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Austerity & Neglect Blamed as 79 Die in U.K. Apartment Fire Housing Immigrants & Low-Income Workers

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Protests are continuing in London over last week’s devastating apartment fire that killed 79 people. On Wednesday, around 200 protesters, including survivors of the fire, marched from West London to Parliament to protest the government’s handling of the fire. Last week’s fire occurred at a 24-story apartment building called Grenfell Tower located in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of West London. Many of the residents of the building are low-income workers and recent immigrants. The company that recently renovated the building admitted over the weekend it used highly flammable—and less expensive—cladding during construction. The cladding is banned from use in the U.S. and European Union, but allowed in Britain. The building’s residents say the renovation was largely aimed at making aesthetic improvements to the exterior of the building in order to make it blend in with the new luxury high-rises in the area. We speak to Mustafa Almansur, the principal organizer of the Grenfell protests. He began organizing after learning a family friend died in the blaze.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Protests are continuing in London over last week’s devastating apartment fire that killed 79 people. On Wednesday, around 200 protesters, including survivors of the fire, marched from West London to the British Parliament to protest the government’s handling of the fire.

PROTESTER 1: What do we want?

PROTESTERS: Justice!

PROTESTER 1: When do we want it?

PROTESTERS: Now!

PROTESTER 1: How are we going to get it?

PROTESTERS: Fight for it!

PROTESTER 1: What do we want?

PROTESTERS: Justice!

PROTESTER 1: When do we want it?

PROTESTERS: Now!

PROTESTER 2: The government should be doing more, honestly. The government should be doing more. They’re not doing enough. And they have failed, because this is a national disaster. It’s not just a tower block on fire. It’s a national disaster.

PROTESTERS: Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Theresa May has got to go! Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Theresa May has got to go!

AMY GOODMAN: Last week’s fire occurred at a 24-story apartment building called Grenfell Tower, located in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of West London. Many of the residents of the building are low-income workers and recent immigrants. The company that recently renovated the building admitted over the weekend it used highly flammable—yet less expensive—cladding during construction. The cladding is banned from use in the U.S. and European Union, but allowed in Britain. The building’s residents say the renovation was largely aimed at making aesthetic improvements to the exterior of the building in order to make it blend in with the new luxury high-rises in the area. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed requisitioning vacant luxury apartment buildings in order to house those who have been made homeless by the massive fire.

JEREMY CORBYN: There are a lot of empty buildings, and quite luxurious building, all around Kensington. And listen, Kensington is the country’s richest borough, and we have this area of poverty around Grenfell Tower. Surely, to goodness, if we believe in communities, we can and must put the resources, the money in there to help those families in their hour of need. They should not be sleeping in shelters for weeks and weeks on end.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Mustafa Almansur, the principal organizer of the Grenfell protests.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Great to have you with us, as you sit in a studio in London. Talk about what’s happened at Grenfell, why people around the world should care.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be here.

Now, what’s unfolded in Grenfell is a tragedy that wasn’t expected and nobody foresaw, of course. Everybody woke up to the shock and horror of what unfolded early morning on Wednesday, last Wednesday. And people, the general public, the residents in the neighborhood—everybody—rushed to do whatever they can do. The local fire services and the emergency services, they were on the scene rapidly to help rescue who they can rescue from this 24-story building.

It seems that the fire started on the third floor. And rapidly, within a matter of six minutes, half of the left side of the building was engulfed in fire. And within the hour, the entire building was incinerated, and the fire kept on until the following morning. Our fire services did what they can do with the very stretched resources and managed to get a certain number of people out. They were not able to reach beyond the 22nd floor, just because it became very—too difficult for them to do so, and the structure was not safe enough for them to go beyond that, either. We also saw that the local fire services, they managed to deploy whatever resources they had at their provision, but were unable to meet the needs and had to call in the support of fire services from neighboring boroughs and neighborhoods.

Now, this led to a lot of people that are still unaccounted for. It’s a 24-story building, and we believe there are in excess of 520 residents who were staying in that building. And so far we have a count of 79 people who have been declared as the victims who have died, in terms of fatalities from that incident. The remaining, we still don’t know about. And, of course, there is a number of—a small number of survivors who have been taken care of, are being taken care of and attended to both by the local council as well as the voluntary organizations who are on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about your friend, Rania Ibrahim, with her daughters in Grenfell building as it was on fire?

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yes, sure. It is very difficult for many of us to conceive that this is the case. When we woke up on Wednesday morning, and we were told that—by midday, we were told there was only six fatalities. And there was a sense of—you know, a sigh of relief that, OK, in this huge tragedy, 24-story building, all of it burnt down, and we’ve only lost six people. That’s actually quite a remarkable feat done by, you know, the fire services and our emergency services, in terms of evacuating people. And we felt a sense of relief. I felt a sense of relief, to be honest, although six lives are six lives, but it could have been far, far greater.

In that evening, I remember I had sent a message out to my family saying, "Hey, you know, it’s Iftar time. We are breaking fast, and let’s gather around. I’m making sushi." And then I got a response back from my sister saying, "Do you not know what’s happened to Rania Ibrahim?" And I discovered that her close friend, Rania Ibrahim, who lives on the 23rd floor with her 5-year-old and her 3-year-old daughters, they were there, and she had messaged my sister on her cellphone saying, "Hey, I’m stuck here. I’ve been told not to get out of here. You know, pray for us. Is there anything you guys can do to help?" And she stayed put, because the police advice was to stay put. There was too much smoke and fumes in the building, and they were—their best advice they gave was to put wet towels underneath their doors to prevent the fire from going in, whilst the fire rescue services attempted to go in and rescue them.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa, I wanted to play what your friend, Rania Ibrahim, started streaming live on Facebook as she was trapped inside the building with her two daughters.

RANIA IBRAHIM: Hello? Come here! Come here! Hello? Hello?

NEIGHBOR: I’m here. I’m here.

RANIA IBRAHIM: Come! Come! Come! Quick! Quick! Hello? Here! Here! Here!

NEIGHBOR: No, no. Come in. You’ve got to—

RANIA IBRAHIM: [inaudible]

NEIGHBOR: No, because the smoke is coming.

RANIA IBRAHIM: But the people are down—the people are outside. Hello?

NEIGHBOR: Close the door.

RANIA IBRAHIM: Hello? OK, I’m going out. Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Later in the video, you hear a neighbor of Rania’s calling for help.

RANIA IBRAHIM: We’re stuck on the 23rd floor! Hello? There’s too many people stuck upstairs!

AMY GOODMAN: The footage cuts when Rania Ibrahim’s phone dies. She and her two daughters died in the fire. I know this is extremely painful, Mustafa. She, Rania, and her daughters among the at least, at this point we know, 79 people killed. There were no sprinklers in this building? I mean, they did this massive renovation on the outside to make it match luxury buildings around it. But no sprinklers?

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: It is a travesty. And, you know, words can’t describe how horrible it feels and the scale of this disaster and how much it has moved and hurt people in London and around the world. Rania was there crying for help. And not only that, we hear that many of her neighbors also came in and sought refuge in her apartment. And she let them in. We can hear in the video her neighbors coming in through the door and saying, "Close the door behind. Close the door behind," because they’re trying to gather in apartments which they felt were safer. And, of course, nobody really made it out of Rania’s apartment.

Now, you mentioned sprinklers, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Sprinklers—there are no sprinklers in that building. And not only that, there are no fire-retardant doors in that building. And there’s only one fire exit. And that’s a set of stairs, one set of stairs, from the 24th floor all the way down. And not only that, the police advice to wet towels—we’re hearing people who have called their loved ones saying they cannot, because their water taps were empty. The water—because everybody was using the water taps in the building, on the 23rd floor, the 24th floor, the water pressure was so low, they were not getting any drops of water. So they couldn’t even do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Members of the Grenfell Tower Residence Association had for years warned the building’s landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, of potential safety hazards in and around the building. In a startlingly prescient blog post on the Grenfell Action Group’s website, members write, quote, "It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation], and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders." And this is what Bloomberg reports, that Theresa May’s immigration minister—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —Brandon Lewis, was formerly the housing minister.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In that position, he declined to require developers to install sprinklers.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Well, look, this isn’t new, in terms of an experience, to us. Lakanal House in Camberwell, south of London, in 2009, caught fire, and we had six fatalities there. The expert coroner who worked on that case, her recommendations was that sprinklers become mandatory, part of health and safety—fire safety regulations for high-rise buildings. Now, those recommendations were not enacted, and they were left as optional elements. Regulation-wise, it says fire—in our fire and safety regulations, that as long as they meet their overall requirements, they, the developers, are fine. And so that’s what we see in Grenfell Tower. It is not that the Grenfell Tower didn’t go through fire and safety checks. It did. There were 16 independent inspections of that building, led by the local council, which failed to spot the hazards and the problem areas that have been highlighted by the residents’ association for many years.

And now, even if the residents’ association, the public, the community see something as a problem, on the part of the contractors, they are—they will only do minimum, of course, to maximize their profit and lower their costs. So if they can get away with installing a cladding that was combustible, and a noncombustible, inflammable one would have cost them two pounds more, they would still cut that cost. We hear a number of 5,000 extra pounds would have been required to have the entire building’s cladding in a nonflammable material. Now, who is to blame? And then, who is responsible? The TMO would say, "Well, we gave it to Rydon, and Rydon, they followed all the requirements, and they met the regulatory requirements." However, we see that the tenants had a different complaint, and it wasn’t listened to, purely because the TMO could get away with it. And the council didn’t have to listen to them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Mustafa Almansur, you’re calling for an independent investigation. You’re setting one up yourself?

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: The call for independent investigation—I mean, Theresa May had declared a public inquiry will be held. But the general public, there is such big mistrust between the public and the local authority and the central government. You know, since the event, for the first three days, four days, there was no presence. There was no visible presence of the local authority on the ground. The only people who were out there, opening up their doors, providing shelter, food, clothing, and gathering donations, were the general public.

And this is what’s led to my call for the protest on Friday, which was attended by over a thousand people. And people came because they realized that the local authorities, who have the resources in their hand, aren’t actually mobilizing any of the resources. They felt unheard. I tried to reach out to the local council, and they were too busy to answer the calls. So we went and protested outside the building. We had a set of demands that we sent in to the council leaders. And they came back after half an hour with a set of responses that were just woolly and fluffy. From our demands, if I can share them, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Can I share the demands we had?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, yes, if you can briefly go through them.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: So, the set of demands were that the council make a commitment to rehouse the victims of this tragedy within the borough. There is a concern, underlying concern, amongst the community there, that North Kensington, which is the north side of the borough, for which the council, local government is responsible for, and the south side, but particularly North Kensington, where Grenfell Tower is, it is an impoverished area. And there is an attempt—what is called social cleansing—to remove the impoverished families out of North Kensington into neighboring boroughs, where they can be moved to, because Kensington and Chelsea is the highest—the most expensive borough in London, where, you know, the apartments go from anything from 15 million to 200 million pounds each. And in the middle of that, we have a community, an impoverished community, who are living in social housing and are unable to pay full rents, and they’re living in subsidized accommodation. And they’re not being listened to. Also, we have a local council, which is dominated by a particular political party, whose—members of whom their socioeconomic class is not the same as that of the North—of the community in North Kensington. And now, if you look at South Kensington, which is the more affluent part of this neighborhood, we don’t have any of these issues. Funds are being invested in that area, not only for regeneration, but for local services, community organizations, etc., whereas this particular borough, Grenfell Tower and its neighborhood—neighboring areas, are suffering from gross negligence. So, the request was for the council to make an open commitment and say, "We will rehouse these people. We won’t move them out of the borough. We will keep them here." And the borough failed to respond to that adequately. Their response was: "We will do our best to rehouse them as closely as possible." And that wasn’t accepted by the protesters.

Secondly, there was a request for a commitment in terms of a package, a financial package, for the victims. How much will the council, and what will they do to compensate for the losses suffered by the residents of Grenfell Tower, because of the negligence of the council and their failure to take care of the concerns or pay any heed to the concerns that have been highlighted since 2014? And the council, again, failed to respond to that with a specific package. They said they will do their best, and they are mobilizing their funds. During that conversation, during that protest, central government—we had a response from our prime minister, Theresa May, who was being interviewed that very moment, and she knew of the protest. And she made a commitment, live on air, saying, "We commit 5 million pounds," not knowing, of course, that actually the community had already raised in excess of 8 million, 9 million pounds by that time. So her coming out from central government and committing 5 million pounds was seen as a joke.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: And, in fact, I was with the residents yesterday and community stakeholders in a meeting. And until now, they do not know where that 5 million pounds is, because it hasn’t yet filtered through to the people who need it.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Mustafa Almansur—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: And so—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, last year, the—72 of the Conservative, the Tory MPs, who are also landlords—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —voted against a Labour amendment to ensure rented homes fit for human habitation?

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not only—there’s actually 128 Conservative MPs at the last count, which is 39 percent of the Parliament, who are landlords themselves. So here is really a fundamental failure in the democratic institution here, where the legislator has a conflict of interest with legislation. And so, when that motion was tabled, they quickly vetoed that and did not allow or did not push that through, if—which, if it had pushed through, then we would have seen sprinklers being installed. We would have seen nonflammable cladding and material being used in building constructions. However, we have a case of passing law through a body, through the Parliament, which has conflict of interest because they, themselves, are landlords. And in making a profit, it’s not in their interest to support such regulation. So, what do we do there is an open question.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa Almansur, we have break, but when we come back, I want to go from the Grenfell protests, where 79 people died in this tragic fire, to the attack on the mosque that you were a spokesperson for, where a car—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —drove into a crowd who had just come out of the mosque.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mustafa Almansur, principal organizer of the Grenfell protests. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Bridge over Troubled Water," performed by Artists for Grenfell, recorded with more than 50 artists to raise money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Seventy-nine people, at this count, have died. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Well, early Monday morning, a driver plowed into a crowd of Muslims near a North London mosque, leaving one person dead and injuring 11 others, in what British officials are calling a terrorist attack. British resident Darren Osborne accelerated and swerved into a crowd of worshipers, who had left nighttime prayers marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Witnesses say Osborne shouted, "I’m going to kill all Muslims! I did my bit!" as survivors of the attack pinned him to the ground until police arrived.

President Trump has failed to personally acknowledge the attack, as well as the weekend murder of Muslim teenager Nabra Hassanen in Virginia, prompting critics to attack his silence. The White House has commented on the Finsbury Park attack, saying they have reached out and offered to help in any way possible. But President Trump himself has not commented or tweeted directly, instead taking to Twitter to attack Democrats and endorse Republican candidates.

Well, still with us in London is Mustafa Almansur, the former spokesman for the Finsbury Park Mosque.

Mustafa, can you talk about what happened on Monday?

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yes. Amy, can I just touch on Grenfell before I move on? I had a point that I really wanted to share.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: And then I’ll touch on this Finsbury Park incident. Now, look, there is fermenting anger on the ground, and protests are going to continue. There is a vacuum of leadership. The people who are really doing things on the ground are voluntary-sector organizations. And voluntary-sector organizations are the very people who are right at the front line, and they are those whose funding has been cut by the current government. And not only that, public services, like the fire services, their funding has been cut over the years. We’ve moved from seven fire stations to three fire stations in the very borough where we had this catastrophe.

And people continually—people are feeling that, look, there is huge, big poor-rich divide and that elections are just a tick-box exercise to get legitimacy for government, but, thereafter, the electorate, people are not listened to at all. And so, here’s a fundamental failure of democracy in the state in Britain, and that’s what really needs to be looked at. It is not that our government was ignorant or incapable of dealing with Grenfell, this tragedy, because we have had precedents like this. However, it seems, from the community perspective, that there is intentional negligence and total dismissal of a class of people who they cannot relate to. And that’s something that needs to be looked at and worked out as to how do we move forward in civil society, whereby people are able to select representatives who represent their interests and have not only representative power, but also have power to make changes happen on the ground and are able to empower local organizations, who are embedded within the community, so that they can take action.

You mentioned earlier funds being raised. A lot of funds have been raised. Around 40 million, to date, has been raised. But how does it get channeled to the end beneficiaries? That question still is unanswered, because we have so much red tape around the system of governance that we have locally and also on a national level, that does not permit people, local people, to participate in democracy in an active way.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you have—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Moving on from this conversation, yes, we come to Finsbury Park, which is my local mosque, and—

AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, in Grenfell—in Grenfell Towers, a large—a large number of the residents are Muslim, a very diverse area. I think the first man to be identified confirmed dead was Mohammad al-Haj Ali, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Yes. Absolutely. And that is the case. There’s a large contingent of Moroccan and Algerian residents in that area, and particularly in that building. And surprise, surprise, that doesn’t surface in any of the media, whereas if it was, you know, even a local burglary and it was carried out by an individual who’s a deluded individual, then whether they would not take it a consideration what the situation of that particular criminal was, they will mention it was a Muslim or it was an Arab shop robber.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: So, you know, that also creates—

AMY GOODMAN: We just have one minute to ago, Mustafa, so I was wondering if you could comment—

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: —on the attack on your mosque.

MUSTAFA ALMANSUR: Absolutely. So, this attack took place straight after Muslims were coming out of the mosque during the night prayers in this month of Ramadan. And I think it was handled very well by the local imam, who called for calm and who—they pinned down the attacker until police came and took him away. Rightly, we’ve had a huge amount of support from the local community. The general public have come in their droves showing their sympathy and support and their love for the attendees and the worshipers of this mosque. And they are there today, and they’ve been there every day since the attack. They come to the mosque giving out food during breakfast time, in the evening. And central government response to that has been slow, but they have acknowledged it as a terrorist attack. However, that has very quickly, again, disappeared from the front lines, and we are seeing that the person who had carried out the attack has been declared as being mentally unwell. And that’s where we are. The community, the Muslim community, however, feel under threat. And, rightly, the central government has dedicated resources in terms of police numbers outside mosques to provide extra security for the attendees.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Mustafa Almansur, principal organizer of the Grenfell protests, former spokesman for the Finsbury Park Mosque that was attacked earlier this week.

And that does it for our show. We’ll play more of Naomi Klein in the coming days.

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