The angry mobs entered Chinatown and went door-to-door, rounding up Chinese immigrants and herding hundreds of them down to the docks.
But the mobs of white workers, who blamed Chinese immigrants for the poor economy, didn’t have enough money to pay the fares for all the passengers to ship them away by boat.
A tense standoff ensued. Shots rang out. By the next day, most of the Chinese who had been rounded up had left – driven away by a climate of intense hatred and fear.
This week marks the 126th anniversary of that piece of Seattle’s history – or as linguist Noam Chomsky might call it, unhistory.
Seattle’s Chinese expulsion riots of 1886 have only been commemorated publicly twice, including last year in an emotional march organized by activist Bettie Luke.
When President Obama met with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, he said good relations with China benefit the whole world. But fear of China–in fact, the exact kind of blaming of outsiders for American’s economic woes that prompted the 1886 riots–persists.
Look at this campaign ad by Michigan congressman Pete Hoekstra. An Asian-looking woman bicycles through a rice paddy, then stops and looks at the camera. She smiles and taunts the viewer, in broken English, about American jobs and money sent over to China.
To this day, the United States has never officially apologized for the draconian Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, which explicitly denied rights to Chinese people for decades. Luke says activists in Seattle are pressuring local legislators to support a resolution of regret for the laws.
While the US government eventually paid out compensation to the Chinese government for the rioting in Seattle and elsewhere, according to Historylink.org, “the actual victims never saw a dime.”
Washington state has come a long away since 1886. But not so far away, in Alabama, new discriminatory laws have made life impossibly miserable for Latino immigrants. In Arizona, there’s the notorious SB 170 law.
Even here in Seattle, Bettie Luke told me she still hears complaints from local community members about instances of unequal treatment, like being overlooked in a line and having several people served in front of them.
And the threat of more overt hostility still lurks beneath the surface. Racially charged sentiments like those expressed in the Hoekstra ad can quickly turn from distasteful to dangerous.
“Certain things can trigger it [hostility to Chinese people] off,” Luke says. “And that ad will stir up those people who want to act out.”