David Oluwale: Two weeks on by Meleri Roberts | Development and Engagement Manager

David Oluwale: Two weeks on by Meleri Roberts | Development and Engagement Manager

‘We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated’

It has been a few weeks now since the theft of David Oluwale’s blue plaque but Maya Angelou’s words seem particularly apt. It is fair to say that for those involved in organising the unveiling, for our friends at David Oluwale Memorial Association and for those who had campaigned for his plaque – every emotion has been felt in these subsequent days – from heartbreak and devastation when reports first emerged of the plaque’s theft, to a sense of pride, love and humility at the incredible response of the city.

It was at 6:50am on the Tuesday morning that Martin and I first heard about the theft, receiving messages from ITV Calendar and BBC Look North to ask if we had authorised the removal of the plaque…or could we confirm that it had indeed, been stolen. A quick dash to Leeds City Centre and a few calls with DOMA Trustees confirmed the news – someone had under the cover of darkness removed David Oluwale’s memorial plaque and stolen it, a plaque with all its symbolism positioned yards away from where he had originally entered the water and tragically died.

West Yorkshire Police were swift to act, three police officers walked with me to Leeds Bridge where they gathered intelligence. We arrived to find a boat skippered by Canal Connections searching the River Aire in vain for David’s plaque.

It was then that the press calls began in earnest – BBC, ITV, The Guardian, The Press Association, a quote and press statement was needed for each. Martin rushed to Leeds Bridge with Robin (his three year old son) in tow. We kept him entertained with Youtube videos of Paw Patrol and Postman Pat whilst dad spoke to Calendar and Look North!

And then something incredible began to emerge, our message on twitter about the plaque’s theft had resonated and shocked the city. Keen to show solidarity many people and businesses (instigated by Manjit’s Kitchen) began to change their profile pictures to David’s Plaque. This started a seed of an idea – if we could appropriate the image of David’s plaque taking its ‘ownership’ away from the thieves and installing it (albeit digitally) back in the city, it would be an act of collective defiance against those who sought to divide us. They may be able to take down a single plaque, but good luck to them taking down hundreds of virtual and digital ones!  

We approached Leeds City Council’s Leadership Team, asking if they could show David’s plaque on the Millennium Square and Kirkgate Market billboards? Councillor Jonathan Pryor was soon on the case – with encouraging news, yes the Council would gladly display the plaque, but more so, JCDecaux the owners of the huge electronic billboards on some of Leeds’s busiest thoroughfares would also like to display the plaque. As they went live we couldn’t help but think that the story of David Oluwale could no longer be ignored.  

In the subsequent weeks our social media pages have received thousands of messages of support – with many notable journalists, such as the BBC’s correspondent in Ukraine Sarah Rainsford, academics, such as House Through Time presenter, David Olusoga, and many many thousands of Leeds residents each sharing and highlighting David’s life, legacy, and the city’s response to the theft.

It has also been humbling to read the many emails and messages which have arrived at the Trust.  Many have shared that they hadn’t heard David’s story before but were now discussing issues around his life such as; homelessness, racism, and mental ill-health with their families and friends. 

As moral and kind support flooded in (including the thoughtful delivery of flowers to the Trust) so too did financial support with over £3,500 being raised in four days from over 200 donors via a hastily arranged crowdfunding page, with proceeds going towards the cost of a new, more secure, plaque as well as a dedicated cctv camera which will monitor the plaque 24 hours a day.        

And still the campaign continues. David’s plaque has now been displayed on Leeds Playhouse’s huge screen – facing the now demolished Millgarth police station where former-Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching would have planned their sadistic taunts and beatings.

Opera North, the Henry Moore Institute, the Universities, North Brewing Company, have also proudly displayed David’s plaque on their digital billboards. Andy McVeigh, aka, the Burley Banksy has also painted one of his telephone boxes to remember David Oluwale.

As this city-wide response has grown, we noticed that each show of solidarity, no matter how large or small help amplify David’s story. Leeds based Awesome Merchandise have kindly donated stickers of David Oluwale’s plaque – these are available to pick up at Welcome Skateboards, Thornton Arcade, and Colour May Vary at the Corn Exchange but be quick as they are running out as soon as new ones arrive.  

A special article in The Observer followed, and at one point, David’s story was the 7th most read article on the national BBC News website. Dr Emily Zobel Marshall and I were interviewed by Sanchez Payne on BBC Radio Leeds to mark and reflect on a fortnight since the plaques theft – a cathartic experience after such an emotional few weeks.    

Throughout, the police and the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Alison Lowe, have been hugely supportive and tenacious in their efforts to capture the criminals behind this theft culminating in the arrest of three males.

Speaking to Dr Emily Zobel Marshall from DOMA about the theft and its subsequent impact, she memorably said ‘You can remove the plaque, but you can’t silence the message’, and I hope through our interventions and through the city’s amazing collective condemnation we are finally ready to confront David’s death and to honour him as a true Yorkshire-Nigerian man who was wronged in the most tragic of ways and continue to grow and learn from his legacy.

Meleri Roberts
Development & Engagement Manager

If you’d like to read some of the articles or listen/view some of the interviews, please see the links below.

The BBC (1hr 15mins in)

The Guardian



Owl illustration
Flowers illustration footer