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Brave New Isla Vista

Or, Das Williams’s Big Lie


For students of history, the ongoing campaign to create a Community Services District for Isla Vista offers one of those occasions in which earnest endeavor, conflicting interest, opportunism, and farce may all be seen in outline and in great detail.

A reality of Santa Barbara politics is that proposals come forward, create public debate and scrutiny, perhaps go to a vote, and then, perhaps, go away. But what goes away has a way of coming back. Timing and opportunity is everything in local politics. The cause of Isla Vista autonomy, or some form of governance, has come and gone for over 40 years. The current creation of a special district will go to a vote in November, but for an observer like myself (who has seen it all), it has become comic and grotesque; advocates and antagonists change places; it is all folly and paradox.

A principle fact about the current drive for the Community Services District in Isla Vista is that it is not a student movement. The Isla Vista of the early 1970s had a highly politicized student population. Carmen Lodise, chief architect and organizer for Isla Vista cityhood, was a continuous and ardent advocate for students in Isla Vista for decades. With Lodise, the campaign for Isla Vista independence was a volunteer effort of students and their supporters. Scores of young people took part, canvassing and circulating petitions. Students crowded and overflowed the Board of Supervisors meeting room on many occasions. The project, however, always ran into the same stone wall: the denial of financial viability by the Local Agency Formation Commission. And, keep in mind, it was always adamantly opposed by the administration of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I am sure, these days, that there are some very sincere student boosters for the Isla Vista special district. But they are few in number, and what their vision is for Isla Vista, I find very confused. They certainly lack any historical understanding of the place. I am also sure that if the Community Services District is created, within a year most students in Isla Vista will not even know it exists. It will be a governing clique, though one with some power.

In May 2014, a mass murder and shooting event took place in Isla Vista. The push to create the special district was set in motion within months. The linkage between the mass killing and the creation of the special district must always be kept in mind. The political machinery that was put to work, the political will and muscle, may be the most remarkable I have ever seen in Santa Barbara: A state assemblymember, Das Williams, county government, and university administration all working in concert to create the special district. Anyone who remembers the efforts of the 1970s must gasp in disbelief. And the most striking difference is that the effort is all coming from outside Isla Vista. Paid staff from Das Williams’s office create organizing meetings and guide the work along a specific prearranged course that, once again, all comes from outside of Isla Vista. And, finally, the promotion and publicity for the special district prior to the election is paid for by money that comes from outside Isla Vista.

The success of the November vote is based on the assumption that turnout for general elections is higher than other elections. The original plan for the Community Services District called for multiple votes: one to approve the district, one for a tax within the district, and so on. The organizers, however, realized that while they might get enough votes for the district at a general election, the likelihood that people would show up for subsequent votes was improbable. Hence, the all-in-one vote for the special district, the tax, and a slate of UCSB/Das Williams-approved candidates. At this point, if anyone in Isla Vista feels like they are getting something shoved down their throat, they are. Moreover, the cynicism is conspicuous: The organizers need the votes in November but really don’t have any expectation of subsequent participation by students in the district.

If the original idea for Isla Vista self-governance came from the student politics of the 1960s, it would be a mistake to assume that it was a cause embraced by all progressives. It was not. The simplest and most important criticism of Isla Vista cityhood or autonomy is that it will not work for the students. Indeed, it will probably work against them.

Isla Vista is a transient community; the students are temporary and passing through. Power favors the stable forces. Student work and student life has its own demands and preoccupations. The number of students involved in Isla Vista politics will always be limited. And when the best and most involved students are gone, the permanent forces (university administration and property-owning residents in I.V.) with all their historical memory and know how, will be there. The students will always be playing catch-up — always at a disadvantage.

The Isla Vista Parks and Recreation District can genuinely be said to have come about because of the I.V. riots of the 1960s. Historically, this little example of democracy and sovereignty has been continuously dominated by a small group of older Isla Vista property owners. The probability that a Community Services District would go in a similar direction is almost a certainty. The inertia of the permanent forces works against the students.

The exact origin of the present effort for Isla Vista autonomy is obscured in mystification. Lanny Ebenstein has told us in the Santa Barbara News-Press that a former UCSB student and an emeritus professor first raised the subject of a Community Services District with the UCSB Foundation. The Santa Barbara Independent tells us that “the UCSB Board of Trustees — operating independently from the university administration — funded an extensive study on how to fix I.V.” This creation myth is sliced very fine and scrubbed very clean and seems intended to prove the impartiality and immunity of UCSB administration. The idea was forced upon them; they had to be compelled to become the major organizing force behind the special district and commit over a million dollars to its solvency.

Perhaps the Foundation or Trustees are mind readers and know what the UCSB administration wants. Or perhaps they just read the work of George Thurlow. In the Winter 2014, issue of CoastLines, the publication of the UCSB Alumni Association, Assistant Vice Chancellor Thurlow wrote a long article reviewing the situation in Isla Vista with a lack of Redevelopment Agency money and the need for improvements. The history of Carmen Lodise and attempts to create a city of Isla Vista are mentioned in some detail, and it is implicit to the article that ideas for autonomy should be revisited.

The article did not seem, at the time, to be especially apropos of anything. It can now be seen as the first overture and manifesto of UCSB administration position toward the creation of a special district. It also refers to Chancellor Henry Yang, “who believes deeply that Isla Vista has become a drag on the University’s national and international reputation,” and mentions nostalgically that at one time, the relation of the university toward the students was more “in loco parentis.” In place of a parent, that is. Students might wish that young adults and older adults could talk to one another as equals, but they also better ask, “Who’s your daddy?” And, “Who’s got spank?”

In scheme and intention, the creation of the Community Services District is the work of UCSB administration. Anyone who thinks that Das Williams originated the idea of writing a bill to go around LAFCO has greater regard for his brains than I do. LAFCO was always the impediment. UCSB administration knew the history and also knew what kind of leverage was required to neutralize the obstacle. Das Williams did the job.

If Isla Vista was a blot on the reputation of UCSB in January 2014, it became a catastrophe in May. In the last 10 years there have been numerous shootings on or near university locations. Psychologically speaking, these are “copy cat” events that captivate and motivate a truly insane person. The shooting in Isla Vista was not caused or inspired by the nature of Isla Vista, as Das Williams and others suggested.

Even now, years later, you can’t say “Virginia Tech” without thinking “mass murder.” The stigma, the ignominy is very lasting. It is an institutional disaster. It is a holocaust of bad publicity. It affects the prestige of the institution at every level, and it has financial consequences. It affects donations, grants, and recruitment of staff and students. It creates the fear of lawsuits and liability. And at UCSB it is a blow to international ambitions and esteem.

The Isla Vista massacre compounded and magnified UCSB administration contempt for Isla Vista. They acted quickly. The Community Services District is damage control. It is image repair. Every student should know that a vote for the special district is a vote to preserve the vanity and protect the bank account of UCSB.

Keep in mind, in most respects, what the special district can do is very modest. I have heard it suggested that it will create “rental stabilization,” but most advocates of the district don’t make this claim; they know it isn’t possible. Lanlord-tenant mediation is also mentioned, but similarly there is no reason to believe this will happen. It hasn’t in the past. Cosmetic improvement can be made, sidewalks and street lights, etc.; that is a given.

The other, truly important objective of UCSB and the special district is the creation of parking restrictions in Isla Vista. No student even vaguely paying attention to this special district goal would support any version of parking restrictions. The whole intention is to constrain, confine, and sequester Isla Vista, to remove its free interaction with the rest of the world.

Schemes for parking restrictions in Isla Vista have been discussed in great variety. They all have a few things in common: They will not help parking but will create a cumbersome, expensive system of stickers and tickets and 24-hour supervision. Students who expect their friends to easily come and go from I.V. will be faced with numerous obstacles. UCSB is so zealous for any form of parking restriction it has already committed to paying tens of thousands of dollars for signage.

The parking restrictions will be promoted as a necessity of public safety. The waves of marauders and vandals that pass thorough I.V. must be kept out. Never mind that most of the crime (and all of the more recent serious crime) has been perpetrated by people who live in Isla Vista. And never mind that for every individual who enters I.V. who might commit a crime, dozens of people come and go to shop, visit friends, go to the beach, etc. It is like any other community or neighborhood. Nevertheless, it will be asserted, that the needs of public safety require the suspension or abrogation of some rights.

When it is understood what kind of gated community UCSB administration would like to create in Isla Vista, every surfer in Santa Barbara will let out a scream. Every beach walker, day hiker, bird watcher, and every environmental group will understand that Das Williams turned his back on them to become an errand boy for the university.

Isla Vista has always been a free and vital part of the larger community. Public access has always been a part of this, and coastal access is part of California law under the Coastal Commission. UCSB has some experience flouting the Coastal Commission, and with Das Williams to help them, it sees no problem pushing aside a state agency.

UCSB administrators want to manufacture good publicity. They want to be able to broadcast that Isla Vista is under new management. They want to be able to say that the bad people are being kept out of I.V. They want greater control of I.V. UCSB administration would not sponsor and pay for something they didn’t expect to dominate.

Is this Isla Vista liberation or I.V. lockdown?

This whole project has been sold so speciously and treated so negligently in local media, students in I.V. have very little real idea of what is taking place and what the risks are. If I thought the Community Services District would create a renaissance of activism among UCSB students, I would be for it. A few, simple, good things could come from it. But as things are, it could turn out very badly, very quickly.

No student should vote for the Community Services District who is not going to live in Isla Vista at least for another year after the election. No student should vote for the special district who is not willing to actively participate or observe the actions of the district and be ready to revoke the whole project through petition.

Dean Stewart is a local writer and historian.



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