Sheer Pandemonium. The combination of these two words can be used to perfectly describe the chaotic atmosphere of UC Santa Barbara’s student neighborhood, Isla Vista, in early April of 2014. The coastal niche, located directly next to the college campus, serves as a home to thousands of Santa Barbara students living within the neighborhood’s square mile grid of beach shacks, apartment complexes, restaurants and liquor stores. The particular weekend I chose to visit was during “Deltopia”, a day when the entire neighborhood celebrates one huge college block-party and literally every other house along the streets is open and welcome to any inebriated person that happens to stumble in.
I had spent the entire day wandering along the littered streets with my group of friends, navigating our way through swarms of people spilling out of house parties attempting to experience everything that this ghetto-beach-paradise had to offer. By the time the sun fell, everyone had retreated to their houses for a couple hours of rest and regrouping in an attempt to gain enough energy that will help carry them through night. I was standing in the kitchen of a friend’s house when someone swung through the front door and announced that a riot was taking place only about one block away from us. At the time, I had a deeply buried urge within myself to someday take part in a riot, just to see what all the fuss is about, so when I heard news regarding my buried curiosity, my attention was immediately captured. I briefly scanned the room to see if any one else looked similarly interested and my eyes stopped to focus in on my friend Devon, who has a 6’4 slender frame and long disheveled hair which made him stand out amongst the people in the living room. We both made eye contact and understood that we had to at least find out if the news was true.
Devon and I made our way out the front door and began making our way towards the location of the suspected riot, which conveniently happened to be right around the corner on Del Playa Dr., a narrow street running parallel to mile long strip of unique cliff-side homes which serve as one of Isla Vista’s main attractions. At first we had our doubts that a civil unrest was unfolding anywhere around us, due to the relatively calm atmosphere. Friends dragging each other home after a few too many drinks, arguing couples and a few other random characters were scattered among the street we walked on, providing no hints of a riot. It wasn’t until we turned the corner I finally realized what I was about to get myself into. Above Devon and I buzzed a low flying police helicopter, making rotating laps with its spotlight trained on the crowd below and directly in front of us passed a marching formation of about 10 police officers organized into two columns. The rhythm of their boots stomping against the concrete banged against my eardrums as the column of officers passed by, brandishing hard rubber batons and plexiglass shields with their various other pieces of basic riot gear. We followed in their tracks until reaching the street of Del Playa, where before us stood a sea of rowdy college students and out of town party-goers reveling in the riotous chaos that was created after an earlier incident when an officer responded to the scene of a stabbing and then was hit over the head with a backpack full of bottles. After deciding that the outskirts of the riot wouldn’t give us the full adrenaline-pumping experience we hoped to encounter, Devon and I began heading forward through the sea of unrest and saw a SWAT van parked behind several rows of officers, blaring its siren that pierced my ears while the blinding red and blue police lights whirled above it.
We marked the SWAT van as the destination to head towards and the closer we approached, the more the chaos grew. I looked above me as a hail of bottles, shoes, rocks and other small objects were hurled overhead in attempts to hit an officer within the tight formation of policemen that stood within 100-yards. The loud “thump” and sparks of concussion grenades exploded nearby and the sounds of gunshots echoed from the muzzles of police shotguns as they fired rubber bullets into the crowd. “They have rubber bullets, it’s not worth it,” cried a younger looking man as he ran past me, gripping the bloody hole in his cheek. After finally managing to reach the forefront of the riot, I witnessed a bottle fly over me and land a direct hit within the row of officers, who now stood about 30-yards away. After a slight pause between the two opposing sides, the Police responded with a powerful vengeance. Rather than to remain standing their ground, I suppose the police grew tired of being target practice for the increasingly unruly crowd and decided to choose a more offensive strategy by raining down canisters of tear gas and moving their line forward. I stood frozen and watched as a canister landed within my range and blew open, releasing an overwhelming surge of irritating fumes that consumed the area around me, forcing me to gag uncontrollably and caused a swelling of tears that distorted my vision. Still disoriented by the tear gas, Devon and I retreated with everyone in the opposite direction to try and escape the swarming cops that were now running in our direction. After managing to make it back to safety, away from the blanket of tear gas and police, we came to the mutual agreement that we had enough taste of excitement for the night. With Devon following, I led us back to the house where we were staying and walked past a group of officers herding people down the street where a smashed and vandalized minivan remained broken in the intersection with a mattress that had previously been set on fire, rested between a charred fence and palm tree, providing a dramatic background for the whole scenario.
That night was definitely one to remember and it thankfully quenched my deep inner desire to participate in a riot. Though aspects of the whole event I could consider as being “fun”, It was an occasion that I would only like to experience once and the unpleasant memory of the internal burning sensation caused by tear gas played a major role in making my decision.