I’m trying to understand the horrifying enormity of the fire that devastated the 24-story, 600 resident Grenfell Tower in London, a housing “estate” for the very poor within sight of multimillion-pound apartments in the richest borough in the nation.
We have plenty of massive disasters here in the US — floods, tornadoes, wildfires, terrorist attacks, and some, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, that also create political shockwaves. But what is happening now in London seems very different, both in the way it’s being reported and in the political reaction, a powerful challenge to Conservative Party rule.
Bernie Sanders says we can learn from the Labour Party’s unprecedented election gains — and I think we can find similar lessons in the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath.
Readers who know the UK, correct anything I get wrong; I see differences to be appreciated and things to be learned. My angle of entry, as often, is through news media, and my interest, as often, is learning what we can about social movement mobilization.
As with our disasters in the US, reporting begins with the images and words of the terror, the voices of the victims. The Grenfell Tower news stories were gut-wrenching. The fire spread rapidly and uncontrollably because recently installed cladding was dangerously flammable, and fire quickly enveloped the whole building.
“I woke at 1:15 hearing the screams of children,” said one survivor. Trapped tenants were saying good byes and asking for prayers on phone and Facebook while they waited to die. It sounds like stories from 9/11, but here there were babies. Desperate mothers were dropping them from high windows, children sent goodbyes and love to friends on social media. People gathering outside and, on video, the nation watched helplessly as people choked and burned up inside. No sprinklers, no central fire alarm, only one exit for a building with 24 floors. Management had told people to wait inside their apartments in case of fire, the wrong advice for a fire trap without sprinklers and fire retardant walls.
The second disaster: The government response
Then there was a second shock — the complete incompetence of the government, which failed to even show a presence on the scene, let alone provide support for the survivors. Volunteers streamed in and were left to organize relief on their own, complaining to journalists days later that they still saw no one on the ground from the government, no one distributing relief and funds or telling people where to go, what to do, what to expect. No grief counselors or government health workers, no help searching for family members. Survivors were left sleeping on the floors of community centers for days, some sent to hotels far off and stranded there penniless and without bus fare. The local town council was responsible for the housing, and their office was empty, officials apparently in hiding (except for the Queen’s visit). People were shocked and outraged that this could happen in 21st century Britain, in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest boroughs in one of the wealthiest countries.
After Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s Federal Emergency Management Administration compounded the tragedy with their incompetence and negligence. But in the UK there wasn’t even a FEMA.
It quickly emerged that the residents had an organization that had for years complained about safety and asked for fire alarms and sprinklers, but were ignored by the management company and Kensington’s Conservative local government and MP (Labour had just the week before won Kensington for the first time ever). When residents complained about grotesquely shoddy rehabbing, they were threatened with legal action for defamation. Newspapers quickly reported that the flammable cladding installed in the recent rehab was the reason the fire spread out of control, and that it was banned in the US, Europe, and for taller buildings in the UK; it was chosen because it was the cheapest. Flame retardant cladding would have cost only £5000 more and adding sprinklers would have cost only 2% more than the total rehab cost.
How the UK media is different
The story is different from what we see in the US in many ways. In this neighborhood, the rich and poor live within sight of each other, the building’s residents and supporters are racially mixed, and, despite deep shock, politically awakened and conscious that this is how the poor are treated by a government of the rich.
Also different, as far as I can see, the news media across political lines has done serious reporting not only of the horrors of the fire, but also of the protests and government failure that followed. I looked over the coverage in The Sun, The Evening Standard, and the Daily Mail, all right-wing newspapers, supporters of the Conservatives who despise Jeremy Corbyn and his radicalized Labour Party. Their reporting is detailed and horrifying, with photos and video showing the inferno. That would be expected, sells newspapers. But, more surprising to US readers, they also featured extensive videos and photos of the furious protests. The protests were depicted calling for justice, for the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May, for an end to Tory rule, and, also, showing some very class-conscious framing of the tragedy as a crime against the poor.
No Megyn Kellys at BBC
US readers should watch the BBC News interview with Prime Minister Theresa May to be reminded of how much more we should expect from our television interviewers. The interview was a bombshell, widely reported in the other news media, which showed clips from the the interview. Everyone, including readers of the conservative newspapers, saw how May was “robotic” in manner (the “Maybot“), uncaring and incompetent, the Prime Minister who was afraid to come near the victims and face their anger. The interviewer, Emily Maitlis, with none of the soft-ball questioning and respect you find in interviews with officials here, put May on the spot and interrupted her repeatedly when she tried to evade the questions. Maitlis asked the Prime Minister whether she and her party accepted responsibility, whether she accepts that she misread the public mood and anger and understands that people resented that she didn’t go to meet them.
“No one was in charge,” Maitlis said. “Any other tragedy, flooding, you would have had the army there, you would have had organizers. I was there on the ground, I saw the chaos myself, there was no one in charge, and there was nobody willing to accept responsibility. … Wasn’t this preventable? In 2013 a coroner had safety recommendations which included putting sprinklers in all these buildings and it was never done. … You could have stopped it spreading by spending £2 more on the cladding.”
Framing the cause: Austerity, Crime against the poor
Nationwide outrage fed a protest movement that named the disaster a crime against the poor and blamed the cost-cutting Conservative government, which was already weakened by the left-wing Labour Party election gains two weeks ago.
The news media did not bury the left’s framing. By prominently reporting the protests, they also reported the protesters’ framing: that the fire was a result of the free market reforms and austerity economics that has dominated politics in Europe and the US since Reagan and Thatcher’s assault on the welfare state. In the UK and other countries in Europe, elite rule has been challenged by popular movements against austerity — a name for the neoliberal economic orthodoxy that calls for cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting the social safety net and social services (such as support for low-cost housing), eliminating regulations (such as standards for fire safety), in the name of promoting business and balancing the budget. After the 2008 financial crisis, the UK and other countries doubled down on austerity.
By contrast, in the US mainstream media you rarely see the word “austerity”— maybe in an article on the budget. The NY Times’ 10 articles on the Grenfell Tower fire (as of June 19) showed good reporting on the details, even mentioned inequality and neglect of the poor; but there was no hint that the cause was deeper and embedded in an economic system and ideology. A LexisNexis search of broadcast transcripts about the fire returned 86 mentions of “austerity” — all BBC programs, no US networks. There were 210 US broadcasts about the fire, but none mentioned “austerity” or “neoliberalism.”
Conservative framing: Mismanagement
The right has a different frame — and a reader reminds me of George Lakoff’s insistence that framing is key to political warfare and the war between the right and the left. A few people in the Conservative Party have said that the fire resulted from local mismanagement and incompetence, not from the party’s leadership or ideology. Certainly, the council estates need to be properly rehabbed, but, they ask, where’s the money going to come from? So far, that spin has had no traction, but we may hear it more often as passions subside. The focus on local mismanagement is what we already see in the US reporting on the fire, and what we hear all the time after preventable disasters here in the US. It’s always the few bad apples, not the rot in the barrel.
Why did the left’s framing succeed? Mass movements
Framing is not done only by media and political campaigns. Mass movements can also reframe public discourse. So Occupy Wall Street reframed political discourse in the US, shifting the focus from debt and the need to balance the budget to inequality. In the UK the response to the financial crisis was a social movement upsurge in 2010 that made austerity for seven years “the defining economic debate” (Financial Times).
This upsurge of working class and student protest against austerity began in 2010, with tens of thousands marching and students striking and occupying their schools throughout the country. The next year, the trades unions called a March for the Alternative that drew 500,000 people on March 26, but it was preceded by months of smaller actions. Most dramatic was the nation-wide student strike against tuition and fee increases in December 2010, bringing youth from council housing into the streets to join with the university students. Prince Charles and Camilla had their car surround and rocked, protesters occupied the Conservative Party headquarters, students shut down and occupied their universities … with professors marching in support.
Framing by the movement, but also by a radicalized Labour Party
The left framing of the fire would not have been possible without the mass movements, but it also mattered that the UK now had an anti-austerity opposition party. The Labour Party always had a vocal left-wing that fought austerity and inequality, and in 2015 that left wing, finding its momentum in the anti-austerity movement, won the leadership election. Democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn, running on an anti-austerity platform, won in a landslide, “the largest mandate ever won by a party leader.” The party which had collaborated in austerity then campaigned against it for the two years leading up to the 2017 parliamentary elections.
The elections produced an unexpected and dramatic upset, in which the Conservative Party lost its majority and its legitimacy, just a week before the fire; and the radicalized Labour Party made substantial gains, its biggest increase in votes since 1945. The Labour campaign focus was opposition to austerity; Labour promised government spending on health care, education, infrastructure and job creation, as well as renationalization of the railroads and public utilities — spending that would be financed by taxing the wealthy. The establishment reeled — the lesson of the election, said the Financial Times, is that “the British public is tired of austerity.” The Conservatives are in a chaotic retreat; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said the party will relax the austerity after “hearing the message.”
Bernie Sanders: Learn from the British election
The Labour Party emerged from its inner-party struggle with an uncompromising attack on the neoliberal regime, not just on the personality of the conservative leader, but on the conservative ideology: Labour had a manifesto “for the many and not the few.”
By contrast, the Democratic Party leadership, after every defeat, concludes that they need to double down on centrist appeals to win the swing voters. The form this centrist approach takes now is a focus on attacking Trump and appealing to disenchanted Trump voters and Republican-leaning independents. This was a key part of the Clinton campaign’s strategy and now has brought Jon Ossoff to defeat in the special election in Georgia’s 6th district. Sanders attacks this strategy and calls on Democrats to learn from the British elections: “Take on the powerful corporate interests that dominate the economic and political life of the country” and stand for a positive progressive program — Medicare for all, free higher education, jobs, taxing the wealthy, immigration and criminal justice reform.
The lesson for left-wing activists here is to take the progressive wing of the Democratic Party seriously, but with a warning. The Labour Party could have gone the way of the Socialist Party in France and the Clinton Democrats in the 2016 election, when too many voters identified them with the financial elites. But Labour was revived by left-wing activists and veterans of the social movements that mobilized first in the Iraq antiwar movement and then in the anti-austerity protests of 2010. These were independent movements, whose activists challenged the Labour leadership, aiming not merely to win seats, but to transform the party. By contrast, the US antiwar movement was strong enough when fighting the Bush regime, but, like many progressive movements in the US, it was not an independent movement. It folded into the Obama presidential campaign and then petered out rather than oppose a popular Democratic president.
Grenfell Tower as a symbol; the power of reframing
The fire will prove to be one of those rare events that lasts beyond a few weeks of headlines. The fire is like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis or, in Chicago, the police murder of Laquan McDonald — an event that becomes a symbol for much more, an insight into the nature of our society or the world. These events that gain such symbolic importance don’t just occupy our attention; the impact is more like a reordering of our brain.
When these events become powerful symbols, public discourse is being reframed. It isn’t the media which is doing this, it is the public that reshapes the media’s routine framing. Spectacular movements can seize on events to reframe discourse — we saw this happen with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and in the UK it happened with the militant and massive resistance to austerity. They overwhelm the media’s routine conservative outlook
The reframing matters to activists because social movements can’t achieve fundamental change without these deep changes in the way people think and feel. Movements grow in an interactive relationship with these changes in consciousness, making them happen and being changed by them in turn.
“Grenfell Tower” may mean something a bit different to different people — a symbol for inequality, elite contempt for the poor, distrust of government or just of the Tories, or maybe of the capitalist system. But symbols like these, for all their ambiguity, can fire up social movements, add to the vocabulary of bitterness and anger, and delegitimize ruling elites in ways that have resonance reaching beyond the activists into the rest of the society.
Right now the momentum is with the mass movement and Labour in the UK. Is it too soon to tell whether the momentum is with the progressive movements here? The stakes have rarely been higher.