"We fostered something chaotic and irresponsible": Elliot Rodger, Isla Vista & the echoes of a tragedy

One year ago tomorrow, a young man opened fire in southern California. In the time since, has anything changed?

Published May 22, 2015 8:00PM (EDT)

Elliot Rodger                    (YouTube)
Elliot Rodger (YouTube)

A year ago, May 23rd, a young man opened fire on a Friday night in Isla Vista, Calif., the small community that houses University of California, Santa Barbara. I was a teacher there at the time, in my fourth year in the literature department. (I had also gone to UCSB as an undergraduate.) Seven students were killed that night, six of whom were students at UCSB, and 13 were injured; the shooter, Elliot Rodger, was a former student at nearby Santa Barbara City College. By the next morning, Rodger’s Youtube videos had gone viral, in which he spelled out his plan to kill every "slut" who had ever denied him sex as "retribution" for his still being a virgin. He laughed like a cartoon villain, blaming women for his misery, and spelling out his plans to slaughter them in punishment.

The night after the shootings, a colleague and I went to a candlelight vigil in Isla Vista. We walked our candles the several blocks from the campus quad past the Isla Vista Deli where Christopher Michaels-Martinez had lost his life the day before. The windows were shot out; flowers, pictures, and messages covered the ground, mourning a young man who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Students came up to a microphone one-by-one in Anisq’Oyo’ Park to verbalize what was weighing on them. But already the event had turned in to a call for community, which, to my colleague and me, seemed a precipitous call to move forward, almost insensitive to the seven who had died just hours before.

Mel Weisberger, a sophomore film and media studies major, remembers a temporary change immediately following the shootings. “People were being much nicer to each other, the streets were quieter, and there was an overall feeling that everyone just wanted peace,” she said. “A few weeks passed and we all went home for summer vacation. When I returned in the fall, I realized that for a lot of people, it became fashionable to care.”

Literature major Korrin Alpers, also a sophomore, remembers the hashtag activism born of the massacre. “The hopeful slogan that came out of this event was ‘IV Strong,’” she wrote me. “The tragedy is that we lack ownership—we blame people from out of town, the people who throw wild parties, Greek life, mental illnesses, white privilege, misogyny. And yes, these are all contributing factors to the brokenness in our community, but a large part is our own. Of course, we did not push this young man to open fire in our town. But we did foster something chaotic and irresponsible that for some reason encouraged a sense of entitlement to sex.”

Over my eight years at UCSB as a student and then a teacher, I watched the decline of female safety and agency as the campus culture grew more and more predatory. A female student of mine said she was terrified to walk alone to class in broad daylight. Two others came to my office hours rattled and teary after having been harassed; several were yelled at by police and college men for dressing provocatively. One young woman had PTSD from having been sexually assaulted more than once at college parties, and because of triggers couldn't read the Faulkner novel I assigned.

After the shooting, the language of grief from the campus administration was typical: a senseless tragedy, young lives taken too soon, etc. The national conversations quickly turned political as advocates for gun control, and those opposed to misogyny and rape culture, used the event to make their points. The university hosted a memorial service-turned-rally.

But what has changed on the ground? Isla Vista, an unincorporated community, doesn’t belong to either the city or the university, and therefore can’t be governed or regulated by either. Kum-Kum Bhavnani, chair of UCSB’s Academic Senate, said the university’s efforts to protect its students is mainly up to its good will. “UC Santa Barbara has for many years voluntarily contributed significant resources (several million dollars annually) to the County for safety efforts in Isla Vista, and contributed additional resources to add more lights, sidewalks and recently a fence along the bluff. The safety of our students is our highest priority, including in Isla Vista, where the university’s influence is limited.”

UC President Janet Napolitano’s Task Force includes plans for better streetlights and increased campus police presence. The federal Department of Education allocated $570,000, notably funding the Campus Advocacy Resources & Education (CARE) program, which advocates for sexual assault victims and educates the community about sexual violence.

UCSB just closed down its third fraternity this school year, after sexual assault allegations arose against Nu Alpha Kappa (the other two were shut down for unsafe education practices (the other two were shut down for unspecified reasons and alcohol hazing, respectively). UCSB additionally placed a sorority on interim suspension. The university had not closed a Greek chapter in the previous two years, so three (possibly four) closures in a year since the shootings may signal the university’s lower tolerance for dangerous and reckless student activities.

In October, the state of California passed a bill allowing families and friends of disturbed people to seek a restraining order to ensure they don't buy a gun. The legislation was very publicly supported by Richard Martinez, father of the student shot near Isla Vista Deli, and certainly precipitated by the fact that police performed a wellness check to Rodger’s apartment in Isla Vista less than a month before his rampage (at the request of his concerned family). The police, however, did not enter Rodger’s apartment to perform an actual search, as he appeared coherent and polite.

Despite such efforts, some students, faculty, and staff do not see visible evidence that Isla Vista is any safer, and claim that the administration’s rhetoric sounds hollow. Weisberger says she feels no safer now in Isla Vista than she did before Rodger killed six of her schoolmates. “When people talk about what happened, they label Rodger as ‘crazy’ and ‘an extremist,’ which he was; but what people don’t talk about is the fact that on a less extreme level, that mentality still exists in some people in Isla Vista. These are the people who try to stop me on my bike and push me down, the people who catcall me from their balconies, and the people who follow me and my friends as we walk home. Now, when I go out on weekends, I stuff all of my hair into my hood and try my best to look like a boy so that no one tries to knock me off my bike again.”

A faculty member in the College of Letters & Science at UCSB, who asked not to be named, agrees with Alpers and Weisberger. “As long as the majority of our undergraduate students, females and males alike, do not feel it’s safe, it is not. As long as the majority of our faculty feel [the same way], it is not. None of the rhetoric matters until the people involved say it is good. I am not convinced yet that the administration is interested in real change, rather [than] in good P.R.”

Emily Potter, a sexual assault survivor and student staff member with CARE, was perhaps the most optimistic about the slow changes she sees on the ground level of her work. “It's not so much that CARE has changed. It's more the awareness and use of the resource. I would say there has been an increase in using the resources. Not because there are more people, but because there are more people coming forward. Because of President Napolitano's Task Force, people want this program.”

Potter also believes that the change is coming from the top, so it may take some time before students see it. “The attitude toward CARE and addressing sexual assault has changed.  There's a bigger push to address these issues,” she said. “There's disagreement on how to go about it, but the fact that we're having that conversation is good. The administration is only starting to shift their culture by questioning, but they're starting to care, and they're starting to ask.”

Alpers, too, is anxious to see authentic changes. “I do not think our community has changed. As for the administration’s response, there were a lot more emails and updates immediately after the shooting. Not so much now. I think they do a fine job expressing care, but I don't feel much safer. There are a lot more police around, which does not necessarily comfort me either. I just feel like there's a huge age gap between those in charge and those who experience the real culture here.”

Just last week I contacted Korrin Alpers to fact check, and she wrote me back with more bad news: “Just so you know, about 40 minutes ago, there was another shooting. As of right now, 3 people were shot. Pretty eerie.” That night, on May 11th, two gunmen engaged in “an altercation” that left one UCSB student with a gunshot wound to his stomach, and another with a through-and-through wound to his chest. The university placed dorms on lockdown and urged students in Isla Vista to shelter in place. The terror du jour was mercifully brief, yet still present.

A year after the deadly shootings, for those not directly involved in efforts to change the daily realities of living in Isla Vista, there seems to be a refrain of discontent—one that if students, faculty, staff, and the public sing loud enough, UCSB might hear, and if the University of California administration sings loud enough, might have echoes in campus culture on a national level. In the years to follow, and in this upcoming election year, who else might join this choir?

By Ellen O'Connell

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Elliot Rodger Gun Control Gun Violence Isla Vista Shooting Mass Shooting Uc Sa