47 years ago, Protests against the Vietnam War were at a fevered-pitch – college campuses all over the country were hotbeds. And 1970 was just getting started.
The situation in the Isla Vista section of Santa Barbara California started off just as any other anti-war protest.
As the UC Santa Barbara newspaper put it, in a 2010 article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the protest and subsequent riot:
UC Santa Barbara Nexus – Article by Taylor Haggerty – February 25, 2010 issue
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 Vietnam War.
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.
The situation at UC Santa Barbara would be repeated in April of 1970 – that one would have lethal results. However, news of that particular protest and riot was eclipsed by the goings-on at Kent and Jackson State on the other side of the country.
Here is a documentary/discussion on the events at Isla Vista as heard over KPFK in Los Angeles on February 26, 1970 and produced by Music Director William Malloch who was on the scene.