Isla Vista would never be the same.
By Taylor Haggerty
February 25, 2010
On the night of Feb. 25, 1970, second-year student Greg Desilet
grabbed his camera from his apartment on El Nido Lane and joined the
crowds swarming the streets of Isla Vista.
After a year of high tension, unrest and anger, rioting students had
looted and set fire to the local Bank of America, which stood on the
site of today's Embarcadero Hall.
"It was quite an extraordinary scene that night," Desilet said.
"People were in all kinds of different moods happy, celebrating,
freaked out, others shocked, stunned by what was going on. The police
never did come the entire evening, nor did the firemen."
Earlier that afternoon, William Kunstler, a defense attorney who
represented well-known defendants in the Chicago Seven trial
following the anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic National
Convention, spoke at the stadium on campus.
Authorities anticipated an inflammatory reaction and showed up in
full force to control the crowd. As a group of students walked back
toward Isla Vista after the speech, police beat 22-year-old student
Rich Underwood into submission and arrested him for carrying a bottle
of wine they assumed was a Molotov cocktail.
"Imagine being in Harder Stadium and having the lawyer of a
high-profile national trial … draw connections between what has been
happening nationally with what has been happening on campus,"
then-Santa Barbara City College student and KCSB broadcaster Malcolm
Gault-Williams said. "And then imagine a large part of those
attendees leave the stadium and … watch as police not just arrest a
student but beat the shit out of him."
According to John Riley, a second-year student living on Del Playa
Drive at the time, the police's actions fueled student anger.
"Cops arrested this guy and set everything off," Riley said. "It was
like throwing a match into a gasoline can, everybody just went nuts."
Later that night, the bank was looted and set on fire on two separate
occasions once between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. when a dumpster was lit
on fire and once around midnight when gasoline was used to rekindle the blaze.
According to Professor Emeritus Richard Flacks, a well-known liberal
leader whose appointment to the Sociology Dept. in 1969 caused a stir
among conservatives including then-Governor Ronald Reagan, the
burning of the bank was not a premeditated event.
"By evening I would guess hundreds of people were in the street and
at some point people lit a trash dumpster and pushed it through the
bank doors," Flacks said. "I kind of never believed people thought
that would happen."
Some students saw the bank as a symbol of big business, capitalism
and the Vietnam War, citing its ties to the defense industry.
"It was the biggest capitalist thing around," Becca Wilson, a
fourth-year student and then-editor in chief of El Gaucho, the
predecessor to the Daily Nexus, said. "It was a symbol of the
corporations that benefited from war and were oppressing people all
over world, in whose interest government was acting."
Others maintain that the bank was burned purely out of anger and
frustration with overwhelming police presence.
"The day afterwards a lot of it was rationalized as anti-war,"
Desilet said. "The bank was seen to be in league with defense
corporations providing armaments for Vietnam. That was the rationale
given, but in my view it was more. It was locally centered with a lot
of local anger toward police that had developed over time."
"People were just pissed off. They were really pissed off"
The 1969-70 year was tumultuous in the school's history, with tension
on campus growing alongside national unrest and disagreement over the
The voting age in 1970 was 21, but after the lottery system was
instituted for the draft, many younger students received numbers that
increased their chances of deployment after graduation.
Wilson said that the draft was what really brought the reality of the
war home to students.
"When I started in fall of 1966, there were literally a handful of
people demonstrating, just a quiet little vigil in front of the
library," she said. "Three years later it was a widespread movement
where probably most students were against the war. By that time,
students started to be drafted. It changed the whole atmosphere,
became much more personal."
The charged political climate of the time was evident well beyond the
confines of Isla Vista, too.
"It's hard to imagine now, but the whole country was just boiling
then, with the Chicago Seven, the war, people getting drafted … the
whole country was pretty well out of control," Riley said.
According to Desilet, many of the students targeted their rage at the
ever-present law enforcement officers patrolling Isla Vista.
"Tensions were high in I.V. toward anything and anyone who
represented enforcement of the status quo, and the most immediate and
visible representatives of this status quo line of defense turned out
to be police and narcotics agents," Desilet said. "The accumulated
rage of the disenfranchised and the waiting and unwilling recruits in
line for Vietnam landed squarely on the county sheriff and his agents."
On top of this, the growing drug culture and hippie lifestyle of the
time widened the generation gap between students and police, who
patrolled Isla Vista and campus in riot gear, often using tear gas to
"There was nobody over 25, hardly, and this counter culture, drug
culture climate, which meant police were unable to understand, or
appreciate Isla Vista so to speak," Flacks said. "[The police] really
thought the students were bad guys and that they were at odds with
students. And vice versa. Students knew if they were driving [a]
Volkswagen van painted up or generally had long hair hippy attire you
were going to be harassed by police, stopped in traffic, pulled over, etc."
Although many students were not embroiled in conflict with the police
and demonstrations against the war, anger was the primary motivation
for those who played a role in the burning of the bank.
An Occupied Territory
Once the smoke cleared on Feb. 26 with the Bank of America building
in ruins Gov. Reagan declared a state of emergency.
"[Isla Vista] was just dramatically changed," Gault-Williams said.
"Everybody was walking on eggshells. Some were happy, some angry …
all kinds of moods. Everyone began to unite even more so after the
bank burning in respect to police."
A curfew was instituted in Isla Vista and nearly 300 people were
arrested and taken to the county jail.
"Everybody sensed huge confrontation the night after," Desilet
explained. "I went out on street again to photograph in the early
evening. When I was on Ocean Road taking pictures of police in the
San Rafael parking lot … they arrested me and I was taken to their
staging area. We were then bussed out to fire station down on Storke
Road and eventually over to the new county jail, which was so new
that they didn't even have it open yet."
The National Guard and Los Angeles County SWAT teams were called in
to help maintain order. Bank of America declared that it would not
withdraw from Isla Vista and constructed a trailer as a makeshift
bank, which quickly became the target of numerous demonstrations.
On April 18, a rally was scheduled against the temporary bank.
Associated Students President Bill James went on the radio to speak
against further violence, urging students to protect the bank from vandalism.
Police arrived in armored trucks, dressed in riot gear and armed with
tear gas. Amid the confusion, 22-year-old UCSB student Kevin Moran
was shot and killed.
Although the police claimed the bullet originated from a sniper in
the crowd, a ballistics test determined that it came from a
policeman's rifle. The incident was deemed an accident, and the
officer was later exonerated.
On June 3, 17 students were indicted for the bank burning, after
supposedly being identified from photographs taken on Feb. 25. The
indictments were met with controversy, however, as several of the
students had solid alibis.
"What was obvious was that they were all well-known campus activist
radical leaders," Flacks said. "The idea that that particular group
of well-known people were all together around that dumpster was
outlandish. Especially since some of them were among those arrested
the day before and were actually in jail when the bank burned."
"Social Change, Fair Play and Peace"
The rallies, tear gas and arrests continued throughout the course of
the year, and according to former students, fundamentally changed the
face of Isla Vista.
"The riots destroyed the town," Riley said. "Before the riots it was
this cute little town, nice cinemas, new bookstores, more like a
Santa Cruz or something, and after it was … burned out. It just
destroyed the town."
Yet a new Isla Vista emerged from the smoldering ruins of the Bank of America.
"It suddenly created a lot of attention on Isla Vista itself and how
students were living and sparked the creation of many community
organizations and grassroots movements that turned into
institutions," Wilson said.
The Bank of America closed its Isla Vista branch in 1981, opting to
open an ATM on Embarcadero del Norte instead. Embarcadero Hall stands
in place of the bank today. A plaque in front commemorates Kevin Moran.
It reads, "For Social Change, Fair Play and Peace."