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Celebrating the life and legacy of Jack Merritt

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On the first anniversary of the London Bridge terror attack, Jack Merritt’s friends pay tribute to a brilliant young talent and campaigner for criminal justice reform

October 2017, a crisp autumn day in Cambridge and day one of our masters degree. Jack is sat inside the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. Hair slicked, silver hoops in both ears. Perfectly polished Doc Martens firmly planted on the floor. Everything black except for his classic white tee. He had just graduated with a first-class law degree from Manchester University, and although I didn’t know that then, I knew immediately he was nothing like the stereotype of a bespectacled chino-clad Cambridge student. Sharp, smart, a bit intimidating and utterly magnetic. Head to toe the monochrome man.

Nobody ever saw Jack wear a colour other than black or white. I mention this because I think he’d secretly want us to appreciate how much curation it takes to foster such an iconic style, and because this clarity was integral to his whole existence. Black North Face puffer jacket, black Doc Martens. Even his boxers were black, with Amnesty International in white lettering on the waistband. After we questioned whether he ever changed his boxers, he told us his mum bought him an identical pack every Christmas in support of the charity. Young men aren’t usually proud to admit that their mum buys their boxers, but somehow Jack’s lack of concern even made this cool.

Jack was strong, although not tall. (I can see him shaking his head and rolling his eyes at that description.) With sculpted biceps and a chest to match, he was nicknamed ‘Muscles’ by the lads that knew him best. Through his pioneering role with Learning Together, an organisation creating better futures through education, Jack spent three days a week in prisons. Anyone who has spent time there will tell you that working out is a powerful force in prison. It is one of the few positive releases, a bonding action for the community, and a source of fierce solidarity. Jack got noticeably bigger while working in prison, and it seemed like his physical strength was an important way for him to identify with those he worked with. Often he would talk gym routines alongside complex legal concepts with the men on his course. An alluring unification of two masculinities.

“I remember Jack’s commitment to making life better, and I think about his legacy. A legacy that is inescapably political, given the incomprehensible clash of justice and injustice in which he died, but one that is at the same time unflinchingly about kindness”

In fact, the more we got to know him we understood he was a Jack-in-the-box of surprises. A complex blend of creativity and sensitivity highlighted best by the music that permeated his existence. Rap and grime dominated his earspace: Dave, Kano, Stormzy, Run the Jewels, Action Bronson. The lyricism of these artists spoke to Jack. He connected with the heady mix of success and anxiety in this scene, voiced perfectly in Psychodrama by Dave. We would often randomly text one another our favourite lines from the album. Forever seeking out expert storytelling, Jack found resonance in a completely different set of artists, too: Nick Cave, LCD Soundsystem, The Smiths, and Bowie are all inseparable from our memories of him. Not only did their art inspire him, his achievements inspired them, which was highlighted poignantly by two beautiful performances from Nick Cave and Dave at his funeral celebration on December 20, 2019.

Jack was gentle, too. Beneath his sculpted exterior he was a family man, and adored both of his parents and his younger (taller) brother. His mother’s strong femininity shaped him into the man he was and made Jack an incredible friend, especially to women. On International Women’s Day he wrote of his mother, “this woman showed me from earlier than I can probably remember that traditional gender roles are there to be challenged”, and Jack defended this staunchly. That being said, Jack is his father. They share a deeply held belief in fairness that goes beyond politics to the core of their existence. Sometimes this expressed itself in an unmovable stubbornness, and watching them interact was like watching each one talk to themselves, equal parts passion and reason. (If you were going to try and join in, you needed to have a watertight argument.)

November 2020, one year since Jack was murdered. A year in which polarisation, black and white, has dominated our political and cultural existence. A year of collective anger and the painful realisation that we need to do better. Black Lives Matter. George Floyd. Decolonising the British curriculum. Dave rapping “Black” at the Brits in the performance of the century; a performance in which he gave Jack Merritt the ultimate tribute, as a man who devoted his life to giving others a chance. A pioneer for unity, equality, and for justice.

On the days when I miss Jack so much that it feels like the breath is stolen from my throat and I cannot go on, I remember Jack’s commitment to making life better, and I think about his legacy. A legacy that is inescapably political, given the incomprehensible clash of justice and injustice in which he died, but one that is at the same time unflinchingly about kindness. (The attack triggered a political row over ‘soft sentences’ for terrorists, with Merritt’s father, Dave, accusing the government of using his son’s death to “perpetuate an agenda of hate”.) Jack was built on a foundation of fairness, which meant he could tell you with piercing clarity exactly how things should be, and compel you to kick down doors until you made it happen. Jack is a lesson we should all listen to, and learn from.

Jack Merritt: son, brother, boyfriend, best friend, inspiration. He knew right from wrong and, as clear as black and white, he knew justice from injustice. Anti-racist, activist, occasional perfectionist. The true 21st-century monochrome man.

This tribute was co-written by Laura Suggitt and Lewis Taylor, eternally proud friends to Jack Merritt