Why art and culture can keep alive the memory of social injustices like David Oluwale - Anthony Clavane

David Oluwale who was "hounded to his death" by police in Leeds in 1969.

I popped into Leeds Beckett University earlier this week to make a short film about a sporting conference and I ended up, once again, talking about David Oluwale.

Back in the early 1970s I remember Leeds United fans singing about Oluwale to the tune of Michael, Row the Boat Ashore. “The River Aire is chilly and deep, Oluwale,” the Kop chorused. “Never trust the Leeds police, Oluwale.”

This was quite something coming from a support base not noted, back then, for its championing of anti-racist causes.

I can also recall the graffiti “Remember Oluwale” suddenly appearing on a blackened wall in huge white letters and achieving folkloric status.

Some of the university’s students have been involved in the making of Rowenna Baldwin’s short documentary We Are All Migrants, which recently won a prize at the Hebden Bridge film festival.

It weaves together a number of stories, including the notorious tale of Oluwale’s death. “There was no real joy about the story,” begins the trailer for the documentary. “Somebody died,” a woman points out. “How do you turn that into a carnival?”

How indeed. And yet, almost two years ago, as Baldwin engagingly shows, Leeds West Indian Carnival succeeded in transforming this truly appalling incident – one of the most shameful moments in the city’s post-war history – into a joyous cultural event.

And in the past few weeks a number of artists and performers have been taking part in events to mark the fifty years since David, a mentally-unstable, Nigerian-born vagrant, was discovered face down in the River Aire.

One of many immigrants seeking a better life in post-colonial Britain, he died, at the age of 38, after being chased along the waterfront by two police officers. An inquiry revealed he had been the victim of horrific, systematic, police brutality.

Ever since I researched my first book, Promised Land, ten years ago and came across Kester Aspden’s award-winning opus on the subject, I have been having conversations about David Oluwale. This, I guess, is why the arts are so important in keeping alive the memory of social injustices.

Aspden’s The Hounding of David Oluwale was adapted into a moving stage play, which was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse. There was also a wonderful short story on David in Caryl Phillips’ Foreigners: Three English Lives.

Last month there was a poetry event with Jackie Kay, Zaffar Kunial and Ian Duhig, a talk by the great Linton Kwesi Johnson and a gathering at Oluwale’s grave, in Killingbeck Cemetery, featuring songs and speeches.

There is also an ongoing display at The Tetley by the artist Rasheed Araeen, which comprises six photographic panels; earlier this week several writers delivered a piece about their chosen items in the exhibition.

And next month a piece of stunning physical theatre, looking at deaths in police custody, institutional racism and mental health, arrives at Sheffield’s Theatre Deli. Entitled Freeman, it threads together a number of American and British stories from the past – including Oluwale’s – and asks: has anything really changed?

The answer, according to its director Corey Campbell, is no. “As an individual who has been a victim of racial profiling,” said Campbell, “wrongfully accused by the justice system, with friends and family who have suffered from poor mental health, and as a member of the black community myself, the statistics and information we found are both relevant and frightening.”

Last year, according to the official police watchdog, there was a rise in the proportion of ethnic minority people who had died after police use of force or restraint. And a report undertaken by the MP David Lammy for the government found clear evidence of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

It is tempting to dismiss the hounding of Oluwale as the product of a dark period of our history. But, fifty years after David’s death, racial hostility – particularly to migrants – remains an endemic feature of British life.

“We want to turn his story around,” says Max Farrar, secretary of the David Oluwale Memorial Association.

“In place of his de-humanisation, we want to inspire hope and determination for change. These artists do this for us each time they create and perform.”

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