As the argument over whether the August riots were purely criminal or a revolt by disaffected youths continues to smoulder, an article in the latest edition of the journal Race and Class looks back at an event 36 years ago that sparked a similar debate.
On September 28 1975 three black men held up the Knightsbridge branch of the Spaghetti House restaurant chain at gunpoint. Four hundred police officers were immediately deployed to the scene and the three bundled the nine Italian staff into a back storeroom. There they remained for five days, with the veteran anti-racist campaigner and Somers Town GP David Pitt acting as a go between on behalf of the police. After five days, the hostages were released unharmed.
Although their intention was to rob the weekly takings, during the standoff they put out a statement in the name of the Black Liberation Army. Nevertheless, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Robert Mark insisted that this was an “ordinary armed robbery with no racial or political connotation”.
But to press their point home, the men staged a protest at the beginning of their trial, turning their backs on the judge IRA-style and only returning to the dock for the verdict and sentence – 17, 18 and 21 years each.
In her article, Jenny Bourne, editor of Race and Class, attempts to explain their actions against the backdrop of the 1970s, when a proliferation of radical black groups sprang up to the confront pervasive racism and police oppression of the day, using the rhetoric of the US Black Power movement.
Like many young men who joined the ranks of such political parties, the three “lived their politics all the time”. Franklyn Davies, 28, who had already served time in prison for armed robbery, had tried to join liberation fighters in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Anthony Bonsu Munroe, 22 and a nephew of the actress Carmen Munroe, ran a supplementary school, and Wesley Dick, 24, who had been previously remanded for stealing a book from Foyles, attended the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania in 1974. “The three simply tried to turn rhetoric into reality,” she notes of the siege.
While many black people were keen to put their actions into a social context, calling on the government to act on the high unemployment, poor education and housing in the black community, others dismissed the three as criminals looking for “easy money” and deplored them for giving “black politics a bad name”.
It is one of the main reasons that the Spaghetti House siege has never been a part of black folklore, believes Bourne. After the men’s release nothing more was heard of them and all three are believed to have died prematurely.
Although she acknowledges that the siege was never intended to be anything more than a hold up, she insists that the “division between the criminal and the political is specious”.
“For many young black people at that time on the margins of education, the margins of work, the margins of family life, the margins of housing everything was about hustling. Hustling was about making money wherever you could. And whether that money went to fund you personally or to fund ‘the movement’ politically was a close call. “There was also a strong school of thought that so much had been stolen from black people through slavery, that it was now their right to claim some back,” she says.
Bourne focuses on Wesley Dick, whom she knew personally from his days as a volunteer at the Institute of Race Relations, publishers of Race and Class. Dick, who later renamed himself Shujaa Moshesh, continued his political resistance during his 12 years in the country’s top security prisons, not only campaigning for his own rights but for those of other prisoners, losing many months of remission as a result. An avid reader, he studied for an Open University degree and became an accomplished poet. After his release in 1988, he traveled to Africa, where he died in a swimming accident.
Bourne says that she decided to write the piece after being contacted by BBC Radio 4 about its plans to base an episode of its The Reunion series on the siege. “I had to tell them that it was not possible as the three men were no longer around,” she said. “But it was clear that the BBC were only interested in a Robert Mark version of events and I wanted to set the record straight.”
Wesley Dick’s regular visits to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) offices and library in King’s Cross in the 1970s were a signal that it had successfully broken free of its establishment roots to become a radical anti-racist think tank.
Set up in 1958 as an arm of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, it carried out research into race relations in the colonies and ex-colonies from its Mayfair offices.
Deepening racial tensions at home forced a shift in focus, creating acrimony between staff and the IRR’s board. “It was an elitist and colonialist set up,” remembers Jenny Bourne, who joined the IRR 41 years ago as a researcher. “We wanted to reflect the racism of the state but the board included people from the House of Lords and multinational corporations who were completely out of touch with the membership.”
In 1972, after months of internal wrangling, the IRR elected a new board to reflect the changed parameters. Among the new members was Trinidadian-born trade unionist and writer John La Rose, founder of New Beacon Books in Stroud Green Road, Islington.
“We threw in our lot with the victims of racism, which is why people like Shujaa [Wesley Dick] would visit us. We were no longer seen as a part of the government,” explains Bourne.
After 12 years in the more humble surrounds of Pentonville Road, the IRR moved to its present premises in Leeke St, which it was able to buy with the help of the Greater London Council.
Today, it sees itself at the “cutting edge” of research and analysis that “informs the struggle for racial justice”. “We concentrate on the harshest and crudest aspects of racism worldwide, literally the racism that kills,” says Bourne.