Death of David Oluwale
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David Oluwale (1930 – 1969) was an African immigrant to Britain whose death in 1969 was the first known incident of racist policing allegedly leading to the death of a black person. It is one of the few times in contemporary British history that police officers involved in brutality that allegedly led to the death of a suspect have received criminal sentences.
Oluwale was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1930. In 1949 he hid on a ship destined for Hull in England, where, upon docking, he was caught and sentenced to 28 days in Armley Prison, Leeds. Upon release he started a new life in Leeds. Hoping eventually to study engineering, he got a job in a brickworks. After a short time he married a local woman, Gladys, and they had two children.
In 1953 Oluwale was charged with disorderly conduct and assault following a police raid on a nightclub. He subsequently served a 28-day sentence. In prison it was reported he suffered from hallucinations, possibly because of damage sustained from a truncheon blow during the arrest. He was transferred to Menston Asylum in Leeds (later called High Royds Hospital, now closed) where he spent the next eight years. He was treated with a variety of techniques, allegedly including electroconvulsive therapy and various drugs (hospital records have since been lost).
Upon release Oluwale was unable to hold down a job and a permanent residence, and quickly became homeless. Friends reported that he was a shadow of his former self, and had lost all confidence. As a black man in a still overtly-racist Britain, his choices of lodging and employment were also limited.
During this time he regularly moved between London, Sheffield and Leeds. He found himself in trouble with the Leeds police again several times and accused the police of harassing him. In late 1965 he was returned to High Royds Hospital, where he spent another two years. Following release he was once again homeless and lived on the street.
Contemporary police records show that 1968 saw his first recorded contact with Sergeant Kenneth Kitching and Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker in Leeds. The actions of the two officers would allegedly lead to Oluwale's death, although several other police officers were also involved with harassing Oluwale during this time.
In the subsequent enquiry and manslaughter/assault trial against Kitching and Ellerker, it was stated they regularly beat-up Oluwale, often kicking him in the groin and, on one occasion, urinating on him. Often they made him bow before them on his hands and knees, during which they would kick away his arms so his head hit the pavement. They referred to this as "penance". They also verbally abused him, referring to him as a "lame darkie". On several occasions they drove him out of Leeds in police vehicles, abandoning him on the outskirts in the early morning. Their intention was to force Oluwale to leave Leeds and not return. However, he viewed Leeds as his home and made his way back each time.
In the early hours of 17 April 1969 Kitching found Oluwale sleeping in a shop doorway, and summoned Ellerker. They both beat Oluwale with their truncheons and the last reported sighting of Oluwale was of him running away from the officers towards the River Aire. It was there that his body was found two weeks later. He was buried in a pauper's grave and no suspicious circumstances were attached to his death at the time.
In 1970 a young police recruit reported to a senior officer that he'd heard gossip from colleagues about the severe way Kitching and Ellerker had treated Oluwale. This report might have been prompted by fraud charges that were on-going against Ellerker. An enquiry was launched, carried out by Scotland Yard, and sufficient evidence was gathered to prompt manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm (GBH) charges being brought against Kitching and Ellerker in 1971.
During the enquiry and trial, a catalogue of physical abuse came to light, mostly carried out by Kitching and Ellerker. It was revealed they had taken special interest in Oluwale and asked colleagues to let them personally handle incidents relating to him. They specifically targeted him in the early hours of the morning, when there was nobody about and he could usually be found sleeping in shop doorways. Additionally, it was found that racist terms were used on paperwork relating to Oluwale, such as scribbling "wog" in the space reserved for nationality. However, despite this, the trial made no mention of racism and was centred on police brutality. Several trial witnesses described Oluwale as a dangerous man, and the trial judge referred to him as a "dirty, filthy, violent vagrant". However, this is contrary to the statements of witnesses collected during the earlier enquiry, who described Oluwale as unassuming and even cheerful. One of these witnesses was Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Tony Harney. However, their statements were not featured in the trial.
On the directions of the judge, manslaughter charges were dropped during the trial. However, Ellerker was found guilty of three assaults against Oluwale and Kitching of two assaults. They were found not guilty of causing GBH. Ellerker was sentenced to three years in prison, and Kitching received 27 months.
Although Oluwale's story caused a national scandal at the time (thanks in part to the radio play Smiling David written by Jeremy Sandford), it had been all but forgotten until police paperwork detailing the case was declassified under the thirty-year rule. This was used by Kester Aspden to write the book Nationality: Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale, published in 2007, which returned the story to the public eye. Attempts are being made to erect a memorial plaque in Leeds on the likely site of Olulwale's death.
Aspden's book has been adapted by Oladipo Agboluaje into a stage play, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2009, which critics described as "a richly emotional play which proves its point without coming across like it has a point to prove".
- IRR: "The hounding of David Oluwale", Institute of Race Relations, 3 May 2007.
- "The tragic tale of Oluwale", Yorkshire Evening Post, 5 May 2008.
- "The Hounding of David Oluwale". West Yorkshire Playhouse. Retrieved 1 October 2014.
- "The Hounding of David Oluwale". digyorkshire.com Review. Retrieved 2009-01-05.
- Kester Aspden, Nationality:Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale (ISBN 0224080407)
- Caryl Phillips, Foreigners (ISBN 9781400043972)
- Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4, 6 June 2006, which includes a description of the Oluwale case (link includes RealAudio of episode).