On September 4, 1907, the East Indian community of Bellingham, Washington, was forced out of town by a mob. According to newspaper accounts, the riot began with the pursuit and beating of two immigrant men, escalated to the destruction of a boardinghouse where East Indian workers resided, and culminated with a round up of East Indians from homes and workplaces.
The crowd drove the immigrants to the train station and to the tide flats outside the town. A number of immigrants sought shelter in the police station. The headlines of The Reveille, Bellingham's morning paper, proclaimed:
Mob Raids Hindus And Drives Them From City
Crowd Numbering 500 Drags Dusky Orientals From Their Homes
While Police Strive in Vain to Restore Order Men Escort Dusky Sons of India to City Limits and Easterners Scurry Panic-Stricken and Half-Clothed Through the Streets
Labor Trouble and Insolence Are Causes
We may never know what truly transpired that night, for the press coverage of the events tells us more about the racism of the media than about the events. The Bellingham newspapers, The Reveille and The Herald, by failing to inform the public, contributed to the ignorance of all. The citizens of Bellingham could not tell a Hindu from their own hindquarters. The 200 immigrant workmen driven out of town were almost entirely Sikhs.
The press failed to ascertain who the immigrants were. The Morning Times of nearby Seattle published the following words in its reaction to the events: "When men who require meat to eat and real beds to sleep in are ousted from their employment to make room for vegetarians ... it is rather difficult to say at what limit indignation ceases to be righteous." Note to American readers--Sikhs are not required to be vegetarians by their religion.
The misidentification of the mob’s victims by the press leads us to question the account of the of membership of the mob itself. Most accounts of the riot identify the mob as working men or working-class men or workmen, who were motivated to put the immigrants out of town because the immigrants were willing to work for especially low wages. Some later writers have suggested the mob drew its membership from the AFL union hall because of the affiliation between that union and the Japanese-Korean Exclusion League. Nevertheless,Werter D. Dodd, the Kipling-quoting reptile who edited The Bellingham Herald, mentions boys and even "a schoolboy" as participants. Despite property damage and a few injuries, no rioters were ever prosecuted. The police did nothing.
Werter D. Dodd wrote, "For good or ill, Bellingham has probably solved for herself the Hindu problem just as she solved the Chinese problem several years ago." Thus, he used the riot to promote the town of Bellingham. Other newspapers throughout the United States picked up the story. Editorial pages poured out racist swill about Hindus into the troughs of the uninformed public. Because the exclusion of East Indians from Bellingham was achieved without loss of life, excessive property damage, or legal proceedings, it became a model for what racists could do in a small town in America.
On the 100th anniversary of the riot, the Bellingham Herald published an apology for its coverage.
This article is a revised and abridged version of an article with the same title that appeared on Triond’s Socyberty website Dec. 29, 2011. The original article includes links to sources and further reading. Find it here: http://socyberty.com/society/when-americans-rioted-against-hindu-immigrants/.