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A personal message from the Master, Sonita Alleyne

I would like to share the following in regard to the killing of George Floyd.

It’s just about impossible to express the depths of revulsion at seeing a helpless man take his last breath. The anger at seeing a white police officer deliberately kneel on a black citizen’s neck for eight minutes till the air he needs runs out. The anger at seeing a man plead for his life only for that plea to be lethally ignored. For his life not to matter. It was a truly barbaric act. It was the latest in a long line of horrific killings.

In 1985 on the weekend when I arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate, 35 years ago this October, my mind was filled with the name “Floyd”. This time it was Floyd Jarrett. Floyd Jarrett from Tottenham, North London was stopped on the 5th October for an allegedly suspect tax disc on his car. He was released with no charge. But five hours later the police went to his mother’s house and 49 year old Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained. A day later civil disturbance broke out in Tottenham. 

I unpacked feeling helpless. Feeling like I was so far away from the world I should have been in. The world I should have been changing. As I unpacked, and over the following terms, I realised the fight for equality and full inclusivity needs to take place wherever we are.  

Over the years there have been too many names of Black men and women whose lives came to an end due to police violence, apartheid, out and out racism and institutional racism.

Some of those names have faded. They shouldn’t. 

  • Breonna Taylor on March 13th this year – a 26 year African American medical worker who was shot eight times after a “no knock” police policy in Louisville Kentucky.
  • Oscar Grant in 2009 – unarmed, made to lie on the ground of Fruitvale Station, Oakland and shot in the back. 
  • Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and Rolan Adams in 1991– two young Black British men murdered in the early nineties.
  • Eric Garner in 2014 – held in a choke hold by a New York City Police Department Officer whilst restrained, and as he died he too said “I can’t breathe”.

These are just a few of the names. There are many more. Too many. 

There is anger and distress and perhaps a feeling of helplessness within our community. I know it’s an anger that is shared more widely, but these feelings and events especially impact our BAME Jesuans.

The message posted on the College Twitter account “If one man can’t breathe, we all can’t breathe.” were my words and the “we” refers to all members of the black diaspora across the world.

Since my appointment I have been looking into matters such as unconscious bias within Jesus College and related issues across the University. This work would have started this term, after exams were finished. I’ll be looking to reinstate this process as soon as I possibly can. 

I want to say to everyone, especially our BAME Jesuans, that you are all valued, exceptional people. I believe you’ll all go on and make your unique mark in the world. Be angry at this moment. Be angry that this is another link in an unbroken chain of racism. After anger comes reflection and a determination to create change for yourself and the wider world around you.

Even though so many of us are isolated on our own, Jesus is here for you at this difficult time.

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