David Oluwale was last seen alive on the night of 17 April 1969, being beaten by two police officers in Leeds.
Two weeks later his body was pulled out of a river. A subsequent investigation led to the only time British police officers have been convicted for a police-related death.
Historian Kester Aspden has researched the life and death of Oluwale. He spoke to Esme Choonara about the case and why it resonates to this day.
Can you tell me about your motivations for writing the book?
I was in an archive on some other business when I stumbled across the David Oluwale case files. I’d heard the name when I was working at Leeds University.
I knew it was about a homeless man who had drowned in a river, but that was all I knew.
I pulled up a file, and within a couple of hours I realised that this was a really interesting story. The first thing I saw were photographs of the exhumation.
Then I found the police charge sheets where someone had added in ‘wog’ under the nationality – I’d never heard of this before.
I had no idea at that point that the repercussions of the case are still felt in Leeds today, or that the case was more widely known.
I started to try and trace the police officers who had been involved, the lawyers and people who had known David Oluwale.
My first motivation was that this was a strange and compelling human story about a man who came here as a stowaway.
I had romantic ideas about that – in fact it was a hard and arduous trip.
That led me to research the experience of other stowaways who came over at that time, and also the experience of West Africans in England.
There’s a lot about the Windrush generation coming to Britain from the Caribbean, but I knew nothing about the experience of Nigerians.
I was lucky to meet a man who knew David Oluwale and who had stowed away himself.
Gayb Adams came from Lagos the year before David and then settled in Leeds. So I got a first hand account of what it was like at that time.
So I suppose I went into it as a human story, not a political one.
But as I looked into it more I saw the significance of the case – that it was the first and only time that police officers have been prosecuted for charges relating to this sort of police-related death.
You interviewed many police officers for the book. Were they willing to talk about the case?
The police were happy to talk to me about the background to policing at that time and other generalities.
Some of them also wanted to talk to me about what David Oluwale was like from their point of view – that he was a social nuisance, that he was filthy and violent.
Getting to speak to some of the police officers over a long period of time gave me an insight that I never would have had from reading books about policing, or from my own assumptions about what police are like.
We talk today about institutional racism. I think you can see from this case how an institution can exert a kind of power over an individual.
A lot of the officers I spoke to had retired, which maybe meant they were more willing to talk now. But when they are in the police, officers tend to think and act and see the world in a particular kind of way.
I met some police who did have some sympathy for David at the time. Some of them would take him a cup of tea or throw him some change.
They were also keen to say that what happened was down to these two police officers and a rogue shift, rather than anything to do with the institution.
But I think it went much wider than that. The whole of the police station knew about what was happening to David and didn’t do anything.
Coppers like to pride themselves on having an enquiring mind, but in this case there was no enquiring – nobody wanted to probe too deeply. People were more worried about their careers.
I think that 35 years on people can be more reflective. At the time, it would have been impossible for someone like me to have told the story.
Now, because it looks like a distant piece of social history, you can ask the questions and get a bit more honesty.
A lot of the brutality was seen as part of the mundane business of policing a tough city, something that lawyers and magistrates’ courts didn’t want to look at.
So it wasn’t just that the police were all in it together, but that David had no recourse to the law in any other way. No magistrate, no judge would give him a hearing.
You build up a picture of the racism that David Oluwale faced throughout his time in Britain. Yet at the trial there was no mention of racism at all. What did this tell you?
I found it amazing that the criminal investigation didn’t probe the attitudes of officers to black people, whereas there was a lot about the attitudes towards vagrants. That seemed telling.
The charge sheets on which someone had changed David Oluwale’s nationality to ‘wog’ were interesting enough for the police investigation to look at, but it wasn’t something that was raised in court.
I think there was a decision – either conscious or unconscious – not to look into this too deeply.
It would have been more damaging for the police if this had been seen as an act of racist brutality even in 1970 and 1971, rather than as a pathological hatred two officers held towards vagrants.
You talk in the book about how the crime of ‘disorderly conduct’ was used in Leeds against those who didn’t fit in. Do you see a contemporary equivalent?
Today’s ‘disorderly’ people are shoved out of the way with Asbos and dispersal orders. Contemporary Leeds tries to show itself in a shiny light to attract investment – it portrays an image of a prosperous, cosmopolitan, vibrant city at the vanguard of the urban renaissance.
There are certain people who don’t fit into that picture – homeless people, rough sleepers – who bear the brunt of the law. But it’s done in a very different way now, with Asbos rather than a kicking.
‘Disorderly’ people tended to be those who were poor or didn’t fit the idea of a productive human being – someone unemployed, or someone who hangs around seemingly with no purpose. The police see it as their job to clear the streets of these people, more than it is to solve crime actually.
So I went back to the origins of the police in the early 19th century when early industrial society was beginning. Respectable society needed a more orderly industrious workforce.
One of the police’s jobs was to root out the unproductive elements and make sure they were productive people.
So I think there’s a link between today and David Oluwale’s time – but also going further back to the whole purpose of the police.
What does the David Oluwale case tell you about institutional racism – and do you think things have changed in the police today?
It’s always been the case that if police are found guilty of criminal behaviour, there are attempts to portray their behaviour as nothing to do with the ordinary conduct or working of the police.
But I think the behaviour of the two officers is unsurprising in the context of normal urban policing.
David Oluwale’s case was surprising and extreme – but I don’t think that it was so far away from the ordinary experiences of black people.
Today, after Stephen Lawrence, the police make sure that their officers have more training and are more sensitive in their language and their behaviour.
In Merseyside, for example, they made a great play of bringing Anthony Walker’s killers to justice and registering it as a racist crime straight away.
So if David Oluwale’s case happened today, it would maybe be handled differently. But at the same time, I wonder how much things have really changed.
I think the telling area is deaths in custody. With the exception of David’s case, it is a stark fact that since 1970, when the records start, there has not been one officer convicted of an offence for a death in custody.
Black people figure disproportionately in the figures of those who have died in police custody.
The recent case of Mikey Powell in Birmingham who died in police custody in 2003, is a contemporary issue that many who are interested in David Oluwale’s case are concerned with today.
Mikey Powell was not a criminal, but he did have a mental illness. He was treated as someone who needed to be controlled.
I think that comes from stereotypes of black people. It will take a long time to change that attitude, and I don’t think training courses will do that. It’s something more deeply rooted.
Many people have died suspicious deaths in police custody since 1970. Even though there has often been compelling evidence that officers were to blame, it seems that the whole judicial system doesn’t want to believe that it was the police or accept that this happens.
In the David Oluwale case there was partial justice, even if it is not the justice that we may think the case deserved. That was in 1971, when Britain was supposedly not as racially aware as it is today.
This brings into stark relief the complete absence of any convictions in latter day cases.
For most of the families and friends who have lost people in these circumstances there has been no justice.
What did you discover about David Oluwale’s experience at the hands of the mental health system?
I wanted to look beyond the police. To begin to know why David Oluwale was an easy prey for these police officers, you have to know why he was seen as a worthless being.
It’s only when someone is seen as worthless that people can get away with this sort of brutality.
The gates of the Menston asylum were a place to start for me. The psychiatry of the period tended to see Africans as impulsive, aggressive, prone to persecution, childish, paranoid and dangerous.
And that kind of psychiatry goes back to older prejudices – you could say back to the slave trade and to 19th century ‘science’, which categorised Africans as irrational.
Today black people are over-
represented in the mental health system. They are more likely to be sectioned, to be diagnosed as schizophrenic and to be given higher doses of anti-psychotic drugs.
I had that contemporary debate very much in mind and I wanted to get to its roots.
It was difficult to write about in many ways. David’s basic records weren’t made available to me – Leeds mental health trust told me they didn’t think it was in his best interests.
But I managed to piece together a chapter with what was around that gave a wider context. It broadens the story from one of just police institutional racism, which is something we know a lot about.
I don’t think the mental health system has had its Stephen Lawrence moment. And I hope that the book raises a few questions about this.
What was the significance of including recollections such as the visits to the Mecca ballrooms?
David Oluwale did have friends who lived long and happy lives. Some of them are still around today.
The ballrooms were great places for mixing and I guess one of the few places where black people in Britain at that time felt more comfortable.
Many of David’s friends met their wives at the Mecca, so I was pleased to introduce that into the story. I think it’s important.
Hopefully one day histories will be written that do more than just concentrating on the colour bar and what an intolerant place England was. But unfortunately David Oluwale’s was not one of those stories.
Kester Aspden is talking about Nationality: Wog – The Hounding Of David Oluwale at Waterstone’s in Leeds on Tuesday 12 June, 7pm, with Tom Palmer. To reserve a ticket phone 0113 244 4588. The book is published by Jonathan Cape for £12.99 and available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848.
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