Grenfell Tower Fire Incites Angry London Protests

Locals have criticized Prime Minister Theresa May for failing to issue a timely and heartfelt response.

Demonstrators sit in the road during a protest in London's West End on June 16, 2017.
Demonstrators sit in the road during a protest in London's West End on June 16, 2017. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)

Hundreds of protesters gathered in the streets of London on Friday, demanding justice for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, which, two days earlier, killed at least 30 people in the 24-story London apartment building. With 76 people, including the dead, still missing and 24 more in the hospital, the final death toll is expected to rise.

In the wake of the fire, Londoners have criticized U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May for not immediately meeting with survivors on Thursday after visiting the scene of the incident. On the same day, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—who still has a marginal shot at becoming the U.K.’s next prime minister—visited with victims. Corbyn was even seen hugging a local resident at St. Clement’s Church in west London.

On Friday, May visited a local hospital, as well as St. Clement’s, where she pledged to give £5 million ($6.5 million) in handouts for food, clothes, emergency supplies, and even funeral costs. Many residents of the Grenfell Tower are currently displaced, having lost their homes and all of their possessions. In response, May promised to secure nearby housing for homeless victims within three weeks, making sure that children would be able to attend their current schools. May also offered free legal representation for victims who wish to formally air their grievances.

Even with these proposed offerings, May and her fellow government officials have been reprimanded for their untimely response to the crisis. “Tensions are running high because we have had no answers yet,” Rochelle Thomas, a protester who lives one street away from the Grenfell Tower, told The Guardian. “This is the third day. We don’t know where the survivors are. There are hundreds of thousands of donations and we don’t know where to take them.” As of this writing, only three of the victims have been identified.

Yet another concern among protesters is the fact that Grenfell Tower’s residents had long complained of safety issues in their building. During a 2015 renovation, the building’s management company, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, elected to install a cheaper form of cladding that safety experts warned was “potentially combustible.” A similar material has previously sparked fires in high-rise buildings in France, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. In a letter to May, dated Friday, Mayor Khan warned that London residents are “terrified that the same thing could happen to them,” and demanded immediate action to address their concerns.

Unhappy with their government’s response, Friday’s protesters attempted to take measures in their own hands. The BBC reports that the first round of protesters gathered outside the Kensington Town Hall at around 3:00 p.m. local time. After about an hour and a half, a group of 50 to 60 protesters ran up the steps of the building and stormed inside, chanting “We want justice!” Some protesters even shouted, “Not 17!”—a reference to the fact that authorities had underestimated the death toll. Police soon barricaded the scene, resulting in minor clashes between officers and protesters.

Nearby, protesters congregated in Westminster and marched toward Downing Street, the site of the prime minister’s official residences. Demonstrators could be heard chanting things like “May must go” and “blood on your hands.” When the group reached Regent Street, near the BBC headquarters, they held a minute of silence for the victims—the first, they said, since the fire took place. “We want to remind politicians that people killed by politicians are equally as valuable as those killed by terrorists,” one speaker told the crowd.

On Friday evening, hundreds gathered near the scene of the fire for a candlelit vigil to honor the deceased. This time, the tone was more subdued as mourners linked arms and sang versions of “Amazing Grace” and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Attendees also held a two-minute period of silence during which they raised their candles in the air.

Around the same time, Theresa May gave an interview to the BBC’s Newsnight. When asked about the protests, May’s response was more practical than heartfelt: “What I am now absolutely focused on is ensuring we get that support on the ground,” she said. “The government is making money available, we are ensuring we are going to get to the bottom of what has happened, we will ensure that people are re-housed. We need to make sure that actually happens.”