Trouble in Paradise: The Isla Vista Riots of 1970
If you walk or bike through Isla Vista today, you’d be forgiven if you thought you were in paradise. It is relatively peaceful and relaxed, full of UC Santa Barbara students meandering to their classes, even though they are likely running late (that’s just “Santa Barbara time” for you, though). As these young students and visitors walk by sites like Freebirds, Embarcadero Hall, and Anisq’Oyo’ Park, however, very few recognize or know that the streets they are walking down were once sites of violent anti-war riots that leveled a bank building and eventually led to the death of a student. Although this seems like a news story from UC Berkeley, these events took place in Isla Vista on the night of February 25, 1970.
The United States at the dawn of the 1970s was incredibly tense: the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War raged on. The Chicago 8 were on trial for alleged conspiracy against the government. Protests were seen in every major American city and on most college campuses, including UC Santa Barbara. As seen in the war-related front page headlines on the February 26th issue of the school newspaper El Gaucho, students, not unlike today, were politically involved and actively loud. They targeted those individuals and institutions that supported and prolonged the Vietnam War. Within these protests, however, many also demanded change around general grievances they had with the state of the nation, like high rent prices and class inequality (a common Santa Barbara issue throughout the decades).
The following account is based mainly on retrospective pieces written about the night fifty years later and on reporting done by the school newspaper El Gaucho: the latter deemed this night the “I.V. Rampage.” By February 25, night riots had been going on for a few days in Isla Vista, but this was when it all came to a head. The day had begun with an on-campus fiery speech by attorney William Kuntsler about the Chicago 8 trial and how “the natural course of events… if resistance does not succeed–– revolution.” Following this rousing speech, students moved to Perfect Park for a planned protest gathering; however, they encountered police cars that had been patrolling Isla Vista following the events of the preceding nights. According to El Gaucho, the police “suddenly grab[bed]” UCSB student Richard Underwood who had been carrying a bottle of wine and arrested him. (The El Gaucho is unclear if the officers booked Underwood for possessing the wine or some other charge). Students in the park begin attacking the police cars, and although those officers left, the student mass (at this point, increased in size) begins targeting the remaining police presence in IV. By 6:30-7:30 PM, the mass of protestors and students continuously pelted the police with rocks and began to target realty buildings and the Bank of America building (seen as one of the supposed funders of the Vietnam War).
Then the Bank of America building is lit ablaze. As the night goes on, the bank burns to the ground, police employ tear gas and clubs, and students are arrested, especially if they were caught walking around after 3 AM.
At the end of the cited El Gaucho article, it is unclear exactly how many students were arrested or hospitalized due to their injuries. The authors note that then-governor Ronald Reagan debated whether to send in the National Guard to subdue the situation.
The protests and violence would not stop in the following months: in April, there were attempts to rebuild the Bank of America building, but the structure was again set on fire. Some students rushed to put out the fire but were halted by those who had started the vandalism, and in the chaos, responding police officers fatally shot fourth-year Kevin Moran. He had run to the scene with his roommate to help put out the fire but ended up a victim of the Isla Vista riots that had begun in February; the police officer was acquitted of murder after claiming the bullet was misguided.
Ultimately, this imagery is different from the Isla Vista we know today. Still, as cohorts of new UCSB students walk by Embarcadero Hall, they might notice a plaque in honor of Moran that reads “For Social Change, Fair Play, and Peace.” Isla Vista might be an idyllic college town today, but even this mile-wide community has its share of history.
Victoria is a fourth-year English, History, and Russian Studies major and a managing editor at the UCSB Undergraduate Journal of History. In her free time, she enjoys reading, especially at Isla Vista’s cafes and beaches.
Guilhem, Matt. “UCSB students remember the 50th anniversary of Isla Vista’s Bank of America burning.” KRCW. Last modified February 24, 2020.
“I.V. Occupation; Student Killed.” El Gaucho (Goleta, CA), Apr. 19, 1970.
“I.V. Rampage; Bank Destroyed by Fire.” El Gaucho (Goleta, CA), Feb. 26, 1970.
Owens, Tim. “The Bank of America Burning in Isla Vista on the 50th Anniversary.” SB Independent. Last modified February 25, 2020.