Santa Barbara County law enforcement leaders and politicians have spent the last two days explaining just how the events of Saturday May 5th evolved from the level of college campus “street party” to what was initially downplayed by them as “an incident of civil unrest” and is today widely considered as a full-blown “riot” by witnesses.
If the use of surveillance camera towers, tear gas, SWAT vehicles, and rubber bullets defines an event, “riot” certainly feels like the appropriate terminology.
The UCSB campus—uniquely perched along some of the most inviting beaches and surf spots anywhere on the California coast—has over the years been the home of a variety of Spring Break festivities, so it was no surprise that this week’s balmy weather attracted large crowds of local students and outsiders to “Deltopia”, considered by many to be the ultimate collegiate social event.
With origins dating back to 2004 as “Floatopia”, when students gathered on the warm sands in front of campus to enjoy surf-bobbing on homemade or inflatable floating devices, the event attracted modest gatherings numbering in the hundreds until 2009 when more than 12,000 students from as far away as San Francisco and San Diego gathered on the UCSB beach in response to Facebook “invitations”. The unruly crowd ultimately left the beachfront a littered, unsanitary mess, and prompted local authorities to summarily declare the campus beaches off-limits during the weekends of Spring Break.
The years of 2010-2013 saw the partygoers, numbering more than 10,000—prevented from enjoying the beaches—flooding the streets of Isla Vista for “Deltopia” (so named for Del Playa Avenue, the community’s primary thoroughfare) where “rage” parties on public streets involved public drinking, mob dancing, and the occasional fistfight. This past weekend, with clear skies and warm weather beckoning, and with the beaches still securely closed, a reported 15,000 revelers prowled the narrow streets, many in open violation of open container ordinances and clearly inebriated.
According to Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Kelly Hoover, by nightfall May 5th Deputies observed the alcohol-fueled crowd swelling and reaching the proportions and tenor of “an unlawful assembly.” Just after 9:00 p.m., deputies attempted the arrest of an individual for public intoxication, and soon found themselves in the middle of “a major incident” as a “UCSB police officer was hit in the head with a backpack that contained large bottles of alcohol,” Hoover reported. As the officers on the scene continued with their arrest protocols, however, “a large crowd gathered for several blocks and threw objects at law enforcement personnel, including rocks, bricks, and bottles.” Throughout the evening, police barricades attempted to control the crowds, and when that failed, tear gas was deployed with rubber “stun” bullets quickly dispersing the more determined trouble-makers.
As news of the erupting problems made its way to the community via social media, local television news coverage dominated local airwaves, with Ms. Hoover appearing on-camera to express her “disappointment and frustration” with a situation, the nature of which she had never faced during her tenure with the SBSD. “We had a plan in place to handle the situation, but we certainly didn’t expect this,” she said to television cameras.
Just after midnight, the announcement was made that officers had been hit with bricks and bottles, and that more than two dozen civilians had been transported to local hospitals, and that County Sheriff personnel were being backed up by officers of the California Highway Patrol and officers from the Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Ventura police departments. It was at that time that all fire and paramedic units were ordered out of the area for their safety, while U.S. 101 northbound was ablaze in red lights and sirens with law enforcement units responding from Ventura County.
With more than 100 arrests and dozens of people hospitalized—including at least six uniformed deputies and officers—and while community concern ranged from calls for greater law enforcement efforts to criticism of allegedly heavy-handed police actions underlying the weekend events, most agree that partygoers from out of the area were primarily responsible for the eruption of violence and complete disregard for community welfare. Clearly a potential target for criticism at a crucial time in his political career, County Sheriff Bill Brown would only comment that “it was obviously very disturbing that we had as many people as we did behaving in a very reckless manner.”
But his comments may be insufficient to counter the widespread feeling among those in attendance that the arrival of the Sheriff’s SWAT “BearCat” unit, an armored vehicle described by one UCSB coed as “a huge riot van” that did more to incite violence than to quell the rowdiness. As Sheriff, however, Brown’s access to the media may prevail in countering any criticism, as he addressed news cameras and described the response of law enforcement personnel as “very courageous and controlled. I think they actually prevented a much worse incident from developing. If the situation had gone on for another few hours, it had the potential to become much worse,” and added that “I think we were very well prepared for this.”
The voters of Santa Barbara County will presumably weigh Brown’s words against his department’s actions in the voting booth later this year.
Photos: courtesy Santa Barbara County Fire Dept, Santa Barbara County Sheriff
Huffington Post: Deltopia leads 10 100 arrests, 44 hospitalizations
SB Independent: Deltopia party devolves into Isla Vista riot
KCOY: Melee in Isla Vista