Can the Problems at Deltopia Actually Be Solved?

Deltopia in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County. | Photo: Courtesy Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.
Deltopia in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County. | Photo: Courtesy Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.

Recently there was trouble at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was supposed to be a party, but when you gather thousands of people in one place things can go awry.

Specifically, at an unsanctioned (by the University) party called Deltopia held on April 5 in Isla Vista -- a roughly half-square mile adjacent to, but not affiliated with, the University - pieces of ugliness escalated into a riot. According to news accounts, between 15,000 and 25,000 people crowded the beachfront streets of Isla Vista. The party started during the day and ran into the night. Sometime around 9:30 p.m. a university police officer tried to break up a fight. He was hit in the back of the head with a backpack filled with liquor bottles. From this idiocy, additional idiocy ensued. People in the crowd threw rocks, bricks and bottles, rocked cars and smashed windows. Police brought in armored vehicles and employed tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.

At this point, this doesn't sound like much of a party to me.


No surprise, soon after the tear gas dispersed there was much analysis and some distancing and finger pointing. University officials pointed out (above) that the party, which takes place on the first weekend of spring quarter, is not held on University grounds, nor is it University sanctioned. Much of the violence was blamed on visitors. Arrest reports were cited. According to the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office, only 16 of the 62 people given citations were students at UCSB. Citing reports from the University Police Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang said that, of 412 arrests and citations, 376, or 91 percent, were not affiliated with UCSB. The person who hit the policeman over the head with the bottle-filled backpack was a 17-year-old from Los Angeles.

In some instances it is very important that blame be assigned. In our country, you cannot hit someone over the head with a backpack of liquor bottles and walk away.

Nor, rightly, did the University distance itself entirely. In a letter to UCSB students, Chancellor Yang wrote, "...we cannot direct all the responsibility for what happened toward outsiders..." He went on to say that the University would bring together various groups (including students) to try to make sure such a thing doesn't happen again. He concluded his letter by asking for thoughts and suggestions from anyone who cared to think or suggest.

Sadly, thinking is precisely the point. And alcohol, drugs and the safety of the crowd can elevate us to our stupidest.

I have some small acquaintance with this. I am not proud of it. Back in the late 1970s, I attended the University of Virginia. At the time, UVA had a party called "Easters." Party is a bit of an understatement. People poured into Charlottesville from up and down the East Coast, thousands of them. There was alcohol, drugs, sex, and lots of mud (not worth explaining). With honesty and full disclosure in mind, it was, as Deltopia no doubt is for many, great fun.

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But there was a dark undercurrent that hummed alongside, and even college students largely relieved of their senses sensed it. Again, with honesty in mind, I will tell you I have few clear memories of my Easters celebrations, but the memories I do have, snatched from moments of lucidity, are vivid. Some I won't share. But I will tell you that my most vivid memory involves being punched in the throat by someone I didn't know, for reasons that were never explained (it is quite possible I deserved it). Again, I am not proud of this. One minute I was standing in the crowd. The next minute a guy was bearing down on me. He was big, but that's the only physical trait I recall. All I saw was the ugliness in his face. It was ugliness you yourself may have seen. He punched me in the throat and the fight ended there. Perhaps I was hypnotized by the ugliness -- no doubt, substantial painkillers played a role -- but after my assailant hit me, he and I both stood waiting for some rational response, most likely collapse. When I just stood, staring, the ugliness drained from my assailant's face, replaced by a mild look of alarm and he turned and quickly disappeared into the crowd. The next day, I was profoundly embarrassed. I also couldn't talk. I have never forgotten the look on his face.

In my ensuing years, I have seen that ugliness again, but only on a handful of occasions. I have seen far more good in people than evil, but it is no secret that we are, all of us, hard-wired for both.

I sincerely hope Chancellor Yang and the other folks involved come up with a solution to the problems that arose from Deltopia, but I am not sure there is one. Assemble thousands of people, mix in alcohol and drugs, and ugly things will rise to the surface. I know it is coincidence, but Deltopia sounds a bit like Dystopia.

But in the face of the rock throwing, window smashing, mob-coward inhumanity that a portion of this year's Deltopia became, it is most important to remember that ugliness was the exception, not the rule. Thousands gathered. Just over four hundred were arrested and cited. One slung a backpack heavy with liquor bottles. The rest did what young people (and older people) want to do; have a good time. Here's something else you should know. Before and after the tear gas dispersed, kids tried to calm people, they put out fires, they asked people to get off cars, they came out into the streets and swept up broken glass.

Most of the young people who attended Deltopia (and/or cleaned up) will go on to do good things, grand and not-so-small -- discover a cure for a fatal disease, apply a technology that changes all our worlds, raise a family, love a husband or wife, become a part of their community in countless forms.

But the ugly will always be there, too. It's just the way it is.

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