Anger erupts after Lon­don fire

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May bears the brunt of out­rage as the death toll climbs.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Christina Boyle Boyle is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

LON­DON — On the streets around the charred Gren­fell Tower, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s name is be­ing ut­tered in an­gry tones with ris­ing fre­quency.

“She didn’t speak to any­one when she came here.”

“She’s sup­posed to be our leader.” “Cow­ard.” Those are just some of the words res­i­dents have said dur­ing of­ten-emo­tional de­bates in the shadow of the 24-story burned tower that now looms omi­nously over the neighborhood.

Po­lice said Satur­day that at least 58 peo­ple have ei­ther been con­firmed dead, or are miss­ing and pre­sumed to have per­ished, after the pub­lic hous­ing apart­ment com­plex was con­sumed by the rag­ing blaze in the early hours of Wed­nes­day. The death toll could still rise.

May, who was re­elected prime min­is­ter just last week in an elec­tion that saw her Con­ser­va­tive Party ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment wiped out, has been ac­cused of dra­mat­i­cally — per­haps even cat­a­stroph­i­cally — mis­judg­ing the pub­lic mood when she vis­ited the site of the dev­as­ta­tion Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. She chose to speak only to emer­gency crews at the scene be­fore be­ing swiftly whisked away.

Com­par­isons have been made to Ge­orge W. Bush’s “Ka­t­rina mo­ment,” when the pres­i­dent was pho­tographed star­ing down at New Or­leans from a plane win­dow, in­stead of in­ter­act­ing with dis­traught res­i­dents on the ground.

By con­trast, op­po­si­tion leader Jeremy Cor­byn, whose La­bor Party made huge gains in the elec­tion on a plat­form of rep­re­sent­ing “the many, not the few,” min­gled with res­i­dents, lis­tened to their anger and con­cerns and promised to get an­swers for the be­reaved and home­less.

May’s ac­tions left a bit­ter taste in many mouths, and by the time she re­turned Thurs­day to visit the in­jured in the hospi­tal as well as vol­un­teers at a makeshift col­lec­tion cen­ter in a nearby church, there was pal­pa­ble anger among the crowd. Peo­ple booed and heck­led her de­part­ing ve­hi­cle, shout­ing, “Shame on you.”

The dif­fer­ing re­sponses from the two most high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in the coun­try in many ways re­flect the forces that un­der­mined May’s ma­jor­ity dur­ing the elec­tion this month in which she sought — and failed — to make the de­bate all about her strong lead­er­ship and abil­ity to nav­i­gate the coun­try through up­com­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions to leave the Euro­pean Union.

Cor­byn mean­while talked lit­tle of that de­par­ture, known as Brexit, and in­stead made the elec­tion about the elec­torate feel­ing beaten down and dis­en­fran­chised after years of Con­ser­va­tive Party aus­ter­ity cuts that have af­fected wel­fare ser­vices, the Na­tional Health Ser­vice, ed­u­ca­tion pro­vi­sions and lo­cal coun­cil bud­gets.

Although the La­bor Party gained 56 fewer seats over­all com­pared with the Con­ser­va­tives, it won 40% of the vote share and hailed the re­sults a vic­tory.

There have been brief mo­ments in re­cent days where the grief and anger have boiled over into phys­i­cal con­fronta­tion. Ahead of a vigil Fri­day night, crowds marched through the streets chant­ing: “What do we want? Jus­tice. When do we want it? Now,” while hold­ing ban­ners read­ing “Tenants die when land­lords don’t lis­ten” and “Tories have blood on their hands.”

“I think after this tragic event, peo­ple want to be heard and are us­ing this to ex­press their over­whelm­ing emo­tions at all these cuts,” said Micky Mesic, 57, who lives in a neigh­bor­ing res­i­den­tial block on the Lan­caster West es­tate and watched in hor­ror as peo­ple burned. “I be­lieve it’s go­ing to be a turn­ing point. Ev­ery­one has a bad ex­pe­ri­ence about re­pairs, but when [they are] ask­ing for rent, they’re very prompt. They have to look after the peo­ple that live in these build­ings.”

The black­ened res­i­den­tial tower that housed low­in­come res­i­dents is vis­i­ble from mul­ti­ple van­tage points: the sub­way plat­form, the cor­ner store, the pub­lic phone booth, all of which are now plas­tered with “Miss­ing” posters. And the de­mand for an­swers is mount­ing rapidly as peo­ple ques­tion how a tragedy of this scale could have hap­pened in one of the rich­est bor­oughs in Lon­don, which is one of the most pros­per­ous cities in the world.

“Peo­ple are just an­gry now; where are the lead­ers?” said Sabu Hussain, 25, who lives near the tower. “We want to know what are the changes tak­ing place from to­day to stop this hap­pen­ing in any other build­ing. We need changes in this coun­try. Ev­ery­body is sick and tired. This is real.”

A pub­lic in­quiry and po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion have been launched, but the speed with which the build­ing caught fire has al­ready led ex­perts to be­lieve the ex­te­rior cladding may have been the cause. It was in­stalled dur­ing a re­cent mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar re­fur­bish­ment, and re­ports in the Bri­tish me­dia say a cheaper, non-fir­ere­sis­tant ma­te­rial, which is banned in the United States and Ger­many, was used. It was about $2.56 cheaper per square yard, and the to­tal sav­ings was es­ti­mated to be around $6,400.

Res­i­dents of the tower had re­peat­edly raised con­cerns about fire safety, and even omi­nously warned in a Novem­ber 2016 post on the Gren­fell Ac­tion Group res­i­dents’ web­site that the Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Tenant Man­age­ment Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which man­ages the block on be­half of the coun­cil, were “play­ing with fire.”

“[We] be­lieve that only a cat­a­strophic event will ex­pose the in­ep­ti­tude and in­com­pe­tence of our land­lord,” the post reads. But their pleas fell on deaf ears be­cause, many be­lieve, the in­hab­i­tants were low-in­come.

“It’s about prof­its, power and greed,” said Lon­doner Si­mon Hig­gins, 40, who min­gled with the crowds on Fri­day evening air­ing his views about the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ings and dis­re­gard for av­er­age, work­ing-class peo­ple. “It’s been that way for a long time and I think it’s about time that things changed. If this is not done prop­erly, and quickly, it will kick off big time. We’ll have more ri­ots.”

In the wake of the Lon­don Bridge ter­ror­ist at­tack this month, where three men drove a van into pedestrians and then knifed pub and restau­rant-go­ers in Bor­ough Mar­ket killing eight and in­jur­ing dozens, Cor­byn man­aged to suc­cess­fully turn the dis­course into a de­bate about se­cu­rity and cuts to pub­lic ser­vices, spot­light­ing a decision May made while home sec­re­tary to re­duce po­lice num­bers by 20,000.

In the days after the Gren­fell Tower tragedy, Cor­byn suc­cess­fully cap­tured the pub­lic’s out­rage once again and made May look out of touch.

“If you cut lo­cal au­thor­ity ex­pen­di­ture then the price is paid some­how,” he was quoted as say­ing.

Although there is no im­pli­ca­tion that the fire depart­ment was un­der­staffed or ill-equipped in the early hours of Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the Gren­fell Tower fire has also sparked ques­tions about cuts to Lon­don fire de­part­ments un­der then-Lon­don Mayor Boris John­son, who is now the for­eign sec­re­tary.

Un­der his ten­ure, 10 fire sta­tions were shut­tered and 552 fire­fighter jobs were cut.

May looked rat­tled dur­ing a tough BBC TV in­ter­view Fri­day night in which she was asked re­peat­edly whether she mis­judged the pub­lic mood and failed to act quickly enough to sup­port vic­tims. She had ear­lier an­nounced a $6.4-mil­lion fund to help vic­tims.

“Some­thing ter­ri­ble has hap­pened,” she said, but stopped short of ad­mit­ting any gov­ern­ment wrong­do­ing.

On Satur­day, as 1,000 pro­test­ers gath­ered out­side the gates lead­ing to 10 Down­ing Street to voice their anger at May’s lead­er­ship and she met pri­vately with vic­tims within the prime min­is­ter’s res­i­dence, her of­fice is­sued a state­ment sug­gest­ing it re­al­izes this is not a tragedy that can be al­le­vi­ated with words alone.

“Frankly, the sup­port on the ground for fam­i­lies who needed help or ba­sic in­for­ma­tion in the ini­tial hours after this ap­palling dis­as­ter was not good enough,” May’s state­ment said. “The fire at Gren­fell Tower was an unimag­in­able tragedy for the com­mu­nity, and for our coun­try. My gov­ern­ment will do what­ever it takes to help those af­fected, get jus­tice and keep our peo­ple safe.”

‘I think it’s about time that things changed. If this is not done prop­erly, and quickly, it will kick off big time. We’ll have more ri­ots.’ — Si­mon Hig­gins, 40, of Lon­don

Andy Rain Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

FLORAL TRIB­UTES and other memo­ri­als are clus­tered near Gren­fell Tower, the pub­lic hous­ing apart­ment com­plex where at least 58 peo­ple are con­firmed or pre­sumed dead in Wed­nes­day’s blaze. “Peo­ple are just an­gry now; where are the lead­ers?” said a nearby res­i­dent.

Kirsty Wigglesworth As­so­ci­ated Press

BRI­TISH ME­DIA re­port that a cheaper, non-fire-re­sis­tant ma­te­rial was used on the build­ing’s ex­te­rior in a re­cent ren­o­va­tion, pos­si­bly speed­ing the f lames.

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