Tag Archives: Isla Vista Riots

Isla Vista, 42 Years After the Riots

Joel and I were lovers during the 1970 riots when I was a student at UC Santa Barbara. The riots happened in Isla Vista, a densely packed, beachfront ghetto of cheaply built student housing next to the university campus. My apartment was right on the police riot patrol loop. Armored trucks circled the neighborhood again and again. During those nights, they would lob tear gas canisters into people’s yards and onto porches and balconies. The gas leaked in around the doors and windows of the crummy apartments, and we lay on the floor holding wet towels over our faces in order to breathe. Outside, the police shot the tires of parked cars and gunned down dogs or cats that wandered out on the streets. Isla Vista was a town under siege, a police state. No one was safe. Nothing was safe.

KCSB, the campus radio station, is still there.

KCSB, the campus radio station, is still there.

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Most of us students cowered in our apartments, listening to KCSB’s live reporters, our only source of news about what was happening outside. I still remember the horror I felt when the station manager announced that the police had ordered KCSB taken off the air. I was raised to believe this couldn’t happen in America. It was an awakening that changed me forever.

KCSB is the only radio station in USA history that was shut down to suppress its news reporting. It happened after a police officer accidentally fired his rifle from a convoy of huge dump trucks that barreled in around 1 a.m. the morning of April 18, 1970, killing a student. The police said he was killed by a sniper’s bullet. They said Isla Vista was full of snipers with high-powered rifles. They lied. They knew that same night that Kevin Moran had been shot by a police officer, but they stuck to their sniper story for three full days.

Many of the old landmarks are gone, but the apartment where I lived on Sabado Tarde is still there.

The duplex on Sabado Tarde

The duplex on Sabado Tarde

This used to be the Sun and Earth health food store.

Sun and Earth

Sun and Earth

A university lecture hall with new trees stands where the bank was burned.

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The Magic Lantern Theatre showed lots of independent art films. It looks just like it did years ago. The covered walkway leading to the theatre entrance is on the right. The building on the left used to be the Red Lion bookstore, the best bookstore of my life and one of my favorite places of all time.

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Borsodi’s Coffeehouse, across the street from the bank, is no more. Most of the shops including Unicorn Books, the head shop, the Rexall, the record store… they’re gone. But the beach still looks the way I remember. Even the oil platform is still there.

The beach looking toward Devereaux point

The beach looking toward Devereaux point

Oil Platform Holly

Oil Platform Holly

After the Bank Burning

Davidson Library, UCSB

Another excerpt:

The day after the bank burning, I have a full day of classes. Afterward, I go to the library to study. I take the elevator to the eighth floor and find a quiet spot at one of the shiny wooden worktables. I’m reading Twelfth Night for my Shakespeare class, but the mistaken-identity plot is silly and the mean-spirited pranks don’t make me laugh. I stare at the long rows of tall metal stacks without seeing them.

The Eighth-floor Stacks

It’s way past suppertime when I come to the end of Twelfth Night. I push my chair back and get up. I stretch my hands up toward the ceiling and lean left, then right. I wiggle my butt to get the circulation back and shove the wooden chair with its hard seat back against the table. I gather my textbooks and notes and carry them to the elevator. I push the “down” button and wait. It comes. The silent metal doors slide open like portals on a spaceship and I step inside. I hit the round button that says “1” and the elevator descends. Elevators make me dizzy, as if I’d left part of myself on the top floor, and the enclosed space gives me a sick feeling. What if it gets stuck partway down?  The elevator reaches the ground floor and the doors slide open. My legs feel wobbly; I’m glad to step out onto solid floor.

I go outside and down the concrete steps to my bicycle. I pedal to the UCen (University Center). There are vending machines in the cafeteria where I buy an apple and a packet of powdered sugar mini-donuts.  I get watery instant coffee from another machine and sit down by the dark window to eat my supper. The tart juiciness of the apple complements the powdery donuts and I wolf them down. A couple of older men in tweed jackets, probably profs, smoke and drink coffee several tables away. They’re the only other people here. The huge room is lonely and creepy, a sea of empty tables. Metal girders crisscross the high ceilings. The dark windows along one wall reflect the emptiness and make the cavernous space look vast. It seems to go on forever. I need to go home. I throw the apple core, half-drunk coffee, and donut wrapper in the green metal trashcan on my way out to the bike rack.

I pedal past the art department and head toward Pardall Road, but at the eucalyptus-bordered path at the edge of the campus, a line of police cars blocks the way into Isla Vista. I stop, slide off my seat and straddle the bike. Two cops in helmets swing their clubs and smack them against their gloved hands as they swagger up to me.

“Just turn that bike around and go right back,” the shorter one tells me. “Nobody gets past this point.” He sweeps his baton toward the path leading to campus as if he’s directing traffic.

I freeze. I can’t move. I don’t even breathe.

“Go on,” the cop barks. “Back the way you came.”

“I… I–But I need to go home!” My throat closes up on the first words, then the last part tumbles out in a rush: “I live on Sabado Tarde.”

“Yeah, right!” the short cop sneers. He smiles, but it’s a mean smile, a shark’s grin. He steps closer and I shrink back. My left calf catches on the bike pedal and I almost fall down.

“What’re you doing out so late?” the taller cop demands, his feet planted a good distance apart for stability. He shifts his hands on the club, grips it hard like he’s about to hit me.

“I’ve been at the library, studying.”  The words come out high and squeaky. I reach into my basket to pull out my Shakespeare book, to show them–

“Hands out where we can see them!” barks the tall cop, and I freeze. The other cop comes over with a flashlight and paws through my books with gloved hands.

The two cops look at each other and shake their heads. “No weapons, just books,” the shorter one says. He sounds disappointed.

“Ohhh kay–” The taller cop drags out the word and then pauses.

Minutes drag by. I stand still, hands clenched on the handlebars.  The shorter cop shifts his club from one hand to the other and back again. The cops look at each other and shrug.

“Weeeelll, I suppose you can give it a try,” the taller cop says at last. “Go all the way down to El Nido and make your way back from there. Stay away from the center of town.” He waves me on with his club.

The eucalyptus path between Isla Vista and the campus where the cops stopped me

El Nido Lane is at the end of the road, near the beach. I get back on my bike and pedal past more police cars. Fear clutches my body like a giant icy hand and it’s hard to move. My legs shake as I pedal. I try not to wobble–if I swerve, they might think I’m going for a sudden attack. I imagine them hiding behind the eucalyptus trees with guns trained on me. But why are they here? Why have they blocked the streets?

I reach the end of the road. I turn onto El Nido and steer down the narrow street past oak trees and rows of apartment buildings. I hear yelling and what sounds like firecrackers. When I get to El Embarcadero, where there’s a clear view, I stop. At the bottom of the business loop a couple of blocks away, police cars line the street and crowds of people surge back and forth in a cloud of tear gas. What the–? I just want to get as far away as I can. I turn and go the opposite direction toward the beach, and onto Del Playa and make my way home from there. Out here, it’s quiet and peaceful. A breeze from the ocean tangles my hair. It smells like salt. Maybe it will blow away the tear gas.

The Children of God

Prophets of Doom circa 1970

They’re lined up along the edge of the park in their red burlap robes, yokes around their necks, black ash like charcoal smeared across their foreheads. Their eyes are fixed on some faraway point, perhaps a distant cloud, and do not waver. Their faces are stern. The afternoon sun beats down on them and sweat beads their flushed faces, especially the women in their biblical head coverings. The men are bareheaded. They carry heavy wooden staves in one hand; with the other they hold up hand-lettered cloth signs like scrolls.

“Warning!!! Turn your eyes toward Memphis (Egypt), for out of it shall come the great confusion.”

“Oh daughter of my people, gird thee with sackcloth and wallow thyself in ashes. Make thee mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for the spoiler shall suddenly come upon us.”

A gust of wind makes the signs flutter like pillowcases on a clothesline.  Can these apocalyptic figures be real? Or did they materialize from all of our thoughts, the rage that percolates and simmers underneath everything we do?  They can’t be real–the cops haven’t moved in. Police are a constant presence now. They occupy our town as if it were a conquered nation. They sneer at us through the windows of their patrol cars, and the war goes on and on. Nixon bypassed all the checks and balances and unilaterally invaded Cambodia. Protests have erupted all over the nation. Four students have been gunned down at Kent State, two at Jackson State.

“Who are you guys?” I ask the man on one end of the line. “Where did you come from?”

He doesn’t look at me. None of them do. They don’t move. They don’t say a word.

I walk past them. Their signs all scream dire warnings about the end of a corrupt, greedy nation. Their robes, their signs, and their grim faces all fit right in with the way I feel. At the other end of the row is a folding chair with a shoebox full of leaflets and a sign: “Take one!” I pick up one of the pamphlets and read:

“The Prophets of Doom of ‘The Children of God’ in dramatic demonstrations across the nation are warning of the death of the nation in the red sackcloth of mourning, the yoke of bondage and the rod of judgment and bearing the scrolls of prophesy. In thundering silence they have stood in vigil between the violence of revolution and the sins of the system from White House to capital, UN to cathedral, and from coast to coast!”

I turn and stare at them. Now that I think about it, my own mind wouldn’t have created those sackcloth robes and yokes. I would’ve come up with something more like the grim reaper with a scythe or a medieval executioner with an axe–curved blade on one side and a point on the other.

Farther down the loop is a bus. A sign on the side reads “The Prophet Bus. Get on for free food, music, love.”