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We Must Remember David Oluwale

David Oluwale was the first victim of racist police brutality that the British state acknowledged. Decades after his death, his plaque in Leeds has been repeatedly vandalised – showing that the racism he faced remains a force today.

In August 1949, a young Nigerian man stowed away on a cargo boat headed for England hopeful of a better life. Two decades later, the lifeless body of David Oluwale was dredged out of the River Aire, hounded to his death by racist police officers.

Over five decades later, a blue memorial plaque dedicated to David was stolen hours after its unveiling, and a temporary replacement plaque was ripped down in the space of a single day. Even in death the hounding of David Oluwale continues, and these despicable acts illustrate clearly that the racism which many people try to convince us has been relegated to the history books remains a force within our society. We owe it not only to the legacy of David to make sure that his story is told, but to the multitude of racialised, unhoused and stigmatised people who continue to suffer state violence today.

Shock of Capture

Upon his arrival in the Yorkshire city of Hull, Oluwale was arrested and jailed. A British subject, he could not be tried as an ‘illegal alien’ and instead was sent to Armley and later Northallerton where he served a near month-long sentence.

From the cramped bowels of a cargo ship to a holding cell, and from a holding cell to the courthouse dock, Oluwale’s experience of the violent, carceral border system is not too far removed from the experience faced by many migrants today who make the perilous journey here in search of better lives.

The David Oluwale poster campaign saw images of his face placed across the city of Leeds. (Credit: Garry Stevenson)

The shock of capture immediately shattered his youthful optimism. Only a teenager, David Oluwale was released and left to fend for himself, spending time in Bradford, Hull, Sheffield and finally Leeds to find employment and a place to live.

Oluwale eventually came upon such a place. Just beyond Leeds university, 209 Belle Vue Road was a typical working men’s home. The one-up-one-down, red bricked terrace was overcrowded, loud and full of unfamiliar faces, but it would have to do until he earned enough money to afford a place of his own.

Hoping to use his experience as a tailor to find work, Oluwale would take the bus daily into the city, and eventually land a job at West Yorkshire Foundries. After a hard day’s work, he would travel to the pub for a small drink, only to be stopped in his tracks by a large sign on the door that read “No Coloureds, No Dogs, No Gypsies.”

Oluwale often made the journey to Chapeltown where he would be served. Chapeltown had a slowly growing population of working-class West Indians and Africans, and as a result was one of the few places in Leeds where he was not made to feel an outsider. Oluwale was known for dressing sharply, walking with a confident swagger, and had a reputation for being a good dancer.

The journey home across the dark, unlit paths of Woodhouse Moor was treacherous, and he often returned to Belle Vue exhausted, having barely escaped his latest brush with a racist thug or common thief. Life was hard, but if he could continue at the Foundry while attending college in the evening, things might start to look up, he hoped.

A Decade of Torment

Any hopes of a better future for David Oluwale were dashed after his first encounter with the police. In April 1953, an officer struck him over the head with a truncheon and it is believed that this blow caused irreparable damage to his brain. While imprisoned he experienced acute hallucinations and subsequently spent the next decade in Menston Asylum.

The asylum was worse than all of the prisons combined. Oluwale was subjected to tortuous electroshock ‘treatment’ and given an unknown quantity of drugs and tranquilisers which further compounded his mental trauma. Upon his release from Menston, Oluwale was a shell of his former self. No longer the charismatic, affectionately nicknamed ‘yankee’ (named so by his friends due to his love of American culture), Oluwale’s mental trauma saw him unable to hold down steady employment, and he soon found himself living on the streets.

Mentally traumatised, Black and unhoused, Oluwale was the perfect target for the Leeds Police. Two particularly sadistic officers, Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching, made it their mission to make life hell for him, and the abuse he suffered at their hands makes for difficult reading.

The plaque to David Oluwale which was unveiled in Leeds earlier this month. (Credit: Civic Trust)

When he was discovered sleeping in doorways, Oluwale was brutally beaten and urinated on. Ellerker and Kitching bundled Oluwale into their police van, dropping him some five and a half miles away in the heart of Middleton Woods where he was left to suffer the elements. One story describes an episode where Oluwale was kicked so forcefully between the legs by an officers’ boot that he was tossed into the air. Another has it that Oluwale was driven to a country pub in the middle of the night and sardonically ordered to ask for a cup of tea.

Ellerker and Kitching spent two years mercilessly terrorising Oluwale before the fateful morning of April 18 1969. That morning, Oluwale had been spotted fleeing from the truncheons of his tormentors in the direction of the River Aire. Two weeks later his badly bruised dead body was found floating face down in the river. With no money or family to speak of, David Oluwale was buried in a pauper’s grave, his funeral attended only by a vicar.

Hollow Justice

The aftermath of Oluwale’s murder exposed how the criminal justice system works to protect state actors. Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching would have gotten away untouched by the courts were it not for the actions of whistleblower Gary Galvin, a young police cadet. But if he was expecting justice to be served, he was sorely mistaken.

Ellerker and Kitching were tried not for murder, instead they faced manslaughter charges in 1971. During the trial, attempts were made to characterise Oluwale as violent, savage and filthy to play on the biases of the judge, who was reportedly known to one of the officers.

Both officers were acquitted of all charges except causing actual bodily harm – Ellerker was handed a 36 month sentence and Kitching a 27 month sentence. The vicious racial abuse carried out by the officers was sidelined in the trial, and there would be no mention of ‘institutional racism’ or ‘police brutality.’ Ellerker and Kitching’s prosecution was the first time British police officers had been ‘successfully’ tried for their involvement in the death of a Black person. It is unsurprising that such a milestone was characterised by hollow justice.

The result of a second act of vandalism against the Oluwale plaque in a matter of days. (Credit: Civic Trust)

Before 2021, when PC Benjamin Monk was charged (again with manslaughter, not murder) for the death of footballer Dalian Atkinson, and 1986 when Sergeant Alwyn Sawyer was charged (again with manslaughter, not murder) for the death of Henry Foley, 1971 was the only time police had been charged for a death in their custody.

Interestingly, the judge presiding over the trial of Alwyn Sawyer was one William Machpherson, who went on to publish a 350-page report after the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1997. The Macpherson report was the first official acknowledgement of ‘institutional racism’ within the police, but little has changed since then.

David Oluwale Lives

The racists who have sought to silence the story of David Oluwale have only caused his name to echo louder across the country. His funeral may have been attended solely by a priest, but scores of Leeds residents came to witness the unveiling of his memorial plaque.

Members of the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA) had campaigned ceaselessly for years to ensure both the plaque and the nearby David Oluwale bridge were installed, and were not intimidated by the theft and vandalism.

Through trying to repeatedly tear down his memorials, the perpetrators have sought to consign Oluwale to ignominy in death. And yet, David Oluwale lives. He lives on through every Black person brutalised by the police, through those suffering at the hands of carceral borders, through those stigmatised for mental illness and the incalculable number of unhoused people sleeping rough on our streets.

The tragic murder of David Oluwale is a prime case study into the intersections of race, class, mental health and housing, and how these factors inform one another to uphold structural oppression.

The myth of Britain’s ‘race revolution’ shatters on contact with reality. The latest cowardly acts of theft and vandalism of David Oluwale’s memorial plaques demonstrate that the racism he faced lives with us today, and that community solidarity is needed to fight it. We owe it to David, and those who have suffered as he did, to make sure his story is told.