Portrait of David Oluwale

Max Farrar, David Oluwale Memorial Association

Journal 9 Jun 2020

As we mourn the death of George Floyd on 25th May 2020 in Minneapolis, USA, we think of the death of David Oluwale on 18th April 1969 in Leeds, UK.

Video evidence proves that police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee onto Mr Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, causing him to die, while three of his colleagues stood by. All four are now on murder charges. We hope that justice will be done in Minneapolis.

In Leeds in 1969, a witness saw two men in police uniform pursue a man down The Calls. Chief Superintendent Perkins concluded these two men were Inspector Ellerker and Sergeant Kitching and that they had murdered David Oluwale. The judge at their trial in 1971 didn’t allow the jury to consider that evidence, so they were acquitted (though convicted of the actual bodily harm of David, and imprisoned for a short time). Justice was hardly done in Leeds.

The David Oluwale Memorial Association is a Leeds charity that aims to support the city of Leeds in its work for equality, multicultural cohesion and social inclusion. It always employs the arts in its effort to remember David Oluwale and to boost all those working with those who, like David, endure homelessness, mental ill-health, racism, and police malpractice, including all those who have migrated to this city. It always employs the arts in its effort to remember David Oluwale, as in the exhibition Rasheed Araeen: For David Oluwale (16 February – 2 June 2019) at The Tetley

At this critical time, when protest has erupted all over the world at the persistence of racism, exemplified in the death of George Floyd, we are mindful of the UK’s own history of colonialism and complicity in slavery.

The USA has witnessed the most forceful of these demonstrations, because it remembers the assassination of the leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s. Medgar Evers was murdered on 12th June 1963. Malcolm X was murdered on 21st February 1965. Martin Luther King was murdered on 4th April 1968.  Two white politicians who supported the struggle for Black people’s rights in the USA, President John F Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, were also assassinated (on 22nd November 1963 and 6th June 1968).

Not only did the killing of those great black leaders inspire protests even larger than we are witnessing today, grief percolated into popular culture. Listen to Marvin Gaye’s Abraham, Martin and John as you read this. Grief, rage and radical politics were channeled into art and jazz, documented in the book Freedom, Rhythm and Sound.

In the UK, David Oluwale was killed shortly after Enoch Powell, a minister in the Conservative government, had issued (on 26th April 1968) his infamous Rivers of Blood speech, inciting hatred of those Black citizens who had been invited to the UK to work in post-war reconstruction.

Resistance to racism was evident all over the UK. The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination was active in Leeds, where the United Caribbean Association was already campaigning. The trial of Ellerker and Kitching in Leeds took place at the same time as members of the London Black Panthers were on trial at the Old Bailey in London. Their ‘crime’? They had organised a protest against police harassment in Notting Hill the year before. (All were acquitted of the main charge, riot.) In Leeds, in July 1976 another major trial took place of black youth accused of riot in Chapeltown on Bonfire Night 1975. Almost all of them were acquitted too, by an all-white jury who believed the defendants, rather than the police.

Leeds has changed immeasurably for the better since those days. But racism remains: in more subtle personal interactions, in specific institutions such as criminal justice and in the workplace  Policing in the UK has improved as well, but 163 people have died in police custody in the past ten years, a disproportionate number of whom (23) are Black, Asian, or Mixed-heritage. Rashan Charles was killed as recently as 2017; the inquest that exonerated his killer was described by his uncle, a retired Inspector of the Met Police, as a ‘farce’.  And ‘driving while black’ still seems to be of special concern to some white officers of the law. If you want to be overwhelmed by statistical data proving what, actually, everyone has known for decades, look at the government’s own audit of what it calls ‘race disparity‘.

Leeds has several examples of campaigning groups that are addressing these issues. Check out the Racial Justice Network and Black Lives Matter (Leeds)  Look at the hub website Leeds for Change for all the racial justice groups in this city.

The David Oluwale Memorial Association is one of these groups. DOMA, like most progressive organisations today, sees ‘race’ and racism intersectionally — inextricable from the underlying structures of gender, class, sexuality and physical ability. We note, therefore, that David’s abjection was the result of his mental ill-health, his homelessness and his destitution as well as his persecution for being a Black migrant.

DOMA sees the arts as one of its main methods of communicating its message and raising consciousness about oppression and discrimination. It subscribes to the ‘arts for social justice’ movement. Artists who performed for the 50th anniversary of David’s killing are described on its website and there are videos of some events on its YouTube channel

The wave of protest over George Floyd’s murder, building on outrage over the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 (which sparked the original Black Lives Matter campaign), and many others up to Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery not long before George Floyd’s will pass, but the issue has hundreds of years of deadly history and it will, unfortunately, not be resolved immediately.

So, in Leeds, we must re-double our struggle to transform the structures of this great city so that it becomes one where everyone is cherished, irrespective of their ethnicity; where everyone is treated equally, irrespective of their status; where diversity is negotiated, respectfully; and the arts, joy and hope flourish.

Max Farrar is Secretary to the David Oluwale Memorial Association.