Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rebellious Isla Vista


As the 60s drew to a close with the Vietnam War in high gear and President Nixon in the White House, the seaside community of Isla Vista was still not seen as a major center of unrest.
Sure, the streets adjacent to UC Santa Barbara had increasingly become visible as a hotbed of the counterculture movement and drug culture, but activism remained relatively peaceful.

However, in 1970, a series of intensifying events triggered violent exchanges between students, activists and police that quickly turned Isla Vista into a battleground.
Perhaps the most recognizable incident from those fateful six months is the burning of the Bank of America building in February 1970, torched by protestors upset over police brutality.
But Joe Melchione, then the newly appointed photo editor for UCSB’s El Gaucho newspaper, sees it differently.
“My sense is that what happened in 1970 has kind of devolved into the bank burning,” he said. “…But it wasn’t something that just happened one night when the bank building burned down. It was a repeated message and I think the community finally got together.”
And while the impetus for social unrest can be traced back to several specific incidents, such as the firing of leftist anthropology professor Bill Allen or the beating of student Rich Underwood, the larger context reveals a society already on edge.
Mick Kronman — now Santa Barbara’s harbor operations manager, then a rebellious Gaucho — looked back on the events of 1970 during a panel discussion Sunday evening with an attempt to root out what he described as “hindsight bias” and to understand the entire dialectic.
It had to do with the civil rights battle and the Vietnam War, he said. Radical black students on campus were enlightening others to their struggle. Fear of being drafted hung thick in the air.
Police, ill-equipped or untrained completely in personal interaction skill sets, faced increasingly irate students upset over Allen’s firing, the war and a lack of empowerment. Many officers were veterans with a strong distaste for draft-dodgers and war protestors who called them names and spit on them, said Robert Potter, professor emeritus of literature and theater.
“If you call someone a pig, they may begin to act like one,” Potter said.
Protestors and petition signers on campus demanding a fair hearing for Allen in January began to receive visits from sheriff’s deputies for the first time ever, said Becca Wilson, then the editor-in-chief for El Gaucho. Attacks by police and provocation by activists during those protests further polarized the two sides.
By February, the conflict escalated dramatically. Activist attorney William Kunstler, fresh off his defense of the “Chicago Seven” against charges of conspiring to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic convention, came to speak on campus.
But rather than Kunstler’s fiery speech, UCSB professor emeritus of sociology Dick Flacks described how Underwood, who came to the speech toting a bottle of wine, sparked the infamous riot.
Police monitoring the speech spotted Underwood’s wine bottle and mistook it for a Molotov cocktail, subsequently beating the young student into submission in front of thousands.
The resulting protest grew into torching of police cars, dumpsters, and finally the bank.
“It was a baptism of fire,” said Melchione, who had just picked up a camera a few months prior.
Many of his images, currently on display at the Brooks Institute’s Cota Street Gallery through Sept. 12, had to be shot on the fly — the longhaired photographer using single streetlights as sources of light as he fought through nightstick-wielding police officers.
“I got threatened lots of times,” Melchione said. “I had a press pass. It didn’t help much for flying tear gas.”
In the weeks that followed the torching of the bank building, panelists said police broke into apartments, beat people indiscriminately and enforced a strict evening curfew.
“What shocked me the most is that police were willing to brutalize people to protect property,” Wilson said. “That property was more important than life.”
In an attempt to evenly portray both sides of the equation — and not an attempt to offer any excuse for their actions — Kronman noted that authorities faced militant students and outside agitators bent on driving them from Isla Vista.
“These people were scared,” he said. “They’d never seen anything like this before. They felt like they were under siege and, frankly, they were under siege.”
Jean Voss, a former sheriff’s dispatcher, confirmed the fear she heard in the voices of deputies as they patrolled the streets of the small community.
“It was a situation so intense, you couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Fear. Fear of drug addicts, the out-of-control students, the atmosphere.”
Kronman later agreed that police engaged in widespread injustices during what he deemed an all-out street fight.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he said. “It was indiscriminate. … The closest cousin to fear is anger.”
Several panelists speaking at the Cota Street Gallery described the feeling in the months following the burning of the bank building as a sense of being occupied by an out-of-control police force.
One audience member, 11 years old at the time of the riots, recalled running home with food from a burger joint in an attempt to make the curfew. While other kids around the country might have been out collecting butterflies, he said his friends would go out to see how many empty tear gas containers they could find.
During that time, Potter pulled together a posse of colleagues and friends to form a system of cataloging complaints about police brutality, using his own background in intelligence gathering as a soldier in Vietnam.
“I saw some of my old fogey colleagues were taking no notice of a world that was changing,” he said. “…We were able to get the information while it was still hot.”
Altogether, he catalogued 1,000 reports of police misconduct, eventually publishing them in a book titled “The Campus by the Sea where the Bank Burned Down.”
In June, the conflict came to a head again, when protestors learned that authorities planned to indict 17 people for torching the bank.
Wilson described how those arrested for the arson just happened to be the leading activists and organizers on campus.
“Somehow, all the leaders of these radical movements on campus, according to these indictments, banded together to burn the bank building,” she said.
On June 11, a group of approximately 1,500 students and activists gathered at Perfect Park to peacefully protest police brutality. As the 7:30 p.m. curfew approached, officers told the crowd they must disperse or face arrest.
After peacefully arresting more than 300 people, and as night began to fall, police announced they would begin making arrests by force if the crowd didn’t disperse.
Authorities sent tear gas streaming into the park and officers began swinging nightsticks indiscriminately, ultimately taking 667 protestors into custody.
“It was entirely peaceful and the police went completely out of control,” Melchione said.
All charges against those arrested were dismissed — and the indictments for the bank burning ultimately ended in a hung jury — but the impact of the Isla Vista riots left an indelible mark.
The unrest led to the formation of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, Potter said, bringing officers out of their squad cars and lessening the gap between students and law enforcement.
A year later, the Isla Vista Youth Projects came into existence, offering a series of diverse educational, recreational and social programs for children and families in the community. Food co-ops and credit unions popped up.
“I believe very strongly that a group of people who are committed to a cause can bring about change,” Melchione said. “Those events that spiraled out of control in 1970 brought about great changes in Santa Barbara.”
The signs of the Isla Vista riots have faded with time. Embarcadero Hall now stands where the bank building once burned.
A parking lot has cut into a sizeable section of Perfect Park. But a small peace monument still stands there.
“Go and visit it sometime,” Potter said. “There is a little corner that honors peace and nonviolence.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A pretty good article, but one thing I disagree with completely. I never at any time saw any law enforcement officers or National Gaurd troops spat on. I also never heard anyone mention anything about that. There were rocks thrown.

The overriding lesson that should be brought out of that time is that the violence never would have happened if the sheriffs and police had not repeatedly brutalised the students. I was there, and that is my observation.

There was discussion about revolution, but it died down because it didn't make any sense. We weren't revolting, we were protesting the status quo and demanding changes.

Last year, on May 1st, there was once again a police riot, this time in Echo Park, in Los Angeles, by Mexican Americans peacefully demanding their rights. The federal government is investigating it, and some policemen have been fired, but how do you bring back a life that has been snuffed out by out of control police?

Not mentioned in the article was how a sheriff "accidentally" shot a long haired protester who was trying to protect the temporary bank erected after the first one was burned down. A few individuals on their own tried to start a blaze at the new bank. A few other individuals chased them away. When the sheriffs drove up, one of them opened up on one of the young men protecting the bank, killing him. This is a matter of record, available in the Santa Barbara newspaper from that time.

One more time - Isla Vista would not have had violent protests if the police and sheriffs had been prevented from starting their own riots first. The problem of right wing out-of-control law enforcement officers is one that is still very much with us today.