Editor’s Note: February 2005 marks the 35th anniversary of student protests that rocked the UCSB campus in 1970. In reaction to the firing of professor Bill Allen and the expanding war in Vietnam, rioting students burned down the Isla Vista Bank of America on Feb. 25, 1970. The second of four parts, this series looks back on the’69-70 year in UCSB history.
Swinging a bottle of wine, Rich Underwood strolled from Harder Stadium into Isla Vista with several hundred other students who had just attended a speech delivered by defense attorney William Kunstler. The date was Feb. 25, 1970.
During that month, Kunstler represented the famed “Chicago Seven,” a group of prominent counter-culture figures who were accused of conspiracy with intent to incite riots after violent street protests marred the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
In his lecture to the stadium audience, Kunstler referenced the controversy at UCSB over fired anthropology professor Bill Allen and some scattered violence in Isla Vista – which included the attempted burning of a police car – that preceded his arrival.
“I have never thought that breaking of windows and sporadic, picayune violence is a good tactic,” Kunstler told the crowd, which applauded the statement. “But, on the other hand,” Kunstler continued, “I cannot bring myself to become bitter and condemn young people who engage in it.”
The crowd, as heard on archived audio from KCSB 91.9 FM, whistled and applauded again.
Police officers in a patrol car pulled alongside Underwood. Mistaking his bottle of wine for a Molotov cocktail, the officers ordered him under arrest, in plain sight of the sizable crowd that was moving toward a planned rally in Isla Vista’s Perfect Park. Underwood, described by El Gaucho reports documenting the incident as a former UCSB student, had already been placed under arrest less than a month earlier – following the police charge in front of the administration building during the first major pro-Allen rally on campus.
Underwood resisted the officers trying to arrest him again, drawing more police – clad in riot gear – to the scene to help subdue him. As police beat Underwood, onlookers flung rocks at the patrol cars.
Energized by Kunstler’s speech and a fresh example of perceived police brutality, the stone throwing expanded. Vandals shattered windows at realtor companies throughout Isla Vista and then aimed their rocks at the windows of the Bank of America.
Before sunrise on Feb 26, a night of street rioting would leave the Bank of America – present-day Embarcadero Hall – in a pile of ashes. The downtown area of Isla Vista would slouch in a cloud of tear gas.
No Longer a Joke
After attending Kunstler’s speech, Doug Hewitt returned to his fraternity house. Hewitt, now 53, was a freshman at UCSB during the 1969-70 academic year. His 20-year-old son currently attends Santa Barbara City College and lives on Del Playa Drive in Isla Vista.
Later that night, Hewitt said he heard rioters were trying to burn down the bank. Around 10 p.m., he went outside to see what was happening. Across the street from the bank, on the sidewalk that now fronts Woodstock’s Pizza and Javan’s Sandwiches, Hewitt said he watched as fire engulfed the structure.
“The flames were just shooting up the arch of the two-story brick building, three-story, whatever it was,” Hewitt said. “It was like your worst nightmare. This is really happening. People would talk about it before. You heard about ‘oh, let’s go burn a bank,’ but it actually happened. I don’t remember if people were happy about it. There were some students who got really wrapped-up in the whole thing – it became their reason for being here.”
Hewitt said he and his friends who were watching looked at each other in disbelief, realizing the situation in Isla Vista was “no longer a joke.”
“For the most part, we were rowdy, innocent, young, or concerned about Vietnam and concerned about being drafted,” Hewitt said. “I remember sitting across from the bank on the curb and just watched it. I don’t know what exactly happened, but you know, you turn to the person next to you and say ‘can you believe this is happening?’ My direct feeling was like most of the people that were students who were not necessarily happy about it because it got bigger than anybody wanted it to get, or thought it would get.”
After Underwood’s arrest, mobs of students roamed the streets, pelting police patrols with rocks and bottles. While police reinforcements eventually retaliated with tear gas, the hail of stones and bottles completely drove the first contingents of law enforcement officials from Isla Vista. Many police were injured. At the bank, a group of rioters lit a dumpster on fire and rolled it next to the building’s entrance. According to accounts by KCSB reporters broadcasting live, unknown individuals overturned the flaming dumpster. Burning trash ignited plywood shielding used to protect the bank’s windows from rocks, and the structure burned through the night it collapsed.
Property of Bank of America
Shortly after learning of his 1960 appointment to a tenured teaching position at UCSB, sociology professor Richard Flacks made front-page news nationwide. An attacker, posing as a reporter, met him at his Chicago office for an interview and savagely beat him. The unidentified assailant left Flacks, a well-known founding member of Students for a Democratic Society, with a hole in his skull.
Flacks, who would recover at a hospital and arrive at UCSB in July that year, said he has always assumed the attack was political. Students for a Democratic Society was a new-leftist student movement that primarily protested the war in Vietnam.
“When my appointment [at UCSB] was announced, which was like June of ’69 – that became a controversial issue,” Flacks said. “Governor Regan attacked the appointment. He said a wonderful statement of his. He said it’s like ‘hiring a pyromaniac to be a fuse-maker in a firecracker factory.'”
Prior to the controversy over his hiring, which eventually subsided, and the student unrest that brought chaos to the UCSB campus, Flacks said he had expected Santa Barbara to be more relaxing than the politically tumultuous Windy City.
“So the irony was that with starting in January of 1970, there comes this tremendous explosion of campus protest here, which had been preceded by a year or two of prior actions by black students, and by the student anti-war people, and so forth,” Flacks said. “But first the demonstrations in support of Bill Allen were dramatic, and then came this scene in Isla Vista, which led to the burning of the bank.”
Flacks, who teaches classes in political sociology, has also devoted significant time to researching social movements, political consciousness and student culture. His book, “Beyond the Barricades: the 60’s Generation Grows Up,” tracks the evolution of political attitudes among several Isla Vista riot participants in the 20 years since the bank burned down.
“There was a mood among the wider student body by 1970, and not only here, but around the country, that was really kind of a neat reaction to authority – both national and police authority, parental authority [and] university authority,” Flacks said. “All of these seemed … to a lot of young people at that point in time as backward, repressive, uncaring, unfeeling, sending us off to war, not understanding our values as young people.”
Flacks said there were collective values that young people shared during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“There was no 18-year-old vote, there was a draft,” Flacks said. “These are very strong realities that I think people of [the current] generation don’t acknowledge … you have to really work at feeling what that might mean. That, on the one hand, you might be forced to go die for your country, but have no voice in foreign policy at all. Not even a voting voice.”
Doug Hewitt said those realities were always in the back of his mind, especially when he stepped out of line. He said he and his roommate tried to take a piece of the bank back to the dorms while protestors were looting the building.
“There were a bunch of things around,” Hewitt said. “One of them was a chair. My roommate and I took this chair. It said ‘Property of Bank of America’ on it. We get this announcement saying ‘Anyone discovered with Bank of America property will be arrested on the spot.’ So we took the chair and put it in the lounge. Somebody [today] probably has it in their corporate board room.”