LONDON: The Grenfell Tower inferno that claimed at least 58 lives in a London working-class apartment block is Britain’s mini 9/11. The tottering British government propped up by the right-wing and born-again Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland is unlikely to survive. Theresa May looks like a bewildered old aunt who has wandered into Downing Street by mistake.
The anger in London is palpable as all the relevant government authorities, in a move that saved $5,000, used a flammable coating material on the outside part of the building rather than fire retardant material. The coating used, called cladding, is banned in the United States because of its flammable nature. Despite numerous warnings, the Tory-controlled local authority refused to act.
For anyone from New York, the haunting photographs and pleas for help on the neighborhood walls near where the fire raged are sharp reminders of what we went through on 9/11. The difference, in this case, was the British authorities did it to their own people.
The world is watching with increasing alarm as Britain staggers like a blindfolded man through a never-ending series of profound political, economic and - as the Brexit vote made clear – even existential crisis.
But this week, the image of Grenfell Tower consumed by flames took us to a further shore of national dysfunction. It looked like a real-world illustration of a Biblical calamity, or a medieval tarot card like The Tower brought to life.
They’re not supposed to happen anymore, these preventable firestorms that claim the lives of poor people (and in this case, many people of color) through political neglect and lack of disaster planning.
They’re supposed to belong to the Victorian age, back to a time when the poor had no voice, no representation and often no vote.
The London ward where the fire took place is the poorest in the nation, although it is surrounded by one of the richest boroughs in the city and indeed the world, and the poor people who died there last week might be alive today if the local regulators had required sprinkler systems and had not cut costs.
The world saw a criminally neglected underclass living and dying in the midst of great wealth and privilege. The optics of this story are terrible.
NBC News: Protesters stormed a London town hall meeting demanding justice for the victims of the Grenfell Fire. pic.twitter.com/NvQXzTep31— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 17, 2017
Residents had warned government officials for years about the obvious fire hazards, but instead of responding to them, their concerns were met with bullying solicitors’ letters.
We don't even know how many died, yet. The most recent estimate is at least 58, but that could rise to well over 100 or more. One firefighter described the blaze as the worst he’d ever seen and said it looked like a war zone.
It looked worse than a war zone, though. It looked catastrophic and soul-socking, like something out of the bowels of hell.
On the ground there is still no concerted government support, the local councils are conspicuous only by their absence, and many families are still sleeping on floors in local community centers. They feel abandoned because they have been.
It’s no wonder that anger is spilling over into the streets and that protests are becoming increasingly disruptive. When you see your own home and your neighbors’ consumed by a blaze that the government didn’t think worth the money to prevent what else is left to do?
If my friends and family had been burned alive in a preventable fire, I'd be militant too. pic.twitter.com/cwxDFvy5KZ— Colette Browne (@colettebrowne) June 16, 2017
Prime Minister Theresa May’s refusal to meet with the survivors could turn out to be the most disastrous decision of an already disastrous premiership.
It was her Katrina moment, one that called for real leadership and courage, but instead we saw her sprinting to her chauffeur-driven SUV as the stunned locals looked on in disbelief.
In politics, images like this matter. The image of George W. Bush looking out the window of Air Force One as the New Orleans citizens were left to fend for themselves was a turning point in his presidency. That image came to define his presidency.
The message being repeatedly sent to the poorest and most vulnerable citizens is that they can no longer expect accountability, concern, or even a concerted response from their own government officials, the very ones tasked with their representation.
With the increasingly polarized divisions over Brexit, the near universal revulsion at the prospect of an electoral pact with the DUP, and the subsequent threat to the Peace Process – and now with the criminal neglect of the most disadvantaged citizens being laid bare to the entire world – it seems that Britain’s Conservative party is teetering on the edge of a historic abyss.
It’s even more extraordinary to reflect that it has brought the UK along with it.