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.
“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 disperse crowds.
“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.”