I lead a module (CRI3003) which centres on institutional violence. Based on pacifist, feminist and zemiological principles, the module focuses on several institutions including social services, the police, prison and the military. The module is discussion based and seeks to understand the complexity of institutions, identifying recurring themes across a variety of different violences through the critical analysis of official inquiries. Through engagement all participants are challenged to disrupt everyday narratives around such processes.
Garver insists that violence ‘occurs in several markedly different forms, and can be usefully classified into four different kinds based on two criteria, whether the violence is personal or institutionalised, or whether the violence is overt or covert and quiet’ (1968: 257). His definition offers a road map for understanding a variety of violences, allowing scholars to navigate their way through extreme complexity.
This week saw the publication of phase one of the Grenfell Inquiry (Moore-Bick, 2019). The subject of much conjecture (and some leaks), the report runs to four volumes and c. 900 words. As with many reports of this type, there is the combination of the procedural and the extremely personal. At times, it makes for harrowing reading, at others, it reads like a technical manual. Nevertheless, its publication is a landmark for all involved and offers some potential answers for the traumatised survivors, families, fire fighters and others.
Although, phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry is not due to begin until early 2020, it is evident that some early conclusions and recommendations have been reached. Some of these centre of London Fire Brigade [LFB] and particularly, the judgement of their commissioner, Dany Cotton. Such an approach is typical of inquiries into crime, drilling down to analyse individual decisions and behaviours, cause and effect. If an individual had walked down from the top floor of Grenfell tower, pouring petrol outside every flat, and then lit a flame, such processes would be part and parcel of any investigation. However, the disaster at Grenfell tower cannot be answered through individual blame and naming and shaming.
It is important to note that the men and women that make up London Fire Brigade did not:
- start the fire
- did not manufacture the fridge-freezer which is believed to have started the fire
- were not responsible for sourcing, supplying or fitting the cladding
- have any input in the business decision(s) that led to choosing that cladding
- have any say in political decisions to embrace the ideology of “austerity” which included reducing safety checks on manufacturing, trading standard officers, fire officers, fire appliances and closing fire stations
All of the evidence to date indicates that the disaster at Grenfell was not unexpected. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that there were many warning signs, repeated concerns amid a general feeling that some people matter more than others, that some people are less worthy of consideration, that some people deserve to live in safe housing. Furthermore, discussions in the UK focus on the need to support businesses, not ever acknowledging that business and countries are comprised of people. Until official inquiries have terms of references which allow them to focus on the lived experience in all its complexity, any conclusions can only be partial. Additionally, any recommendations are incomplete.
While, as a society we continue to treat people as commodities, a “human resource”, with no worth beyond their economic value, we ensure that horrific disasters such as the fire at Grenfell Tower (to name but one of many) continue to happen. We can also expect many more official inquiries which never quite explain what those affected need to know. We can continue our handwringing, the oft-repeated mantra of “never again”, spending vast amounts of money in attempts to apportion blame, costs that can, as in the case of the Grenfell Inquiry, far surpass the original money saving. Or we can begin to respect the dignity of humanity, regardless of where we are born, our income or the amount of money we’ve stockpiled in the bank.
It seems apt to close with the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity (1959: 25)
Curtin, Deane and Litke Robert, (1999b) ‘Preface’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, (Eds), Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): xi-xv
Garver, Newton, (1968), ‘What Violence Is’ in A. K. Bierman and James A. Gould, (1973), Philosophy for a New Generation, (New York: MacMillan): 256-66
King Jr, Martin Luther, (1959), The Measure of a Man, (Philadelphia: Christian Education Press)
Moore-Bick, Martin, (2019), Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report: Report of the Public Inquiry into the Fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, (London: The Stationery Office), [online]. Available from: https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/phase-1-report [Last accessed 2 November 2019]