A dumpster is lit on fire and shoved into a bank, and a rowdy mob of onlookers witness this perceived symbol of injustice burn into a charred husk. A state of emergency is called, and law enforcement goes to work attempting to wrest control of the streets back from the youthful rioters.
This is not an Arab Spring protest that got out of hand nor a clip from the latest teen dystopian film but the most turbulent chapter in the history of Santa Barbara County’s most turbulent town.
The burning of Bank of America’s Isla Vista branch on February 25, 1970, and the associated riots garnered widespread media attention and ultimately led then-Governor Ronald Reagan to declare a state of emergency and call in the National Guard. Hundreds of students were subsequently arrested for violating the imposed curfew, and a couple months later, student Kevin Moran was inadvertently shot and killed by police as he attempted to defend the provisional Bank of America from further violence.
In the years leading up to the riots, UCSB students — as well as their counterparts all around the country — witnessed a virtually unprecedented rights movement and faced a wide array of struggles and injustices. The 1964–1965 free speech movement at Berkeley helped illuminate the walls enclosing students’ freedom of expression, while the previous decade and a half’s Civil Rights Movement helped foster a sense of justice in university students. In October 1968, the occupation of North Hall by members of the Black Student Union brought about, among other reforms, the creation of the Black Studies Department. UCSB students marched in Sacramento in protest of Reagan’s regressive education policies and waged their own free-speech battles on campus.
The environmental effects of the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil spill, tougher UC regulations for dealing with student disruptions, anger over the police’s heavy-handed treatment of I.V. residents, and the prospect of being drafted into the Vietnam war, a conflict most students abhorred, all inflamed the community’s anger and frustration. The tipping point came when a student was beaten by police in front of hundreds of his peers as they left an on-campus speech by Chicago Seven lawyer William Kunstler; later that day, the fateful dumpster was pushed into the biggest capitalist entity in town.
While some things never change — surfing, partying, excellent Mexican food — others certainly have: There is no draft, and student–police relations, freedom of speech, and racial justice have improved to varying degrees. Considering what I.V.’s predecessors were going through nearly 46 years ago, it makes sense that these kinds of acrimonious confrontations and extreme actions are unthinkable here nowadays. (The 2014 Deltopia riot was chiefly a product of out-of-towner antagonism.)
Students nowadays, however, face ballooning costs of attendance, hefty loan debts, and still combat the shadows of structural racism. While there’s still plenty of injustice to fight, these concerns don’t pose as immediate a danger to many, and students today have a wider and more effective array of channels through which to address them.
For Jorge Escobar, president of UCSB Campus Democrats, whipping up the level of activism necessary to effect change starts with making the issues relatable to students.
“When you tell them, ‘Hey, how do you feel about self-governance?’ — they’re like, ‘Uhhh, what?’” said Escobar. “And then you’re like, ‘How do you feel about parking in I.V.? Would you want to do something to change it?’ The way you present the question is probably one of the most important things.”
Current I.V. students are living in an age of unprecedentedly easy political engagement. Knocking on doors to gather signatures for a petition is often replaced with soliciting online “likes” for a Facebook page. The often-fulfilling feeling generated by what’s more pessimistically known as “slacktivism” satisfies many students’ needs for political engagement and potentially helps explain a recent drop-off in voter turnout in I.V.; while midterm election turnout from 2002–2010 averaged close to 50 percent, 2014’s saw a measly 19 percent.
I.V. residents’ knowledge that there are people tackling today’s most pressing issues — like parking — on their behalf helps to temper their political will, said Escobar. One of the starkest changes I.V.’s witnessed over the past 46 years is the sheer amount of organization — both in terms of entities like the Recreation and Park District and actions such as Das Williams’s weekly meetings to hammer out the details of the proposed community service district.
In many ways, the bank burning sparked much of the town’s organizing efforts in the decades that followed, as residents began taking it upon themselves to mend and improve the community. To wax poetic, much of today’s Isla Vista is the phoenix that arose from the smoldering remains of that symbol of an unacceptable status quo.