Students Take Action to Improve Community after Chaotic UCSB Riots

A notoriously chaotic party turned into something much more dangerous last week when riots broke out on the streets of Isla Vista, home to students from Santa Barbara City College and the University of California, Santa Barbara. With an estimated 25,000 people in attendance, the annual party, known as “Deltopia,” devolved into violent unrest, leaving six police officers injured, 130 students from across the country arrested, and hundreds more victims of police-inflicted tear gas and rubber bullets.

On the night of Saturday, April 5, lighthearted partying turned violent as students clashed with police over their “right to party.” Videos of the incident show rioters throwing trash cans, stealing street signs, and smashing cars while chanting profanities at police officers.

“Compared to last year, [this year’s Deltopia] was more devastating,” said Nick Balestrieri, an Isla Vista resident and UCSB sophomore. “Many of the stop signs on Camino Del Sur were uprooted, the streets were trashed with broken glass, cans, cups, and other party-like paraphernalia, and I noticed multiple cars with windows smashed in.”

Deltopia takes place on the first weekend of the spring term at UCSB, drawing thousands of people each year. The celebration began in 2010, replacing “Floatopia” as the town’s mass party. Deltopia started small, but eventually developed a national reputation. From 2013-2014 alone, the number of attendees increased from an estimated 18,000 to an estimated 25,000. Santa Barbara County shut down Floatopia in 2009 after the event led to 13 arrests, dozens of hospitalizations, and severe environmental damage.

To discourage crime for this year’s Deltopia, UCSB installed security cameras throughout Isla Vista, prompting community backlash in response to the invasion of privacy. This, in addition to the arguably aggressive police tactics during the riots, led many to proclaim the transformation of Isla Vista into a “police state.”

According to Sheriff Bill Brown of the Santa Barbara Police Department (SBPD), this year’s rioting began at around 9:30 p.m. when a UCPD officer was hit in the forehead with a backpack of liquor bottles, prompting the police to barricade the streets and call on the mob to cease and desist.

Though disagreement remains over what led to the escalation of the riot, many in the community are angered by the police department’s actions.

“I think that they may have been a little too liberal with their rubber bullets and tear gas,” said Jeff Petersen, a sophomore at UCSB. “A good friend of mine got shot by the police while he was trying to walk home … We were walking by with our hands up yelling that we were just trying to get home. They fired without warning us. This was before the riot had even started.”

Balestrieri had a similarly negative experience with the police:

“We decided to head back after one of our group was almost hit by a thrown brick, when we heard a boom followed by white smoke with shouts of “tear gas!” coming from people around us. I was genuinely terrified at this point … Within an hour, there had apparently been so much tear gas launched that it had wafted down the street to my house! We needed to shut our windows and remain indoors to escape the effects of the gas.”

However, many felt that the police department’s actions were at least in part justified by the attacks on the officers themselves during the riot.

“They were on high alert from the sheer number of drunken idiots walking around and it’s hard to distinguish between the malevolent and the benevolent in all that chaos,” Petersen added. “It isn’t their fault … I’m sure if they weren’t there, a lot more people would’ve gotten hurt.”

In fact, many Isla Vista residents claim that the so-called “out-of-towners” were responsible for most of the violence and destruction of Deltopia 2014, and official statistics from SBPD show that 94 percent of Deltopia arrestees were from outside the area.

“We have people from Los Angeles, from San Diego, from Oakland, from San Jose,” said Sheriff Brown. “They come from all over the place, a few people even from outside of the country … and they have no stake in this community, and they want to create problems.”

Some in the community blame themselves for inviting out-of-towners.

“It is time to stop the habit of pushing the blame onto … out-of-towners and take ownership of Isla Vista’s future,” UCSB Associated Students President Jonathan Abboud and Internal Vice President Kyley Scarlet said in a statement.

The question moving forward is how the university will ensure the safety of its students and the community while safeguarding student autonomy. Some have proposed stricter regulation of events like Deltopia by the campus and local government, while others claim that previous regulation efforts have gone to Orwellian extremes.

Many students are taking action into their own hands to prevent such occurrences in the future. Through events such as a mass street-cleaning effort and a “Peace Conference” to air grievances, residents hope to “take back” the once-peaceful culture of Isla Vista.

“What happened last night in Isla Vista was inevitable and we are in part to blame for it because we encouraged this culture,” said Abboud and Scarlet. “This riot was our wake up call. We need to band together and extinguish the party image.”

Editor’s note: This article is a collaborative report by Mia Shaw, Jacob Straus, and Geneva Lovett

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons