Silent Steps

by Les Back

14 June 2022
Originally published in our Old Blog.

14th June 2022 marks the 5th anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, London where 72 people died.

The following blog was written by Les Back in 2018 about the silent walks which took place monthly to remember those who were lost. Curtailed by Covid, these have resumed and a silent walk is due to take place today at 6pm.

The speed of today’s news cycles quickly occludes the human cost of the stories behind the headlines.  Even the most devastating of tragedies soon becomes forgotten yesterday’s news. This has been the case with the Grenfell Tower fire disaster where, according to the Metropolitan police, 72 people died on the 14th July, 2017.  Since then local residents in north Kensington have organised a silent walk on the 14th day each month to protest the on-going injustice and insensitivity they experience from the authorities.

The silent steps of the march communicate dissent wordlessly against the indifference of the local state, the thoughtlessness of politicians and the well-healed Londoners whose attention has moved on.  Silent indifference is countered with an active but soundless provocation.

Gathered outside the Notting Hill Methodists Church on this cold Sunday in January the procession is called to formation by the whispered choruses of people saying ‘shuusssh’.  The first of these protests started with just fifty local people but tonight there must be a thousand or more people here.

The demonstration is led and hosted by local people but the thing that is so striking is how open and welcoming they are to those of us from other parts of London who come to show solidarity.  At the front there are large hearts in green with a single word beneath each of them – truth, justice, grace, love. People carry placards and candles including some green electric ones. Makeshift memorials are held to particular victims too.

A unifying stillness is maintained with gentle vigilance as mothers push their children in buggies, families walk together, teenagers stroll solemnly and dog walkers offer whispered apologies for tripping up fellow marchers behind them.   The multi-culture of the crowd – of all ages – is unobtrusively inspiring and unmistakable.  It seems to me like a mass choreography of what Martin Luther King called ‘fellow feeling’ or a solemn realisation of Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality.

As the march progresses these busy west London streets fall quiet.  Some residents come out and watch respectfully as the procession passes, buses pull over and make way and there is something eerie about the way London’s noise receding into the distance.   On Ladbroke Grove four local fire fighters line the street and people go up in turn to express mute thanks and appreciation.  Further up the street I notice a famous American anthropologist observing the scene from the pavement and I can see he is not observing the silent vigil but instead offering an impromptu commentary to a person standing next to him.

The walk ends under the Westway and on the concrete pillar messages are written and beneath them are improvised shrines of photographs, flowers and soft toys.  Zeyad Cred, one of the organisers, addresses the crowd. He asks us to face The Tower.  Framed by the flyover Grenfell looks like a dark, charred hole in the night sky.  A minute more of silence and then Zeyad asks us to chant one word over and over again. He calls out repeatedly – JUSTICE! The crowd replies in kind each time louder than the time before.

On June 14th the next silent walk will begin at Notting Hill Methodist Church. In contrast to the wounding compassion that passes as news, this powerful movement at Grenfell gifts those who attend something else: a sense fellow feeling.  On this night at least I felt less ashamed of the kind of city London has become.

Information about the silent walks is posted on Facebook here.


Les Back is a Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and Director of Centre for Urban and Community Research. He tweets @AcademicDiary.

︎ Image by Carcharoth. Licensed under CC 4.0