Halfway through the silent march for Grenfell, a young man was visibly upset. “Some of the people here don’t even mean it” he said to a friend, “you have to show it [all year round].”
It was understandable. A march is held on the 14th of every month and typically draws a three-figure crowd. But last Friday there were 10,000 people taking part, estimates Zeyad Cred of Grenfell United, a group of survivors and the bereaved.
Although the Grenfell fire was a searingly visual tragedy that united the horrified, the subsequent slow crawl towards justice has confused some and subdued others.
After the state’s neglect and contempt, this dignified community has borne enough without poseurs and voyeurs turning it into a grief festival. It was therefore slightly jarring to see an ice cream van doing business in the quiet crowd, and dogs with attention-seeking signs around their necks.
For the overwhelming majority, this is unfinished business. People didn’t only come to commiserate or commemorate, but to demand their justice. People were focused, more determined than desperate.
It has been two years to the day since a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower malfunctioned in the early hours of the morning, sparking a fire that rapidly scaled the building’s external cladding and caused the deaths of 72 people. To date nobody has been arrested, charged or imprisoned. A police investigation and public inquiry are ongoing. Some survivors are still waiting to be permanently re-housed.
Before the march, the crowd gathered quietly for the Multi Faith Vigil in the shade of Notting Hill Methodist Church, hearing faith leaders take it in turns to share prayers, readings and mottos.
Apart from the speakers and the choirs, the only sounds were passing trains who whistled in solidarity and the buzz of a drone overhead.
Over the course of the 90-minute walk, we walked, stopped, walked, stopped – but the silence held.
It spoke for itself.
The majority wore green. Green scarves were pinned to windows, stairwells and lampposts which lined the route. Streetlights were wrapped in green plastic, and individual green balloons sporadically escaped into the evening sky. People held up the now-iconic green heart banners and homemade placards bearing words like “justice”, “clarity” or “truth”.
The weather in London was horrible last week. It had rained and sulked for days, and there were concerns that turnout might be depressed. That day, however, the evening was a pearl. The pale blue sky wore pink clouds and was lit by a fading grapefruit sun. As the crowd turned into the beautiful tree-lined Bassett Road, where a one-bedroom flat is currently available for over £1m, the inequality in one of the UK’s wealthiest boroughs gaped.
It should never have happened anywhere, but how did it happen here?
At the conclusion of the walk, Zeyad Cred, Karim Mussilhy and Akala gave speeches. Each of them urged the community’s young people to harness their inevitable anger, and to give nobody the satisfaction of resorting to stereotypes.
Most powerfully, a further 72-second silence was held – and the names of the dead were read aloud. The crowd, which had been stoic all evening, murmured in sick shock as we realised that the Belkadi, El Wahabi, and Choucair families had lost four, five and six people respectively.
Before the Silent Walk had started, the rapper Lowkey – a tireless advocate for the Grenfell families – gave a speech titled “We Will Not Betray the Dead” about those who bore responsibility. He wove spoken word with prose, excoriating the government’s inaction and the demonisation of the community in parts of the press.
The otherwise noiseless crowd bristled into angry applause at the following line:
“This is a message to the Government
and I hope it gets through.
before we regulate you.”
Justice for Grenfell.