Forty years ago the body of David Oluwale was fished out of the River Aire in Leeds. Oluwale was a rough sleeper with a history of mental illness and his death was quickly dismissed as either an accident or suicide, despite bruises and cuts about the face and head. Two years later it was to make front-page news when two police officers stood trial for his manslaughter.
Nationality: Wog – The hounding of David Oluwale is the story of Oluwale’s descent from a bright-faced youngster from Nigeria to a shambolic vagrant who was subjected to a systematic campaign of abuse by members of the Leeds City Police. Beyond the unfortunate title, which is based on what was written on a police charge sheet relating to one of Oluwale’s arrests, this is a gripping and disturbing read.
The British journalist Kester Aspden, using archive material released under the UK’s 30-year confidentiality rule, as well as interviews with trial witnesses and those who knew him, forensically reconstructs Oluwale’s miserable life and death and lays bare the implacable racism of British post-war society.
David Oluwale arrived in Britain from Lagos in 1949 at the age of 19 as a stowaway. As a British subject, he was allowed to remain in the country after serving a routine 28-day prison sentence in Armley Prison in Leeds. Once released, he struggled to find his feet in a city notoriously hostile to those it deemed outsiders. But he managed to find work and carve out a life of sorts amongst the tiny community of West Africans that had settled there. Standing at only 5ft 5ins tall, Oluwale was nicknamed Yankee because of his swagger, and was by all accounts well liked.
But four years after his arrival, he found himself in Armley jail again after being involved in a minor scuffle in Leeds city centre. While serving a two-month sentence, he was judged to be acting strangely and taken to a local mental asylum. Oluwale was to emerge eight years later, effectively driven mad by the various treatments he had been subjected to. Regarded as violent and of low intelligence, he found himself abandoned by those meant to support his release back into society and was left to fend for himself.
A pitiful figure, Oluwale would have probably lived out the rest of his days sleeping in shop doorways of Leeds city centre were it not for the unwelcome attention of two police officers, Sergeant Ken Kitching and Inspector Geoff Ellerker. In 1968, the two took it upon themselves to drive Oluwale off the streets, giving him frequent beatings, dumping him in woods outside the city and arresting him for assault whenever he fought back. On one occasion they urinated on him.
After a year of such treatment, Oluwale descended into an even more pathetic state but continued to defend himself, with the inevitable consequences of arrest, followed by jail. Then one night, two police officers were seen chasing a man towards the river. Kitching and Ellerker’s colleagues had witnessed the harassment against the diminutive Oluwale and had their suspicions of how he met his death. However, they said nothing. But two years down the line, a rookie cop decided to break the code of silence.
After Oluwale’s body was exhumed from his pauper’s grave, Kitching and Ellerker were sensationally charged with manslaughter. In the witness box, Kitching admitted to ‘tickling Oluwale with his ‘boot’ and punching him, saying he was a ‘wild animal, not a human being.’ Another witness described him as a ‘mini Mr Universe’.
But the prosecution decided to play down the racism element of the crime and failed to call witnesses who would dispute the authorities’ assessment of Oluwale as deranged and violent.
The trial judge himself, referring to Oluwale as a ‘nothing but a dirty vagrant’, directed the jury to deliver a not guilty verdict and the two officers were eventually sent down for the lesser charges of assault. It would be the first and the last time that police officers were to be disciplined in connection with a death in custody.
Aspden’s book often makes stomach-churning reading. In the face of such systematic racism and having no one to speak up for him, Oluwale never really stood a chance. To the police, the mental health system, the welfare services and the courts, he barely registered as a human being. Aspden has ensured that in death, at least, Oluwale is given the dignity so denied him during his brief life.
Written by Jonathan Cape, London
Black History 365/spring 2008/www.black-history-month.co.uk