LONDON — They burned a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower and mocked the victims. Now they’ve been arrested.
Five men turned themselves in to a South London police station Monday night and were arrested on suspicion of a public order offense, the Metropolitan Police Service said in a statement Tuesday. The men, between 19 and 55 years old, remain in police custody.
In a video of the act, a man can be heard jeering, “That’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent,” as the model goes up in flames.
The video, believed to have been recorded and shared on a messaging app, quickly went viral on Twitter. By Monday evening, it was trending in Britain, with thousands expressing shock and disbelief at the insensitivity of the group. The total number of people involved in the video is unknown.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy was the deadliest fire in modern British history and claimed more than 70 lives in June 2017. Witnesses described how children disappeared behind clouds of thick smoke as flames engulfed the high-rise apartment building in West London. Residents were forced to flee, remain in sweltering temperatures or jump.
TV presenter Alex Beresford was one of many people who shared the video Monday, calling the footage “disgusting” and “pure evil racism.”
In the footage, which some may find disturbing, the cardboard model, with the words “Grenfell Tower” written at the top, is seen being handled by a group of people. Echoing the real-life tragedy, the model depicts people at windows with their arms outstretched and a person dangling outside the building.
“Bye, everyone!” jeers one member of the group as the design is carried toward a glowing bonfire. “Help me, help me!” shrieks another, seemingly mocking the last words of some of the victims. “We’re coming to get you!” yells another participant, referring to the promises of emergency workers who instructed residents to stay in place and wait for help — help that didn’t reach them in time.
In the video, a chorus of laughter can be heard as the model eventually goes up in flames. In the background, a St. George’s flag can be seen. The banner, a red cross on a white field, is the traditional flag of England and has increasingly been adopted by the far right in Britain.
On Twitter on Monday evening, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “I utterly condemn this sickening video. The horrific Grenfell Tower fire was one of the most devastating tragedies our city has ever suffered — and I urge social media companies to do the right thing and remove this content immediately.”
As disgust about the video rapidly spread on social media, British Prime Minister Theresa May said, “To disrespect those who lost their lives at Grenfell Tower, as well as their families and loved ones, is utterly unacceptable.”
In a statement, London’s Metropolitan Police Service called the video “vile” and urged people with information to come forward. It also urged anyone present at the gathering to come forward.
Cmdr. Stuart Cundy, who is leading the Grenfell Tower investigation, said in the statement: “I am frankly appalled by the callous nature of the video posted online. A total of 71 people died in the fire at Grenfell Tower, so many people lost so many loved ones and many more have been deeply affected. To mock the disaster in such a crude way is vile.
"I can’t imagine the distress this video will undoubtedly cause to bereaved families and survivors.
“The Met’s Grenfell Tower investigation team is taking this matter very seriously. Any offenses that have been committed will be fully investigated.”
For many in Britain, what happened at Grenfell Tower is a hugely delicate subject, with the tragedy at the center of conversations about race relations in Britain, adequacy of public housing and what could have been done to prevent the inferno. The memories of what happened continue to haunt survivors, families of the victims, the local community and, more broadly, the country. Over a year on from the incident, many are still demanding answers.