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In Britain not everyone is equal in the eyes of the law

Sarah Reed was found dead in her prison cell. Lee Jasper/Twitter

Her death should have been front-page news. Instead it was left to racial equality campaigners in the UK and US to get Sarah Reed’s story out there.

Sarah had previously been the victim of police brutality and suffered from severe mental health issues after the death of her baby in 2003. She had been in and out of secure mental health units for several years before her death in her cell at London’s Holloway prison earlier this year.

It is not the first time questions about the “care” of people with serious mental illness have been raised. And it won’t be the last. That it happened in the UK in 2016 raises some serious concerns about the criminal justice system and the institutional racism faced by black Britons today.

The first successful prosecution of British police officers for the involvement in the death of a black person was in November 1971, when two Leeds police officers received short criminal sentences for their involvement in the death of a homeless Nigerian migrant, David Oluwale, who drowned in Leeds in the 1960s after years of abuse and “hounding” by police.

Oluwale was last seen alive on the night of April 17 1969, being beaten by police officers in Leeds. Two weeks later his body was pulled out of the River Aire. A subsequent investigation revealed the horror of Oluwale’s treatment in the lead up to his death at the hands of the police. It led to the first conviction for a police-related death in custody — the two police officers were found guilty of assault.

David Oluwale, a British Nigerian who drowned in the River Aire in Leeds.

This case was seen as a source of guilt for Leeds, so although Oluwale’s story caused a national scandal at the time, it had been all but been forgotten until police paperwork detailing the case was declassified under the 30-year rule and a book was written about his life.

Unheard voices

Oluwale left his native Nigeria in 1949 and arrived as a stowaway in Hull. He spent the next 20 years between factory work, prison cells, psychiatric wards, and the streets of central Leeds.

Over-medication and electroshock therapy during extended stays in Menston Mental Hospital left him, by the 1960s, a weakened figure. Someone whose friends felt had lost his old spirit and who no longer smiled, danced or stood up for himself as he once had done.

It was during this period that police officers Geoffrey Elleker and Kenneth Kitching intensified their campaign of violence against him. As court papers show, it was “well known at Millgarth Station that if ever Oluwale was sighted within the town a message had to be passed through for them to go out and deal with him”.

During such “dealings”, Ellerker admitted, he liked to “tickle” Oluwale with his boot; his fellow officers would later confirm that such “tickles” were kicks, and could be hard enough to lift the Nigerian into the air. By May 1969, after decades of incarceration and institutional abuse, Oluwale was hounded from Leeds for one final time.

Knostrop Weir, River Aire where the body of David Oluwale was found. Dr Neil Clifton/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

On May 4 1969, the body of Oluwale was discovered face-down in Knostrop Weir, close to Leeds’ main sewage works. Although it remains unclear how he ended up in the River Aire, investigations by Scotland Yard found enough evidence to initially bring a case of manslaughter against the two officers.

At trial, the defence presented Oluwale as “a miniature Mr Universe,” “a savage animal” who “could take more punishment than Cassius Clay”.

After the judge directed them to lesser charges, the jury returned unanimous verdicts of guilty on four counts of assault for Ellerker and three for Kitching.

‘Black super strength’

To place Oluwale’s ordeal into wider history is to recognise that it was neither isolated nor the work of two “black sheep”, a phrase Ellerker and Kitching’s judge resorted to when summing up. But it is also to open a larger wound, reinforcing the need to confront the city’s violent past.

We might want to tell ourselves that such racist cliches of “black super-strength” belong firmly in the past, with casual and commonplace extremism now thankfully behind us. But recent events in the United States suggest otherwise. The Black Lives Matter movement has shown how American police officers, repeatedly resort to racist images of “super-strength” to justify the most flagrant violence against individual African Americans.

Black Lives Matter protest in California. Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Over recent years, it has become apparent that the lessons of Oluwale’s life and death resonate far and wide, finding echoes even in places, which many would regard as more metropolitan and multicultural than 1960s Leeds.

But as the tragic death of Reed shows, these lessons still need to be learned. And it is only by remembering those lives lost and being mindful of such violence, that the need to move beyond it shapes our vision of the very different place we want to live in now.

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