Baltimore’s April riots were triggered by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Hoping to stop the violence, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she would file murder and manslaughter charges against six Baltimore police officers. Her rush to prosecution was a risky move. If the officers are acquitted, the riots will likely return, and Mosby will pay the political price.
Riots are nothing new, nor are the difficult decisions that face prosecutors in their wake. Forty-five years ago, the nation’s spotlight was on Santa Barbara’s student community of Isla Vista, where rioting youths burned a Bank of America branch to the ground. As Santa Barbara County District Attorney, I had to decide whom to prosecute. Would it be the young protestors, the leaders who incited them, or the law officers they accused of brutality?
Over 900 arrests were made during the trio of spring riots, aptly named Isla Vista I, Isla Vista II, and Isla Vista III. My office prosecuted most of those arrested, but the biggest fish got away. And despite evidence of police misconduct, neither state nor federal authorities nor I could find enough evidence to prosecute any law officer.
The biggest fish of the protestors was firebrand William Kunstler, described by himself as a “radical attorney” and by the New York Times as “the country’s most controversial lawyer.” Kunstler was an outspoken foe of capitalism, the police, the justice system, and all things establishment. He would later make history by persuading the United States Supreme Court to rule that burning the American flag in protest is “free speech” and a Constitutional right, in the case of Texas v. Johnson.
When Kunstler addressed 7,000 University of California at Santa Barbara students in the campus stadium on February 25, 1970, they were akin to a powder keg waiting to be ignited. The nation was embroiled in an ugly debate over the Vietnam War, and student protests were the order of the day in campuses across the country.
At UCSB, student grievances had been growing for over a year. In addition to the war, they included, in no particular order, the military draft, overcrowded and overpriced rental apartments in the “ghetto” of Isla Vista (70 percent of Isla Vista’s population were students), capitalism, student drug arrests, farmers’ refusals to negotiate with César Chávez’ farm labor union, Bank of America’s investments in South Africa, and, in particular, the denial of tenure to William Allen, a controversial UCSB sociology professor.
Warning signs of student unrest had been apparent, but the UCSB administration’s early response was appeasement. In October 1968, Black Student Union members invaded and occupied the university’s North Hall, making 10 demands upon the administration. Most of the demands were met, and the students received no penalty. In February and March 1969, radical students took over the UCSB University Center, proclaimed a “new free university,” held classes on Marxism and revolution, and distributed printed instructions on how to make bombs. The following month, Dover Sharp, custodian of the UCSB Faculty Club, was blown apart by a homemade bomb. There was no outrage. No individual or group claimed responsibility, Sharp had been only a janitor, and the incident was soon forgotten.
In January 1970, after the Black Student Union and Radical Union led a mob of 2,000 protestors into the UCSB administration building, Chancellor Vernon Cheadle finally asked the county Sheriff’s Office for help. The following day, for the first time in history, there was an external law enforcement presence on the UCSB campus. Many students began to refer to that presence as the “occupation,” and to officers as “the pigs.”
Throughout February 1970, Professor William Allen, who had famously awarded an “A” grade for a term paper consisting of a toilet painted red, white, and blue, led, like a Pied Piper, student demonstrations on and off campus, demanding a public hearing on his denial of tenure. A group of students, to be known as the “Santa Barbara Nineteen” as vogue dictated, were arrested due to Allen’s incitement. I filed criminal charges against Allen, commenting “It was within his power to end (the protests) at any time, and he chose to use the students to his own purposes and to fan the flames of riot.”
Into this boiling cauldron of dissent came William Kunstler, enticed by a fee of $2,000 in student association funds — the equivalent of $12,000 today. Kunstler had just completed his jury trial defense of the “Chicago Seven,” who were charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The UCSB administration could have, and should have, banned his stadium address, but they did not.
The warm-up for Kunstler’s speech was given by Nancy Rubin, wife of one of the Chicago Seven. “We may have to take justice to the streets,” she told the 7,000 students. William Kunstler then took the podium. He railed against capitalism and private property. He justified revolution, “if resistance is not heeded.” “I hope government is listening to what is being said,” Kunstler warned, and then he exhorted the students to “fill the streets so they can see you.” Kunstler closed with, “All power to the people! Right on!”
The stadium emptied, with students chanting, “To the streets, to the streets!”
Barney Thompson, then a 22-year-old history major, described what happened next. “I went down to see Bill Kunstler speak at the stadium, and later came back with the mob … we were ready for action. The pigs made it easy … people were stoning them. The mob drove the Sheriff’s Office from Isla Vista. Officers left behind a patrol vehicle, which rioters attacked with sledgehammers and set afire. We hunted around Isla Vista for more pigs. We wanted pig blood.”
Having driven officers from Isla Vista, the mob, breaking real estate office windows as they went, moved to the Bank of America, the local symbol of capitalism. They set afire the contents of a metal dumpster and used it to batter down the bank’s doors. Student fraternity members, opposed to the destruction, bravely extinguished the fire. But by midnight, others had set fire to gasoline-soaked furniture and papers, and the bank was burned to the ground. Rioters drank wine and roasted hot dogs and marshmallows in the flames.
The burning of the Bank of America stunned the Santa Barbara community, and the national spotlight focused on Isla Vista. It would remain there throughout the spring, witnessing the two riots that followed. The Santa Barbara News-Press condemned the bank burning as “anarchy — mad, mindless anarchy” and claimed the young rioters had “disgraced themselves, their community and their country.” UCSB Professor William Allen bore responsibility for whipping the students into a “frenzy,” the newspaper added.
Two days after the bank burning, as the riot continued, Governor Ronald Reagan ordered the California Army National Guard into Isla Vista, and the rioting subsided after around 150 arrests were made. My office backed up the arrests with criminal complaints, and the first of hundreds of riot prosecutions began to work their way through the legal system. The process would continue for 11 months.
I dismissed 64 of the Isla Vista I curfew violation cases, explaining that my office was “primarily concerned with convicting and jailing the persons who led the riot, who committed acts of violence, and who burned the bank.” But the big fish, William Kunstler, the man most responsible for Isla Vista I, had not been charged. And, weighing the possible consequences, I decided he would not be. Filing criminal charges against Kunstler would only invite more violence, I reasoned, and his supporters would stream to Santa Barbara from across the nation. It would simply be too risky. And so William Kunstler went free, and justice went unserved.
Isla Vista I was over, but the cauldron of dissent continued to boil. Within a week of the burning, Bank of America erected a temporary structure, as if to defy the protestors to burn it also. Attempts would be made, but without success. In March, Governor Reagan gave a luncheon speech in a downtown Santa Barbara restaurant and was jeered by 300 protesters massed outside. Nineteen arrests were made.
In April, UCSB’s student association invited one of the Chicago Seven, Jerry Rubin, to give a speech on campus. It was Ruben’s wife, Nancy, who had warmed up William Kunstler’s stadium audience with “we may have to take to the streets.” The university administration, having witnessed the aftermath of Kunstler’s address, banned Rubin from speaking on campus. That ignited Isla Vista II.
Protesting the Rubin denial, 1,800 students gathered outside the University Center, where Nancy Rubin, speaking for her husband, called for “revolution.” The mob later surrounded Bank of America’s temporary building, but law officers were present in force to prevent a second burning. In a tragic accident, Kevin Moran, one of the heroic fraternity members standing on the bank’s porch to dissuade the mob from violence, was killed by a Santa Barbara City police officer’s bullet.
Isla Vista II would rage for four days. After 90 arrests were made, the violence ebbed, but the cauldron continued to simmer. Two weeks later, President Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia with American troops, increasing the anti-war fervor, and in May, Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four student protestors at Kent State University.
On June 3, 1970, my office announced that Grand Jury indictments had been returned against 17 defendants for the burning of the Bank of America. Isla Vista III began the following day, and would rage for nine days.
The third riot was, at its worst, open warfare, with both sides accelerating the violence. Protestors hurled firebombs, bottles, rocks, and hunks of concrete at officers. They placed spike strips on the streets to flatten the tires of police vehicles. They strung piano wire across streets from utility poles, attempting to decapitate officers who arrived in the dump trucks they used to shield themselves from projectiles. Federal Bureau of Investigation Agent Cyril Payne observed that “the beer and marijuana once stockpiled in Isla Vista residences were replaced by weapons. Dynamite, blasting caps and automatic weapons became fashionable … the residents of Isla Vista had become united in their hatred for the ‘pigs.’”
Law enforcement responded to the violence accordingly. Tear gas canisters were dropped into crowds from helicopters, and rioters were routinely roughed up upon arrest. No quarter was given between the rioters and the “occupiers.”
The tide was finally turned by the Special Forces Unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, which arrived four days into the riot. It was a group so fierce and heavy-handed that it was later disbanded. Its members, out of sight of their home jurisdiction, their identities concealed by helmet visors and riot gear, could, and did, use excessive force with little fear of accountability.
In spite of its violence, Isla Vista III was not without amusing incidents. On the fourth day of rioting, Patrick J. McKinley was arrested for curfew violation. The arrest was unlawful because McKinley was not in a public place but standing in the front yard of his apartment complex, watching the riot with fascination. He was also our newest deputy district attorney, having only recently reported to work. McKinley was transported to jail as “Field Booking #242,” along with two dozen other arrestees, seated in the back of a bus. By coincidence, I was seated in the front of the same bus, as an observer. McKinley, who had lost his glasses, couldn’t see me, and I didn’t see him. He spent the night in jail, reflecting later that the jail coffee was “better than what we get in the office.”
McKinley filed a false arrest claim against the county, asking and receiving a token, but symbolic, settlement. He would serve in the District Attorney’s Office for the next 38 years, the last 26 as second in command.
On another occasion, I was a passenger in a car parked discretely in Isla Vista, waiting to watch the arrival of law officers to enforce the evening curfew. The car’s driver was Deputy District Attorney Donald Lobitz, a combat veteran and survivor of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. As officers arrived, they fired tear gas canisters toward the curfew violators, not far from where we were parked. The gas drifted to our car and began to seep inside. Lobitz, who should have known better, started his engine and switched on the air conditioner to clear the fumes. The opposite happened, and we were gassed along with the rioters.
The rest of Isla Vista III was not so amusing. Over 700 arrests were made, putting a huge prosecution burden on my office. “These were almost the worst times that this office has had,” recalled Thomas Sneddon, who cut his prosecutorial teeth on Isla Vista riot cases and later became Santa Barbara County District Attorney. To ease the burden, I swore in 11 volunteer lawyers from the community to serve as deputy district attorneys without pay. But as word of police misconduct spread, public opinion began to shift, and most of the lawyers resigned.
The Santa Barbara News-Press, which had earlier condemned the rioters for “mad, mindless anarchy,” now demanded “that the curfew be ended at once … that the acts of terrorism and intimidation by law officers as well as by demonstrators be vigorously prosecuted.” That evening, 1,500 peaceful protestors violated the curfew by assembling in Isla Vista’s Perfect Park, and 305, including eight UCSB professors, were taken into custody.
My office filed complaints against those arrested in the park. But when their court arraignments began, Judge Joseph Lodge dismissed all 305 cases, stating he was “throwing the whole thing out in the interest of justice” because they had “already been punished enough.” Los Angeles television station KNXT criticized the dismissals as “a disservice to the public and to police everywhere,” and the San Diego Union newspaper objected that “those who openly and deliberately defied the law are given blanket forgiveness” and opined that “the scales of justice are dipping dangerously toward anarchy.”
Another judge who disapproved my prosecutions was Kenneth Chantry, retired from the Los Angeles County courts and assigned to assist the local judges. Chantry, in injudicious comments made while addressing a Lawyers Club luncheon, accused me of “overreaching” by filing felony charges, for throwing rocks at police vehicles, against “very fine people” who didn’t “have previous criminal records.”
The three Isla Vista riots were finally over, but the prosecutions lingered on. And public sentiment began to align with Judges Lodge and Chantry. A citizens’ group was formed, including the eight arrested UCSB professors. They picketed the county jail and demanded county and federal grand jury investigations of police misconduct. To clear the air, Santa Barbara County Sheriff James Webster and I requested California’s Attorney General to investigate law enforcement’s actions. While that investigation progressed, a 15-week jury trial was held for the 13 remaining defendants charged with burning the Bank of America. After deliberating for nine days, the jury was deadlocked on 16 felony counts, and was able to return only four misdemeanor verdicts. I elected not to retry the case.
The Attorney General’s investigation dragged on for almost a year and finally concluded that successful prosecution of any law officer would be extremely difficult, due to conflicting witness statements and lack of identification. A federal grand jury investigation was also held, but it was terminated without indictments. The United States Attorney who supervised that investigation, uncomfortable with his hot potato, passed it to me, along with several boxes of investigative reports for review. I spent several days reading the material, and reached the same conclusion as the California Attorney General — there was insufficient evidence of identity for prosecution. Fourteen months had passed since the riots ended.
When I announced there would be no prosecution of law officers, the Santa Barbara News-Press, in rare agreement, endorsed my decision, opining “a truce of spirit is better than a ravenous call for revenge in the name of justice.” Law enforcement, most of the Santa Barbara community, and, so it seemed, the Santa Barbara News-Press, were exhausted by the three Isla Vista riots and their aftermath, and desired only a return to normalcy.
Forty-five years later, an intriguing question lingers. If William Kunstler had not provoked Isla Vista’s first riot, would the second and third have followed? Perhaps not.
Professor William Allen had galvanized UCSB’s students, and William Kunstler had fueled their anger to fever pitch, leading to the burning of the Bank of America. The resulting law enforcement “occupation” of the UCSB campus and Isla Vista, and the arrest and prosecution of protesters, so far poisoned the atmosphere that future mob action was predictable. The Rubicon had been crossed, and there would be no turning back.
Today, the nation’s eyes are upon Baltimore, where six police officers are being prosecuted for homicide as a response to a week of violent demonstrations. Is there a lesson to be learned from the Isla Vista and Baltimore riots, 45 years and a continent’s breadth apart?
The lesson is simply that there is no lesson. Public protests have been part of the American scene from the founding. After all, our country was born of a riot we call the American Revolution. There will always be public protests, and on occasion firebrands will push them into riots. It matters little if the protest is over taxes and representation, as in the American Revolution, or over modern day grievances about police misconduct. In the aftermaths, as in Isla Vista and Baltimore, the politicians will cast blame, and the public will choose sides. And to some government attorney will fall the task of cleaning up the legal mess by prosecuting the rioters, the law officers, or both.
Having been there myself, I wish State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby luck.
David Minier was Santa Barbara County District Attorney from 1967-1975. He is a retired judge of the California Superior Court and now sits by assignment in courts throughout the state. He is the author of The Ararat Illusion, a thriller set in Santa Barbara, and Rafiki, a novel of Africa.