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Remembering the Isla Vista Riots

Feature and Documentary Films to be Screened Marking 40-Year Anniversary of Uprising


On Friday, April 23 and Saturday, April 24, as part of this year’s All-Gaucho Reunion, a number of films will be screened commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famous Isla Vista riots. During the weekend-long event, Don’t Bank on Amerika will be shown at The Magic Lantern Theater located at 960 Embarcadero Del Norte in Isla Vista, and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will be featured at UCSB’s Theatre and Dance Building Room 1701. A full line-up can be found here. Professors and former protesters will be on hand afterward to discuss Isla Vista’s colorful and rebellious past.

The late 1960s was a time of immense strain between Isla Vista residents and local authorities. A number of factors, such as the draft, the sexual revolution, psychoactives, art, and general overcrowding converged and fueled the students, banding them together in unprecedented number and form. Tension between student protesters and authorities came to a head in 1970, resulting in a series of riots.

On February 24, 1970, several prominent student activists were jailed, and a couple hundred protesters gathered in the streets, setting trash cans on fire and vandalizing several buildings. The next day, William Kunstler gave a rousing speech in Harder Stadium, discussing local and national threats to liberty that the established authority posed. Police arrested another prominent activist on his way out of the stadium, and allegedly began clubbing students at random as they left the grounds and entered Isla Vista. The neighborhood erupted in a full-fledged riot, which was ended when Governor Reagan sent in the National Guard to quell the students.

In April of 1970, the radical activist Jerry Rubin was prohibited to speak on campus, and protesters attacked the bank again. A police officer killed a student, Kevin Moran, who was trying to put the fire out, and KCSB was temporarily shut down against federal regulations.

In June of 1970, those accused of setting the bank on fire were put to trial. They were mainly activists, two of whom had been in jail the night of the fire. There was a sit-in, which violated curfew, and police tear-gassed and arrested over 100 protesters, all of whom a judge ordered to be released the next day.

Never before or since has Isla Vista experienced such turmoil. Now, the college town is more famous for its parties than its protests, and events like Floatopia draw larger, raucous crowds while rallies and activist speeches are relatively bare. Activists say that most students live their lives in the bubble that the neighborhood provides, relatively unconcerned with the goings and workings of the world - despite the war overseas, the battles for gay rights and sexual equality, the continuing battle for racial equality, and the efforts to improve wages for the workers and living conditions for the invisible poor of Isla Vista. “It’s hard to balance being a full-time student and fighting for justice,” says Noor Ajawald, a member of SB Anti-War. “You almost have to make a choice between the two, and most people choose to be successful and make a lot of money.”

Today, activists are looking for ways to shatter the spell of apathy hanging over the students’ heads, searching the past for clues, but recognizing key differences. For instance, in the 60s, there was really just one movement. Now, the different elements have spun off and see themselves as separate.

An Isla Vista local, who wished to remain anonymous, said that “In the 60s, adversarial protesting worked because things were directly affecting the students - now they don’t feel a direct effect…but there’s still, and always will be, a need for change.” He said he would like to see people find ways to engage with their environments by mobilizing their creativity to enact change rather than wait for something to flare up, as well as more non-adversarial organizing. “What if we promoted peace instead of protested war?” Activists are also looking for ways to connect art to their movements to draw more numbers and encourage people to participate rather than alienate them with anger or “uncomfortable truths.”

Santos Rico points out that protesters must reinvent the meaning of peace. “Since the 60s, [the symbol of peace] has been appropriated by businesses and has essentially lost its meaning. When people see peace signs, they think of hippies and passivity, but peace is anything but passive.”

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