to take similar measures is nothing less than criminal gambling with people’s lives for the sake of saving landlords money. Those responsible should be facing multiple charges of culpable homicide, not invited to air their opinions before an ‘inquiry.’ Let them make their excuses to a jury. The housing administrators who not only brushed aside the safety concerns of the Grenfell residents but threatened those raising the problems with legal action for defamation should be the first ones arrested.

Don’t expect any arrests of these people any time soon, however. For the most part, their actions are completely legal under bourgeois law – the problem is that system of law, and the rule of that class. Perhaps the one most clearly responsible is the former Prime Minister who set himself the goal of “killing of health and safety nonsense” in the interests of capitalist profit. The Government is “waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses”, David Cameron said, back in 2012. “This coalition has a clear new year’s resolution: to kill off the health and safety culture for good…We need to realise, collectively, that we cannot eliminate risk and that some accidents are inevitable.”

Meanwhile, the bourgeois rulers have shown that they can move quickly to arrest and jail anyone who is not of their own class. The first person is already behind bars in relation to the Grenfell Tower horror: a neighbour who posted pictures of the victims on Facebook.  His crime was to interfere with the drip-feeding of information about the tragedy.

Arresting and charging those responsible is what a working class government would do in the first instance, as soon as the emergency needs of those affected have been met. Such a government would also confiscate from private landlords any apartment buildings that fail to meet safety standards, pay for repairs to bring them up to standard, and turn them over to the control of a committee of the residents. What could be more obvious to working people than the fact that human lives must come before the profit considerations of capitalist owners?

There is no individual escape from the death trap into which capitalist decay is driving us. The brutal rulers of Syria, who unleash chemical weapons on their own citizens, and their ‘democratic’ counterparts in the United Kingdom, who make deliberate and cold-blooded decisions to save money by leaving the working class residents of Grenfell Tower totally unprotected against fire, are members of the same class. They share the same concern for the maintenance of capitalist profits above all else, and the same determination to maintain their grip on political power at any cost. So long as they remain in power, entirely preventable disasters such as Grenfell Tower will recur, and will engulf ever wider layers.

Whatever relief from the horrors of the deepening depression which one might seek by changing jobs, finding a safer building to live in, moving to a different city or country – such relief can only be relative and temporary. Salvation from these horrors can only come through destroying the death trap of capitalist rule itself.

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