Grenfell Tower, the Criminal Justice System and the ‘Usual Suspects’

This article co-written and researched with Joanne Davis was published in August 2018, just over a year after the fire at Grenfell Tower. It was originally published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies – the original can be read here. The research was supported and funded as a student staff partnership project by Newman University’s Academic Practice Unit.  

On the 18 July 2018, 13 months after the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed at least 71 people, the Metropolitan Police (MPS) announced they had carried out ‘three interviews under caution’. The interviews related to ‘offences including gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter and breaches of the Health and Safety Act’. This comes eight months after the community activist group Justice4Grenfell dramatically drove from Grenfell to the House of Parliament with three billboards stating ‘71 Dead’; ‘And Still No Arrests?’; and ‘How Come?’.  

In making the announcement the police press release stated, ‘Apart from investigations into allegations of fraud, there have not been any arrests at this stage’.

‘Justice’ for some

We monitored criminal justice – police, prosecution and courts – activity in the year following the fire and have identified that it has not been as inactive as the police claim. Whilst it is true that there have been no arrests, prosecutions, convictions or sentencing of the powerful individuals or institutions responsible for the deaths, the criminal justice system not been inactive in dealing with their ‘usual suspects’ including Grenfell Tower survivors and their neighbours.  

Three cases illustrate how local people have been dealt with by the criminal justice system since the fire. 

Case #1: Omega Mwaikambo

A neighbour of Grenfell Tower, Omega Mwaikambo witnessed the fire. He saw trapped residents waving and screaming and others jumping to their deaths. It was a traumatic experience shared by many other local people. At about 5am, on returning home, he found that a victim’s body had been dumped in the courtyard outside his flat. He took a few pictures and a video with his iPad, which he then uploaded onto his Facebook account. In the early evening police arrested him, and two days later, on the16 June 2017, he was jailed for 3 months. In little over 48 hours after the fire, the criminal justice system had arrested Mwaikambo, charged him, convicted him and sentenced him to prison – with the Judge informing him that, ‘the whole country, if not the whole world, has been shocked by what has taken place in the last few days in relation to the fire at Grenfell Tower…What you have done by uploading those photos shows absolutely no respect to this poor victim’.  

The sanctimonious hypocrisy of these words from a representative of the very state that is ultimately responsible for the killing of the ‘poor victim’, delivered whilst imprisoning a traumatised local resident is stunning. The criminalisation and imprisonment of Mwaikambo sent a clear message to the local community that they would be ruthlessly policed and held accountable in a way that was unimaginable to those who were responsible for the fire. 

Case #2: Reis Morris

This message was repeated in the second case. At the vigil to mark 100 days after the fire Kim Taylor-Smith, the deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea, attempted to make a speech. Unsurprisingly survivors, relatives and others objected, and he was forced to stop. As he was leaving Taylor-Smith was approached by Reis Morris, a resident of the Tower who had lost a family member, who allegedly told him, ‘you have got eight weeks to sort this out, then I’m coming for you, I don’t care if I spend the rest of my life in prison’. Taylor-Smith reported this to the police and two weeks later unemployed Morris had been arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to a 12-month community order, 110 hours of unpaid work, ordered not to contact Taylor-Smith for a year, pay the millionaire £100 compensation, and pay £85 towards the prosecution costs. Both the Daily Mail and the Metro stressed that Morris had, apparently, been ‘spared jail’. The clear implication was that prison was the obvious place for him. 

Case #3: Eamon Zada

The third case also involves a resident of Grenfell Tower. Three weeks after the fire, officers searching the building found equipment in the flat of Eamon Zada that suggested he had been making cannabis oil. Produced from those parts of the cannabis plant that are normally discarded, the oil is consumed orally. Zada was arrested, charged and pleaded guilty to producing a controlled Class B drug. Whilst the collection of forensic evidence as to the cause of the fire and deaths is a process that has, to date, taken over a year, the discovery of an ‘everyday’ crime involving cannabis was swiftly prosecuted. In March 2018, Zada was given a 12-week suspended prison sentence together with 200 hours of unpaid work. 

We have found out about these cases through the monitoring of local and national press coverage. To ensure we had not missed any activity we submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Crown Prosecution Service and to the Metropolitan Police Service six months after the fire requesting they disclose cases relating to Grenfell Tower. Both requests were refused.  

Grenfell and disciplining the poor

Although criminal justice may claim to be blind it appears to have no trouble differentiating between the powerful and powerless. Since Grenfell it has done what it is good at – disciplining the poor. The cases described have been directed at working class people of colour. All cases have received swift ‘justice’. Determining guilt has been easy, the sentences harsh and those identified as ‘criminals’ publicly shamed.

As criminal justice attempts to turn its attentions to those responsible for the deaths we are seeing a very different system that respects rights. Instead of arrests, suspects have been invited, along with their lawyers, to attend police stations, to be interviewed. The law, so swift and merciless in dealing with working class people, will become complex, doubts as to culpability will emerge and cases will take months, possibly years. One or two companies may be found guilty of technical violations and fined. A few individuals may even be found guilty of lesser charges, even possibly receive prison sentences, but these will be served in open prisons rather than the harsh local prisons reserved for the poor.  

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