Clearing out Hindoos in 1907 Berkeley
White residents asked police to drive out South Asian neighbors
South Asian workers started moving into Berkeley, California in the early 1900s. Their White neighbors immediately started trying to push them out, demanding that “coolies and Hindoos be cleared out of West Berkeley” with the help of police. When the police refused to kick them out, neighbors instigated a mass arrest.
(As far as we know, most of these men were Sikh. “Hindoo” was a generic term used at the time to refer to all South Asians.)
1. “Fear Outbreak Against Hindoos”
On December 5, 1907, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:
Close watch is being kept by the police to prevent the outbreak of disturbances in West Berkeley as a result of the opposition that has developed there against the three Hindu colonies. Chief Vollmer has declined to take action against foreigners unless they violate the law, and this has not mitigated the strong feelings against the Orientals.The police will take all necessary steps to prevent any attack upon the foreigners.
The South Asian men were employed by local businesses, living in shared housing in West Berkeley, and working to assimilate into the neighborhood:
The Hindus are employees of various street-grading firms in the city and Oakland.The occupy three portable houses, recently erected in the neighborhood of Sixth and Grayson streets, while a fourth body of them is opening a lodging house near the Southern Pacific tracks. Many of them dressed in their native costume, though others have adopted the American garb.
But despite the community racism, the police publicly stated they had no reason to intervene:
Even this fact has not lessen the animosity of the Americans, and the police are fearful that open trouble will will break out if the Hindoos persist in maintaining a local residence. Following the complaints, Chief Vollmer ordered an investigation, only to learn that the Orientals were law-abiding citizens. He therefore declined to interfere, claiming he had no jurisdiction.
2. “Hindoos Create a Disturbance”
But despite all the language about “prevent[ing] any attack upon the foreigners,” the police quickly found the excuse they needed to intervene.
Just four days later, when one of the South Asian men apparently started a fight in the back yard, the police descended — arresting 14 South Asian men late at night, none of whom were apparently responsible for starting the fight.
On December 9, 1907, the Chronicle reported:
Upon the complaints of several of the residents of the neighborhood of Grayson Avenue and Seventh streets in West Berkeley, where a small colony of Hindoos has recently located, the police took fourteen of the beturbaned strangers into custody for disturbing the peace and lodged them in the police station.
The arrests took place after White neighbors started demanding that “the coolies and Hindoos be cleared out of West Berkeley”:
Feeling has been running high as a result of the mixture of the races in this section of West Berkeley, and the police have had the Hindoos and their white neighbors under surveillance since the filing of a petition with Marshal Vollmer requesting that the coolies and Hindoos be cleared out of West Berkeley.
The neighbors quickly called in the police to respond to Hindoo-on-Hindoo violence:
It appears, however, that the trouble arose to a large extent among the Hindoos themselves. The complainants allege that they were fighting in the back yard of the two little portable house occupied by them on Grayson street and creating a disturbance generally.
The police arrested fourteen immigrant men—none of whom were responsible for the fight that was used as an excuse for mass arrests:
The police station, however, it was found almost impossible, due to the lack of an interpreter, to place the responsibility. A Bengalee, who had been in the British Army and wore an Indian Regiment fatigue jacket, gave his name as Moolah Singh, and promised to give the name of the man what started the trouble. As no clear charge had been placed against the rest of the fourteen, all released at an early hour this morning.The police are now seeking the man named in the complaint of Moolah Singh.
Unlike present-day “post-racial” silence, the San Francisco Chronicle clearly names “bitter racial antagonism” in Berkeley:
It it is thought that future trouble probably will arise, as there is a bitter racial antagonism apparent in the relations between the people of the district. How far the complaints made were dictated by this is not known, but the police department is watching conditions closely in order to frustrate any possible chance of trouble arising between the Hindoos and the residents of neighborhood.
3. The story doesn’t end
These events aren’t a surprise. Berkeley has a bitter history of redlining and structural White racism, and Black and Chinese community members faced significant hostility.
These are the the only two newspaper stories I found about South Asians in West Berkeley in 1907. I don’t know how this story ends—though I do know racially biased policing didn’t end in 1907.
It continues on in so many ways, from a brutal response to a pool party to the mass incarceration of African Americans and Latino/as, to Bay Area police trainings like Urban Shield, where Berkeley police practice attacking machete-wielding Middle Eastern terrorists.
At many points throughout our history, and sometimes still today, South Asian Americans have been targeted by racist and anti-immigrant targeting and policing.
Is this an inconvenient truth to be hidden away, or an opportunity for empathy and solidarity, knowing that we’ve sometimes been there as well?
- “Fear Outbreak Against Hindoos: Berkeley Police Keep a Close Watch to Prevent Race Conflict.” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 Dec. 1907, p. 13.
- “Hindoos Create a Disturbance: Trouble Arises Among Races in the Factory Section of Berkeley.” San Francisco Chronicle, 9 Dec. 1907, p. 4.