Friday, October 28, 2011

Kester Aspden - The Hounding of David Oluwale

Rarely do I read a book that leaves me quite so upset and angry. The life of David Oluwale should really  have been a footnote in history. Like many Commonwealth citizens in the 1950s and 60s, he came to the UK as an immigrant, firmly believing no doubt, that the mother-country would provide a life and work for him. Oluwale arrived as a stowaway and eventually worked in a succession of different jobs, ending up in Leeds. Many of his contemporaries did this and ended up living successful, if unnoteworthy lives.

What marks Oluwale's life out though, is the manner of his death. Kester Aspden has pieced together the little that is known of his life - through interviews with surviving friends and acquaintances, detailed researches in the archives and newspapers of the time. In the early 1950s, Oluwale was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Care was primitive, treatment limited and brutal, involving electroconvulsive therapy. Oluwale left hospital a decade later a changed man. Unable to hold down work, his life increasingly seems to have become dominated by rough sleeping, drugs and alcohol. He also attracted the attention of the police.

Two officers in particular seem to have taken a personal dislike to Oluwale. Following a number of violent incidents when David bit and fought back, they seem to have deliberately targeted him. Asking fellow officers to alert them if he was seen, hunting him down, "hounding" him. One police officer reported, while a witness in their later trial that he'd seen one officer urinating on Oluwale, while he slept in a doorway. The other held the torch. To the policement concerned, Oluwale was a piece of rubbish. Something that littered the night-time streets of Leeds. Somebody to be moved on, harassed and beaten. He was, as they described in the nationality section of two charges sheets, merely a "wog". Oluwale was clearly violent, though given the abuse, its not surprising that he didn't fight back to try and resist being taken into a police vehicle where he might repeatedly bang his head, or be kicked in the groin. On one occasion Officers Kitching and Ellerker drove Oluwale for 40 minutes into the countryside, leaving him in a forest. What was going through the man's head during those minutes as they drove him far away cannot be imagined.

Yet others didn't see him as violent. Several shopkeepers describe how he was not violent in the slightest when they moved him away from their doors. Others saw him as gentle, if excitable and frustrated. An ambulance worker who knew him seems to have genuinely liked Oluwale.

Aspden's book brings to life a forgotten era in our recent history. The 1950s and 1960s were not easy times, economically or socially. Racism was rife, it was a long time before public institutions would acknowledge the need to combat it. The words of Enoch Powell had a hearing from large sections of the populations. The small number of immigrants were blamed for job losses and social problems.

Certainly there was a level of acceptable racism. The police force was then, as now, a notable hotbed of backward attitudes and racism. It seems that many of the colleagues of Kitching and Ellerker believed that they were guilty of Oluwales' death. Abusing him one last time and either pushing him, or causing him to jump to his death in the Aire River. No one seems to have spoken out, until one young policeman asked a few awkward questions.

Aspden's book is not really about the search for some belated justice. What he has tried to do, is to reconstruct a difficult and forgotten past to better illuminate our own history and ask pertinent questions. What is it about a society were a man can fall so far down, that no-one seriously attempts to help him? How can a man, repeatedly end up in front of the courts, without another section of society trying to understand why? How can police officers, who regularly saw violence against a member of the public, not speak out, nor intervene, despite their personal disgust?

Social justice, if it is to mean anything, should be for everyone. But in the Oluwale case, institutionalised stigmas and racism, a culture of violence and apathy towards those at the bottom of society, conspired to culminate years of abuse into murder.

The consequences were limited, but there were changes. The Leeds police's credibility was damaged beyond repair - the force was merged a few years later. Leeds United fans chanted "Never Trust the Leeds Police - Ol-u-wa-a-le" at the coppers in the football ground. When Ellerker and Kitching were released from prison (not for Oluwale's murder it should be said) they were shunned by their colleagues. In particular, the trade unionists at Ellerker's new workplace tried to prevent him joining their union. This reaction was not the end of racism, but it demonstrates a new era of solidarity growing. Oluwale's death highlighted injustice and was a small part in the further demonisation of racism that still needs to be done today.

Aspden's book is an amazing read. Few books have made me gasp out loud in shock and anger. Few non-fiction works make me cry like this. I urge you to read it. But it made me think too. Oluwale slipped through a social security net that barely existed. In the 1950s no one cared about mentally ill black people. Today, things are better, though there are still inequalities in the way that black people are treated by the mental-health system. Police racism still exists, as does corruption and cover-up.

But we have won some changes. Health care for the vulnerable is far better than 60 years ago. The police cannot get away with everything as they used to think they could. But what of the future? What happens if the NHS is further eroded by the Tories. What if funding is further cut for the most vulnerable in society? What then for those who end up on the streets, unable to escape a cycle of violence and poverty, finding themselves at the end of a racist coppers truncheon?

Further Reading

A far better review than mine of "The Hounding of David Oluwale" is here in Socialist Worker from 2007. An interview with the author was also published in the same edition. It can be found here.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Those are big questions about where our world will go next; where we will let it, or where we will force it to go.

Sad, too, is the fact that David Oluwale was not the only one to whom this happened, and that such things still happen today.