The sounds of the scene: tear gas rockets, outcries from the crowd and deputies breaking down apartment doors.
KCSB-FM’s radio documentary “There, Where the Bank Burned,” which aired on Feb. 19, captured the chaos and confusion that ensued during several riots in the 1970 “Year of Rebellion,” including the burning of the Bank of America building in Isla Vista. The documentary was compiled as a mid-century reflection after the bank burned down 50 years ago on Feb. 25, 1970.
In 1970, KCSB reporters covered the protests live in Isla Vista, providing listeners with the sights and sounds of the turmoil, until the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office forced the station to shut down for five days, according to Tim Owens, a former UC Santa Barbara student and the current general manager of KCSB. The police department claimed at the time that the radio station was preventing them from doing their jobs in I.V.
But as Owens explained, I.V.’s Bank of America at the time had become a symbol of the capitalist establishment, which many student activists attributed as the cause of oppressive social issues.
The hour-long special takes listeners on a deep dive into the KCSB archives, featuring KCSB news coverage of the Isla Vista riots — often phoned in at the scene from telephone booths — the bank burning and recordings that depicted police violence against protestors, according to Lisa Osborn, current news director at KCSB.
Sound bites from key players like the Santa Barbara Police Department and then-defense attorney in the Chicago Seven trial William Kunstler, as well as accounts from former students, provide different perspectives on what happened and the consequences that followed. Sound bites of I.V. and narration from Owens illustrate the entirety of I.V. in 1970, later coined the “Year of Rebellion.”
“For Isla Vista, 1970 was the scene of a bank burning, a fatal shooting with a student by a police office, novel law enforcement riot tactics, police brutality and mass arrests,” Owens said in the special.
“What came in February, April and June in Isla Vista spun its web around the symbol of the establishment: the Bank of America,” Owen said in the special.
The program takes a chronological approach, starting with the events that lead up to the Bank of America burning in February before taking listeners through the consequences that followed.
A day before the Bank of America building burned, the special says the Santa Barbara Police arrested two men. According to the special, the warrants for their arrests cited their use of obscenities during an earlier protest.
An argument ensued between the officers and the men, forming a crowd that quickly grew upset when the men were arrested. The crowd took action, desecrating the policeman’s car and eventually lighting it on fire. Another officer removed the police from the scene.
The following day, and hours before the infamous bank burning, Kunstler had been scheduled to speak at the Harder stadium. The special included the audio from Kunstler’s speech at Harder Stadium, which focused on the frustrations of youth.
“In his book, Justice Douglas said the establishment today is the same as George the third. And he said if the establishment does not stop its stampede toward oppression and repression, then the only honorable course is what men did in 1776,” Kunstler said in his speech at Harder Stadium.
Owens explained how the timing of Kunstler’s speech, and the bank burning later that day, led the former state Attorney General to investigate Kunstler for inciting a riot. No evidence involving Kunstler was found, according to the special.
But when authorities showed up later that evening to control the crowds gathered on Embarcadero del Norte, they “proceeded to fire hundreds of rounds of tear gas at the demonstrators,” the special stated.
Tensions climaxed at the Bank of America building, where Embarcadero Hall stands today. The bank was first looted and later set on fire — twice — first around 7 p.m. when a dumpster was lit on fire and again around midnight when gasoline was used to rekindle the blaze, according to the special.
Meanwhile, KCSB was broadcasting it all live. Owens extracted these clips from vintage KCSB archives to allow listeners to hear from the reporters who very first covered it, he said.
“Pardall may be clear now, I’m not sure. I am beginning to feel the tear gas in my throat. I hear teargas rockets continuing to be fired off, which means they are coming from the overpass,” an unnamed KCSB reporter phoned in to the radio station.
As the chaos ensued, KCSB student reporters described the riot’s atmosphere, preserving the sounds and images they witnessed from the streets.
“An incendiary device has been thrown into the Bank of America right now, and it is burning very brightly on the floor with high flames shooting almost to the roof,” an anonymous KCSB reporter said. “However, again, you have your opposing factions in Isla Vista because almost as soon as that device was off inside the Bank of America, two guys went running through and attempted to stomp out the fire.”
On April 18, a second riot occured at the bank. Violence ensued when it became known that the UCSB administration canceled a scheduled speech by a Chicago 7 defendant, according to the special.
During this riot, Santa Barbara police officer David Gosselin shot and killed 22-year-old UCSB student Kevin Moran, an economics major who was seeking to protect the bank from other student protestors. Gosselin, according to the special, claimed his rifle had misfired.
“The pandemonium and confusion caused by the heavy exchange of gunfire during the first moments of conflict make it impossible at this time to accurately determine whether or not the officer fired the fatal projectile,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff James Webster said in a sound bite from a press conference featured in the special.
Following the second protest, KCSB was ordered by Sheriff Webster to shut down its broadcasts; Webster stated at the time that KCSB’s broadcasting of the officer’s operations and locations were “making the enforcement of this area absolutely intolerable.”
Webster claimed he had the authority to shut down KCSB’s broadcasts despite dismissing questions about federal protections over the press, according to the special.
“They shut down KCSB — that’s very rare, because we’re licensed by the federal government, not the local cops, but because the Regents hold our license, supposedly, they wanted us off the air,” Osborn said, explaining how local police blamed KCSB for inciting violence at the time.
KCSB returned to air five days later and continued to cover life in I.V., including having interviews with community residents who recounted the violence they witnessed. During the special, one woman recounts seeing the police assaulting her husband, describing the sequence as she chokes back tears.
“Somebody yelled, ‘I think the police were coming.’ He stopped and the police rushed up the stairs, grabbed him and hit him in the stomach and dragged him down,” she said.
A third disturbance in June led to a strictly enforced curfew and an increased presence from the Los Angeles Special Enforcement Bureau in I.V., leading to numerous complaints from residents, according to Owens in the documentary. Godfrey recalls that from dusk until dawn, no one was allowed outside.
The Bank of America eventually closed its Isla Vista branch for good in 1981; now, Embarcadero Hall, a UCSB lecture hall, stands in its place.
A version of this article appeared on p. 5 of the Feb. 27, 2020 print edition of the Daily Nexus.