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‘Grenfell victims couldn’t breathe either’

Why did the killing of George Floyd fuel Black Lives Matter protests in a way the west London fire disaster failed to? Leo Garib goes in search of some answers

02 July, 2020 — By Leo Garib

Star Wars actor John Boyega at the George Floyd protest rally in Hyde Park

AS statues topple and celebrities take the knee for Black Lives Matter, there’s a question left hanging: why didn’t all this happen sooner – why did it take the death of George Floyd in the US to provoke a national discussion here?

There have been no shortage of incidents over the last few years. After police killed Mark Duggan in 2011, the country erupted, but the protests were dismissed as thuggery and debate shut down.

Nearly 40,000 have drowned trying to reach Europe in defiance of the most brutal EU immigration policies championed by Britain. Apart from a fortnight of hand­-wringing when a dead infant washed up on a beach, the mass deaths have been normalised. Even Grenfell failed to provoke national soul searching. So why Britons’ apparent indifference?

According to the popular narrative, people just don’t know enough about their colonial past. If only they could face up to it, the country could lay its ghosts to rest and embrace the melting pot it has become.

But immigration expert and author of two recent books on immigration and Grenfell, Dr Nadine El-Enany, argues there is something far more profound at work than ignorance and a touch of amnesia. Far from being an embarrassing page in Britain’s history, colonialism is alive and kicking, shaping the country as racialised and oppressive.

“The connection between Britain’s colonialism and today’s brutality isn’t made over here in the same way that people in the US connect slavery and the killing of black people now,” said Dr El-Enany, law lecturer at Birkbeck University of London, Bloomsbury.

“In the US, the violence is understood as an ongoing colonial situation, but Britain gets away with the narrative that its colonialism is all in the past, that it’s no longer an imperial state. That makes it more difficult here for people to see how colonialism is still relevant.”

The NHS and public services are not just staffed by people from overseas, they were built and are maintained with wealth extracted from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Yet when people from those countries try coming here to share the benefits, they are left to drown in dinghies, targeted by hostile environment immigration laws, or allowed to burn to death in tower blocks.

Dr Nadine El-Enany

“The wealth, the opportunities, security, welfare, healthcare, all of the things people take for granted here were paid for with extracted wealth,” she said. The immigration laws, “supposed to be the harsh but fair way of deciding who is entitled to share the wealth”, are in fact part of a system that racialises people of colour, denying them privileges still reserved for white people.

Recent Black Lives Matter protests are the latest in a long line of protests from Notting Hill in the 1950s, through Brixton and Tottenham in the 80s, to the 2011 clashes. Though they have been widely portrayed as mindless riots and the participants thugs, Dr El-Enany pointedly refers to them as “uprisings”.

“We saw the painful results of that after the 2011 uprisings when people involved were tried overnight and given lengthy prison terms,” she said, “so we must be clear there should be no prosecutions of protesters this time.”

Grenfell is conspicuously missing from the roll call of protests, however. Despite the unprecedented number of deaths, and that 59 of the 72 victims were people of colour, there has been a deafening silence – clear proof of just how racialised and racially violent Britain remains, said Dr El-Enany.

All of the victims were poor and the vast majority had passed through the immigration system themselves, or were from families who had. And most were Muslim, part of the most subjugated community of all.

Unsurprisingly after two decades of war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, and immigration policies that label “migrants” undeserving, Britons failed to connect with them, said Dr El-Enany.

“It was very difficult for the public to humanise the victims,” she said. “They saw pictures of the victims – women in hijabs and visibly Muslim people, and felt they weren’t fully human. In people’s minds, it has become normal for Muslims to be subject to horrific levels of violence, in wars for example, so it was very difficult for people to regard Grenfell as unacceptable violence that required a reaction.”

Yet, she pointed out, the victims were “from British and European colonies, places with long histories of colonial violence, from which they’d escaped then come here where they were disproportionately subject to state terror, austerity, poor housing.

“They were treated as people who shouldn’t have been living in London, who ought to have been grateful just to have been in Britain, so we didn’t see the public outcry or official action we needed.”

And the parallels with the George Floyd killing are harrowing. As the inferno engulfed the west London block, people made final calls, sent desperate texts in words not dissimilar from Floyd’s last gasp, “I can’t breathe”.

“They couldn’t breathe either,” said Dr El-Enany. “Grenfell should have been a George Floyd moment.”

  • (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire. By Dr Nadine El-Enany. Manchester University Press, £20
  • After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response. Edited by Dan Bulley, Jenny Edkins and Nadine El-Enany. Pluto Press, £11


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