Today, 3rd October 2020, marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Black Liberation Army’s six-day armed siege at the Spaghetti House restaurant, Knightsbridge.
In the early hours of Sunday, 28th September, the nine Italian staff of the restaurant chain had gathered together to collect weekly takings that estimated between £11,000 – £13,000, when three men – Franklin Davies, a 28-year-old Nigerian student, Wesley Dick (aka Shujaa Moshesh), a 24-year-old West Indian, and Anthony “Bonsu” Munroe, a 22-year-old Guyanese – burst in and, at gunpoint, instructed the staff to relocate down to a small basement storeroom. In the dim lights of the restaurant and the choas that ensued during the break-in, the general manager managed to escape via a rear fire escape and immediately alerted the police, who quickly arrived on the scene and cordoned off the area. Alerted to a police presence on the ground floor of the restaurant, the three gunmen barricaded themselves inside the well-stocked storeroom and informed the police that they would shoot the hostages if the police made any further approach.
Franklin Davies was known to the police, having previously served time in prison for armed robbery, but to their surprise he informed them that he was a serving captain in the Black Liberation Front (the BLF), before adding in further communiques a somewhat contradictory statement that the three were in fact revolutionaries in the Black Liberation Army, an underground splinter group of the Black Panthers. Concerned that they were dealing with a terrorist incident rather than a common or garden armed heist gone wrong, the officers of the Met inquired of Davies if his group had any demands to make. Davies replied with a series of demands; he demanded that two black prisoners be released from prison (though, somewhat embarrassingly it was revealed that the two men had in fact already been released) and he demanded that Roy Jenkins, the then Home Secretary of the Labour government should attend siege. He also demanded an aircraft be made available for their getaway to the West Indies and that a radio be made available for them to listen to the news broadcasts of their situation. Of all the demands, only this last one was met.
By this stage, Sir Robert Mark, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had decreed that his force should treat the incident as a criminal act, rather than a political terrorist action against capitalism and racial oppression. “From the outset it was rightly assumed that this was a simple armed robbery that had gone wrong and any attempts by Davies, the Nigerian, to represent it as a political act were received with the derision they clearly deserved” Mark later wrote. This stubborn stance would perhaps explain why the offer to mediate by Tony Soares, one of the founder of the BLF and someone who knew all three men personally, was rejected by the Met.
However, it later came to light that the Met had used fairly new and then state-of-the-art live surveillance technology. Two miniature fibre-optic cameras were fed into the basement storeroom via a wall and a vent, enabling officers to monitor the actions and conversations of the three men and and hostages. More, a police psychiatrist, Dr Peter Scott, was also on hand, advising officers on the state of the men’s minds and how best to navigate the ongoing negotiations. He believed that the longer the seige went on, the less harm was likely to come to the hostages and that the best tactic for the police was to keep communicating, be patient and remain calm. Further dirty tricks were employed via relations with the news media who keenly operated some ‘black propaganda’ on behalf of the Met. Having provided Davies, Dick and Munroe with a radio, the police now leant on the media to demoralise the three men with reports which took the view that their situation was hopeless and that surrender was the only viable option. The Daily Express were also keen to co-operate, publishing a front page photograph of Davies, identifying him as the ringleader and suggesting that several associates of the men had come forward with information or were captured. At all times, the media were asked to focus on the criminal, rather than the political, aspects of the case. But it’s surely a lot of fuss to go to for a simple botched robbery? Surely Sir Robert Mark, like Shakespeare’s lady player in Hamlet, doth protest too much?
Outside, friends and associates of the men believed that the motivation behind their deeds erred towards the political rather than the criminal. Tony Soares was at pains to point out that the BLF were a peaceful group who did not know of or support the robbery, but was clearly moved enough to want to help negotiations between Davies and the police. Jenny Bourne, the co-editor of Race & Class, knew all three men and believed each held different motives for the robbery, adding that Dick in particular had been influenced by Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Bobby Seeale and George Jackson, and spurred into action by the actualities of racism on the ground in Britain. Some had more luck as go-betweens; the Italian consul general, Mario Manca, offered his services as a liaison and even offered to take the place of one of his fellow Italians held hostage in the basement, but to no avail. The former chair of the GLC, the West-Indian born Lord Pitt also also attempted to negotiate, but he too had limited success.
Fifteen hours into the siege, on the morning of 29th September, a 59-year-old hostage was released as a sign of good faith. On the second day, another hostage was released following complaints of ill health. Though the situation inside the stockroom was tense, one hostage, Giovanni Scrano, had managed to cut through the atmosphere enough to forge an unlikely bond with Davies.
At 2:55 am on the morning of October 3rd, the gunmen turned out the lights and began a discussing their next move. At 3:40 am they told the police that they were going to give themselves up. They released the remaining hostages into the care of Commander Christopher Payne who ensured each were escorted to hospital for check-ups. He then ordered the three gunmen to vacate the premises. Dick and Munroe proceeded to threw out their guns and The first two threw their guns out and followed suit but, as police led them away, a gunshot rang out from the storeroom. Davies had shot himself in the stomach with a .22 rimfire revolver. The police arrived at the scene to find him seriously wounded and discovered a note, written to his brother, in his pocket. It read;
“Today I set out on a mission for the people. If things go wrong I shall pass over to the warrior’s rest. So if this note reaches you, it would mean that I am dead. You must accept what happens to me as it should be accepted—with joy—because it is the most natural fate that awaits any of us blacks conscious enough to try and do something about our pathetic state of existence”
Rushed to hospital, Davies underwent an operation to remove the bullet which proved unsuccessful. He was later placed on remand, where he staged a hunger strike. Scrano, the hostage who had befriended Davies during the siege, paid several visits to him in gaol, thereby scuppering his opportunity to testify against him in court as it was decreed he was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. The trial itself commenced on 8 June 1976. Davies, Dick and Munroe each refused to accept the legitimacy of the court, turning their backs to the proceedings and talking among themselves. When asked how they pleaded to the charges, Davies shouted “We’ve stopped pleading—we’ve been pleading for 500 years. This isn’t a trial—it’s a lynching party.” The judge Mervyn Griffith-Jones instructed them to be returned to their cells and that a not guilty plea be entered on their behalf. The three men turned their backs on the court and talked between themselves. Lillo Termaine, one of the thhree accomplices also standing trial, pleaded guilty to the charges of conspiracy to rob the restaurant. The police, eager to continue to paint the whole affair as a criminal act, claimed that it was Termaine who had masterminded the robbery as a mean to pay off his gambling debts. The trial concluded on 30th June with Davies, Dick and Munroe sentenced to 22, 18 and 17 years in prison respectively. Termaine was given six years whilst one accomplices was acquitted and another, Samuel Addison, the getaway driver who fled the scene once he realised the robbery had gone wrong, was sent for re-trial, being found guilty and sentenced to eleven years some five months later. Davies, Dick and Munroe all died after being released from prison, two of them at relatively young ages; Dick having left the UK for Africa, where he changed his name to changed his name to Shujaa Moshesh.
In 1976, the acclaimed Trinidadian-born writer and filmmaker Horace Ové wrote the play A Hole in Babylon, based on the events at the restaurant. Two years later it was broadcast by the BBC as a Play For Today starring T-Bone Wilson, Trevor Thomas and Archie Pool. Some years ago, I uploaded the play to my YouTube channel and you can view it here (Edit: actually you can’t now because the BBC launched a copyright claim which meant YouTube took it down)