Vol. 40, No. 3
Revisiting the Bank of America Burning
UCSB Alumni Association Scholarship Fund’s First Recipients
UCSB’s Computer Security Group Addresses Internet Vulnerabilities
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Athletics to Create a Walk of Champions
A Family of Gauchos: Duongs Can Boast About Six Alums
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From the Ashes: 40 years after the infamous burning of the Bank of America, UCSB alumni take a look back at the event that shaped Isla Vista

By Taylor Haggerty, ’10

On the night of February 25, 1970, second-year student John Riley, ’72, left his apartment on Del Playa Drive and joined the masses of people on the streets of Isla Vista. A few blocks away, the Bank of America building on Embarcadero del Norte was engulfed in flames.

“It was pretty interesting,” Riley recalls. “People were talking wild stuff, people were calming people down, there was every spectrum of the equation you could think of, from let’s take over the town and fight the cops, to hey calm down this is getting out of control.”

That night the Isla Vista branch of Bank of America was vandalized and set on fire twice — once when a dumpster was lit on fire and pushed into the building, and again later when gasoline was used to relight the blaze. Students filled the streets throughout the evening and woke up to the charred remnants of one of I.V.’s most central buildings.

Bank of America

“It was not consciously decided, ‘Oh, let’s burn the bank’,” Becca Wilson, ’70, a fourth-year student and editor-in-chief of the student paper, El Gaucho, said of the first fire. “It was a pretty spontaneous thing. It started to burn out of control —nobody tried to stop it.”

Although hordes of police officers had patrolled Isla Vista throughout the day following a speech by a well-known political figure on campus, neither law enforcement nor firefighters were present at the time of the fire.

According to Riley, many students were surprised at the impact they had on the town and local law enforcement officials.

“It was sort of empowering for the people that were rioting, if you will, in that they took over the whole town,” Riley said. “It sort of blew the mind of the college and police and everybody else that that could happen. It was not like people just wanted to riot, there wasn’t any malicious intent to begin with.”

Greg Desilet, ’72, a second-year student living on El Nido Road at the time, had been working on a photojournalism project documenting the Bill Allen protests and ventured into the lobby of the charred bank that night with his camera.

“I was able to take photographs because there was no one there,” he said. “I didn’t go upstairs, it would have been dangerous. There was so much smoke in the building, smoke filling up the room… it was not particularly easy to breathe.”

The burning of the bank occurred amidst months of student unrest following the Union Oil Spill of April 1969, the firing of popular Anthropology Professor Bill Allen, and growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Once the lottery system for the draft was instituted, many students who had received deferrals for attending college faced deployment to Vietnam after graduation. The police presence and frequent breaches of appropriate conduct on campus and throughout Isla Vista further angered students, according to many there at the time, serving as a constant reminder of authority’s abuse of power.

On the afternoon of Feb. 25, 1970, William Kunstler, the well-known defense attorney for the Chicago Seven, spoke at the stadium on campus, drawing parallels between national events and the situation facing students in Isla Vista. Shortly after the speech, police apprehended and beat a student for carrying an open bottle of wine on the walk back to Isla Vista, sparking a volatile reaction from the students.

While the speech itself may have aroused emotions, the long-standing attitude toward the police played an important role in escalating events.

“There were bad feelings toward police and so when one person was busted shortly after the Kunstler speech, with the crowd there and a lot of people standing around, it triggered a huge angry reaction,” Desilet said. “There was already a scheduled rally in Perfect Park and it became an excuse for rioting because people were so angry at the police.”

The mood darkened as the day progressed, with more and more students taking to the streets.

“It seemed to have been from that point on late afternoon, there was fighting in I.V. against police … rocks thrown, people more and more upset and it started to escalate,” said Professor Emeritus Richard Flacks, a well-known liberal leader whose appointment to the Sociology Dept. in 1969 caused a stir among conservatives, including then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.

By nightfall, hundreds of students were out. The bank was looted and the police driven from Isla Vista by angry crowds.

Some students felt the Bank of America was targeted because of its ties to the defense industry or its status as a large capitalist corporation.

“Bank of America was highly involved in Vietnam and became a lightning rod for people to get pissed off and say here is this giant bank in the middle of this student village, and people took out their wrath at this bank as symbolic of the Vietnam War,” Riley said. “People were really, really angry and the bank became the focus, whether rightly or wrongly.”

Others, however, felt that this was merely a rationalization for student anger that originated much closer to home.

“The day afterwards a lot of it was rationalized as anti-war, that the bank was a symbol for antiwar movement,” Desilet said. “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.”

Regardless of the intent, the rioting and burning of the bank caught the attention of the media and gained Isla Vista national recognition as a hotbed of student unrest.

“That became world news overnight,” Flacks said. “Banks don’t usually go around burning down. No one knew about Isla Vista and suddenly now they’ve heard of it, everyone in the planet, for a day or two.”

The day after the burning, the bank was little more than a burned-out shell of a building.

“I stayed up pretty late watching and the next day I got some pictures,” Desilet recalled. “The bank was just demolished like a bomb hit it, there was just nothing left.”

A curfew was instituted in Isla Vista and then-Gov. Reagan called in the National Guard for support. Bank of America constructed a makeshift bank in a trailer, which became the target of subsequent rallies and attacks.

In April, 22-year-old student Kevin Moran was shot and killed by police fire while attempting to defend the bank from further violence.

According to Malcolm Gault-Williams, ’71, a Santa Barbara City College student and KCSB broadcaster at the time, this tragic incident signaled a need to end the violence. “The killing of Kevin Moran on the steps of the temporary bank building, by the Santa Barbara police, that kind of brought recognition to people that things had gone too far,” he said.

For many Isla Vista residents, the burning of the bank permanently changed the small beachside town.

“After the riots, the cute, little, cozy, little town was gone,” Riley said. “It changed I.V. so completely it was unreal.”

According to Gault-Williams, today’s Isla Vista is a product of the changes instituted after the burning of the bank.

“The formation of the park board, the Isla Vista Food Co-op, the medical clinic, the efforts to gain cityhood for I.V. were all positive things that engaged many student and community leaders for years after,” he said. “And some things continue today that wouldn’t have happened if people hadn’t been able to get together.”

Today, a university lecture hall stands on the site of the Bank of America, but the volatile chapter of the university’s history lives on in the minds of those who witnessed it.

“It’s something like the Woodstock story, where everyone who was a certain age says they were there,” Flacks said. “I would take any story about what happened with a grain of salt.”

"Reflecting on Rebellion: Isla Vista 40 Years Later" Panel, 4-5:30 p.m., April 24 in Theatre & Dance, room 1701. Hosted by Professor Emeritus Richard Flacks.

Malcolm Gault-Williams, “Don't Bank on Amerika” (documentary account)
Richard Flacks, “Beyond the Barricades” (sociological study)
Gregory Desilet, “Burning Banks and Roasting Marshmallows: The Education of Daniel Marleau” (historical fiction)