If you’re like me, a student living in Isla Vista, you may have heard the myth-like tales of Halloweens past. Legend has it that in the mid-’80s a Playboy magazine feature proclaimed Halloween in Isla Vista to be the top party scene and brought tens of thousands to the streets. Busloads of college students came from campuses across the state, and the party raged on into the wee hours of the morning. For most of the three decades since, the spookiest weekend of the year in Isla Vista has been filled with booze, crowds, and the wackiest costumes you’ve ever seen.
But those characteristics are ghosts of an Isla Vista-past. Halloween weekend last month was the fourth in a row that saw little to no crowd. Arrests and citations hit an all-time low, and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol issued only two noise violations over the four-day period. The Emergency Medical Services Agency has indicated that medical transports during the weekend numbered many fewer than a typical weekend in Isla Vista — in fact, this number has declined 80 percent since 2013, the last large Halloween.
In plain terms, there is no other weekend all year long where you can walk down Del Playa Drive at 11 p.m. and find a quiet, empty street. With Halloween falling on a Tuesday this year, I did just that as I took in the breeze the Friday night before.
When Isla Vista alumni reminisce about the good ol’ days and mourn the changes to the college experience they knew, I am usually the first to urge them to look at the bigger picture. You can’t separate the “good ol’ days” from the injury and violence that the old I.V. culture bred. No matter how fond your memories may be, issues of community-police mistrust, physical violence, and sexual assault have plagued Isla Vista through and through. Packing an additional 20,000 out of town visitors — many of whom have no respect or regard for our community — into half of a square mile multiplies these issues many times over.
Isla Vista may be unique, but it is no different than any other place in one very important way — our residents want to live in a safe community. This has never been more true since the spring of 2014. The academic quarter that began with tear gas and rubber bullets raining down on our homes and ended with the loss of six innocent lives transformed our community forever. The anger, loss, and collective trauma that we endured during the Deltopia riots and the May 23rd massacre changed the way Isla Vistans think about how to cultivate a safe community.
Students, residents, and concerned citizens responded to tragedy by organizing for change, with hopes that things would never have to get this bad again. These sustained efforts have yielded tangible victories, including the creation of Isla Vista’s first broad-authority local government, increased attention and care from UCSB and the county, and community-initiated programs that promote dialogue with law enforcement and community-oriented policing.
Despite the successes of our efforts based in collaboration, the law enforcement strategy for Halloween continues to be set without much resident input. This strategy amounts to a costly law enforcement-spectacle that has done more to intimidate students into staying indoors — or even leaving town altogether — for the weekend, than it has to build lasting cultural change in Isla Vista.
Participating in the local governance process has brought our attention to the true financial cost of bringing the law enforcement apparatus to town, and it’s not pretty. The officers on our streets during this past Halloween weekend numbered over 150; they came from five different agencies from across the state; most were paid overtime for their service; few got to put their professional skills to good use.
These “show of force” tactics do not make our community feel safe. They threaten the progress that student groups, organized residents, UCSB, and the county have worked so hard to foster between law enforcement and residents. They make Isla Vistans feel anxious, infantilized, and demeaned.
While large numbers of law enforcement officers may have served an appropriate purpose in the wake of chaos and tragedy, our community is growing up. It’s time for us to build a more creative and sustainable vision of Halloween. Service providers in Isla Vista have a responsibility to adapt to the changing nature of these large events and refocus their resources toward creating positive, community-oriented programs.
Events like Old Spanish Days Fiesta in Santa Barbara and the Avocado Festival in Carpinteria should make it clear to us that when a community group takes ownership to organize large events, only positive things come. What we need in Isla Vista is something similar — good food, local bands, art, you name it — in order to transform these spontaneous, disorganized events into something that residents can enjoy.
The alternative, the reactionary approach, has only gotten us so far. It’s time for us to seize the moment and build something more positive.
Spencer Brandt is secretary for the Board of Directors for Isla Vista Community Services District.