News

A History of Hate

For more than a century, Sikhs have faced suspicion and violence

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The 1907 episode in a seaside timber town in Washington came to be known as the Bellingham Riots. Really, though, there were no riots.

There was a pogrom.

At the time, the United States was suffering through deep economic distress, a panic-filled recession that had begun the year before. Angry anti-immigrant sentiment was ascendant. And hundreds of Sikh men who had traveled from India to Bellingham to toil in the lumber mills paid the price.

Some 500 white men, many of them members of the local Asiatic Exclusion League, descended on the Sikhs and other South Asians, routing them from the bunkhouses where they roomed and chasing them into the streets. Within hours, the entire Sikh population of Bellingham had fled, frantically piling onto trains and boats in search of some sort of refuge. Many had been physically battered.

I knew nothing about this incident until I visited Washington this spring and met with members of the Sikh community there. For them, it was easy to draw at least some parallels between that century-old ugliness and recent events. Immigrants were again being demonized. Lost jobs were fueling white working-class despair and resentment. Hate crimes were reported to be up. Yelling, “Get out of my country!” a gunman had shot two Indian software engineers in an Applebee’s restaurant in Kansas. Closer to home, in Kent, a suburb of Seattle, a man had shot a Sikh in an apparent hate crime.

A few weeks after the shooting, on a gray March day, I met Hira Singh Bhullar at a café in Kent. “The shooting happened four or five blocks from here,” he said,  gesturing in the direction of the crime scene with his finger.

Bhullar, who works in the IT department at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, was shaken. He’d lived for a time in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He never felt entirely safe there, always worried that somebody would accost or attack him.

But Bhullar had never felt threatened in Washington. Sure, some racists had posted mean comments on his Facebook page when he ran for the Kent City Council. Still, he didn’t take that kind of internet obnoxiousness too seriously. Now, though, things seemed different. He worried about what seemed to him to be a metastasizing meanness toward immigrants and members of minority religions.

Persecution is something Sikhs know well. Their faith began with the teachings of Guru Nanak, born to a peasant family in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, an area that stretches from eastern Pakistan to the northwest edge of India. Nanak’s message was decidedly oppositional, challenging the authority of the region’s two dominant religions, Hinduism  and Islam; some scholars compare Nanak’s spiritual revolution to Christianity’s protestant reformation, which was unfolding in Europe at the same time.

Equality—between man and woman, preacher and congregant, ruler and serf, high-born and the untouchable—was central to Nanak’s theology. What has developed over the past 500 years is a monotheistic faith with a heavy emphasis on social justice. Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, make a point of feeding anyone who needs a meal.

Of course, not everyone appreciated his teachings. Early Sikh gurus, or prophets, were tortured to death by the region’s rulers.

There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, many in New York and California. In recent years, Yuba City, California, a small city in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, has become a major hub for Sikhs—Yuba City’s annual Nagar Kirtan parade, a key holy event, draws as many as 150,000 people from around the world.

In the United States, Sikhs are a frequent target for xenophobes and haters. They are often immigrants or the children of immigrants. They tend to have brown skin. And their garb and personal grooming practices set them apart. Following the directives of the gurus, observant male Sikhs do not cut their hair—ever—and many keep their locks covered by a turban whenever they leave the house. They also typically refrain from shaving, often growing robust beards.

Initially, the look was intended to distinguish Sikhs from the adherents of other religions. But in America, the bulk of the populace knows little to nothing about Sikhism, so they see a person with a turban and assume he’s a Hindu or a Muslim.

For a multitude of reasons, there are no credible statistics regarding the number of hate crimes directed at Sikhs each year. But it is not hard to appreciate the very real fact of those crimes. Talk to a member of the faith. They’ll likely know of an incident. They for sure will know of their history of victimization. They might have a personal connection that explains the threat they feel at this moment.

A.C. Thompson covers criminal justice issues for ProPublica. Read his entire story online, including profiles of hurt and worry and resilience at http://www.propublica.org.
Cascadia Weekly’s article on the Sikh expulsion was originally published in 2007.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License, ©2017 ProPublica

Arch of Healing Project

Bellingham has a long history of immigrants traveling through on their way up and down the West Coast. Many have settled here and have made significant contributions to the community, but the community hasn’t always been a welcoming place for immigrants. Chinese, Indian and Japanese immigrants, in particular, were targeted and forcibly removed from the city in 1885, 1907 and 1942.

The Arch of Healing and Reconciliation is planned as a monument to honor the immigrants to the Pacific Northwest from China, India, and Japan, and in recognition of all immigrants who have come to America since the 1800s, seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families through hard work and determination.

The concept for an Arch of Healing and Reconciliation began on the 100th anniversary of the 1907 “Riots” targeting Indian immigrants. As the Whatcom County Council issued a proclamation commemorating the events and apologizing for the government’s role in the violence, members of the county’s Sikh community began thinking about ways to memorialize the immigrant pioneers.

The Lynden Sikh Temple provided funding in 2013 to commission a documentary, We’re Not Strangers about the history of the Bellingham Riots of 1907.

Soon the dialogue grew to include local Chinese and Japanese community members to make this Arch a shared memorial for immigrants from India, China and Japan.

The committee drafted a vision to install a Red Granite Arch structure named Arch of Healing and Reconciliation. The proposal was well received by the Bellingham City Council, the City Arts Commission and the City Parks Board with unanimous approval.
Whatcom Community Foundation has also provided support and collaboration.

For more information and to make a donation, go to http://www.archofhealing.org

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