Occupy Isla Vista for the 99%

Against the Current, No. 156, January/February 2012

E. Feng and J. Gamma

ISLA VISTA IS an unincorporated community within the Santa Barbara County, a gentrified ghetto on the sunny seaside of southern California packing 23,000 people within its meager 1.8 square miles. The core is composed of students studying at the nearby University of California, with a largely ignored community composed of Latino/Latina working-class and other permanent residents, including a houseless population.

Occupy Isla Vista began on November 5th at People’s Park, adjacent to a university-owned building known as Embarcadero Hall. As a former property of Bank of America, the building was burned down twice by local activists in 1970. The occupation of People’s Park symbolizes the recognition of Isla Vista’s rich sociopolitical history and the reclamation of grassroots activism as an instrument of addressing the failures of the current system.

Building the Occupation

Roughly 120 people gathered for the first day’s kickoff event. Though fewer than half remained for that night’s General Assembly, it was our largest and lengthiest general assembly so far. In eight hours, we drafted a 16-point list of community agreements and ended our first GA at two in the morning.

Over the next two weeks, we erected one canopy, dumpster-dived for food, created a People’s Library, designed “artivist” signs, played music and sang songs from dusk ’til dawn. We marched down the streets, reclaiming them as property of the 99%, and protested the arrests of fellow occupiers. We clogged the telephone lines of the Sheriff’s Department, demanding the release of those who had been unjustly arrested.

Occupiers implemented a Free Skool, set up outreach events on the university campus, and acted in solidarity with other Occupies in California. Aside from its political aspirations, this particular movement encompasses a heartbeat of its own.

The number of occupiers in People’s Park hovered between 20-30 throughout an average day. Due to our size, Occupy Isla Vista encounters challenges different from those faced by most city occupations. We are particularly vulnerable in several ways: authorities are able to identify many of us by name; we are easily threatened by police, as we have less power in numbers; and the loss of one or two occupiers (whether to incarceration or other factors) incurs a great cost to the movement.

The two main instigators of such harassment and excessive surveillance on our occupation are certain members of the Isla Vista Parks and Recreation Board and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol. These two institutions cited our occupation as “unlawful camping” under the Camping and Sleeping Ordinance (NO. 2002-002), which prohibits “camping and sleeping on park district property” — an ordinance that clearly and purposefully criminalizes the houseless.

Arrests and Regrouping

On November 14th the police made the first arrest, charging one occupier with violating the local camping ordinance. We immediately organized a protest march and mobilized camping as a civil-disobedience action — which resulted in several more arrests.

The Occupation gained even more momentum on November 19th, when a UC-Santa Barbara human rights group organized an event at the park in solidarity with the movement. Police were quick to harass this event as well, threatening organizers with the false accusation that the organizers did not obtain a permit for the event.

Two days later, the canopy under which we’d all gathered for an entire two weeks was destroyed, and many occupiers’ belongings confiscated by Isla Vista Foot Patrol. Though physically evicted from People’s Park, the occupiers have continued the movement in a private space, making plans to physically reoccupy the park at a later date.

Occupy Isla Vista began as one of the vast number of small-town occupations that swept the nation in the past few months. It shares the same messages, political energy and tactical repertoire as the larger, flagship occupiers and it acts in tandem with global calls for solidarity.

It also shows regional solidarity by taking part in West Coast Occupations with the 805 Occupy collective (Occupy Santa Barbara, Occupy Oxnard, Occupy Ventura, OccupyThousand Oaks, etc.) to support actions like Wallstreet at the Waterfront. Along the way, however, Occupy IV has reoriented its direction to encompass both the common Occupy struggle and the particular dynamics of a small-town occupation.

As such, Occupy Isla Vista is developing a long-term vision for the Occupation and its role as a galvanizing force within the community. Over the past month, Occupy Isla Vista has become a space for us to experience the cathartic relief of sociopolitical and philosophical freedom.

For some, it endorses the ideology of creating an alternative society — egalitarian and self-sustaining — and stimulates the re-evaluation of institutionalized lifestyles. And for some, it embodies our belief that there are others who have felt and still feel the brunt of inequality on our shoulders, and who are in pursuit of recognition as human beings, not commodities, as well as creating and participating in a true democracy.

January/February 2012, ATC 156