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Out of Senseless Tragedy Came Personal Growth and the True Face of a Community

Out of Senseless Tragedy Came Personal Growth and the True Face of a Community
Lorenzo Basillo | The Bottom Line File Photo

This story is part of a commemorative issue on the third anniversary of the 2014 Isla Vista killings, where a resident killed six UCSB students and injured 14 others.

You never quite see it, but you frequently hear it: the crack of a firework going off in Isla Vista.

It sounds like a pyrotechnic device, a car backfiring, or a gun going off. That was what I heard stacking chairs and tables on the open-air patio of South Coast Deli after we had closed for the night. But there were many more bangs than what I was used to hearing when someone lit off a firework. They were faster in succession, and, disconcertingly, it sounded like the source was moving. That seemed more in line with someone pulling back a trigger and not releasing it. But come on — something like that in I.V.? I heard no other commotion.

My co-worker and I locked up and left soon after, but law enforcement shooed us away from the Pardall Road–Embarcadero del Norte intersection. People still milled about. My co-worker received a text from another co-worker saying there had been a shooting at The Habit, but we were standing right there in front of it, and the burger joint looked fine. I biked home the long way, sirens hitting the air, and my roommates and I turned on the television, figuring by now something serious had happened.

Social media announced the tragedy first, then local news, and then national news. And then it became a bit disorienting: Isla Vista was featured on the homepages of prominent news websites based outside the United States. I was reading about how I.V. had joined the ranks of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, the Washington Navy Yard. People around the world were reading about how a disturbed and misogynistic 22-year-old had slain six of my colleagues — a man roughly my age who was could have been anyone’s roommate, and actually was the roommate of two fellow Gauchos.

Like many, I admit to having a contradictory emotional connection to mass shootings in the news: I certainly feel the sadness and bitter frustration over what happened and why — but the frequency with which such senseless tragedies occur has desensitized me to a degree. But seeing my home plastered all over the news for the worst reasons — hate and carnage and tragedy — was disorienting and a bit sickening. I was half a block from I.V. Deli Mart when Christopher Michaels-Martinez was gunned down. I was two blocks from Alpha Phi when Veronika Weiss and Katherine Cooper lost their lives. I biked down the 6500 block of Seville Road, where David Wang, James Hong and George Chen spent their last moments. Even today, seeing the assailant’s face, hearing his name, and hearing the words of his deranged manifesto read over the news leaves an awful taste in my mouth. I left the room last year in the middle of a local station’s second-anniversary coverage.

I didn’t know anyone physically hurt or killed on May 23, 2014. I knew people who did, or people who knew people who did, but even in the close-knit UCSB community, that degree of separation was enough to shield me from the level of trauma that that night inflicted on so many of my peers. It was a less poignant and more detached grief, anger, and shock than I thought I should have felt. What tugged at my heart more deeply was the immediate coming together of the UCSB and I.V. community.

Nearly 24 hours after the deadliest day in I.V.’s tumultuous history, I was back at South Coast Deli. We were still open, but devoid of customers; everyone was at Storke Plaza for a candlelight vigil. Imprinted on my memory as deeply as any other I.V. memory was watching from that patio with another co-worker the stream of students walking solemnly from Pardall Tunnel toward the intersection I couldn’t cross the night before. The procession filled the width of the street and wouldn’t seem to end. We stood there, and simply marveled solemnly at the turnout. Were there even that many students at UCSB? The sight reaffirmed the magnitude of what my community had just suffered, yet displayed an incredible and heart-warming solidarity that made me proud to be part of that community. I didn’t get to join in on that evening’s acts of memorium, but was in the bleachers at the following Tuesday’s memorial at Harder Stadium, which was better attended than any Cal Poly or UCLA soccer game.

A third year and The Bottom Line staff writer at the time, the May 2014 tragedy helped shape my perspective on covering such events. Yes, eyewitness accounts are an important ingredient in a well-reported story, but that doesn’t excuse any reporter from throwing sensitivity and thoughtfulness out the window. My predecessor as The Bottom Line’s opinions editor recalled consoling and grieving with friends as a local reporter shoved a microphone in their faces, seeking the teary quotes central to so many news organizations’ soundbite-oriented coverage of tragedies. Hearing these stories from people I care about also hit home how shallow and substance-less the usual questions like “Tell me how you felt?” really are.

The days following the massacre — beginning as soon as the gunfire started — also slammed The Bottom Line with difficult questions that strike at the heart of what it means to be a journalistic organization. Where — and should — you draw the line between thoroughly informing your audience of what’s going down and limiting coverage that would further traumatize a freshly devastated readership? How does the emotional closeness of the writers, editors, and photographers to the event influence where that line gets drawn?

Every UCSB student and I.V. resident was affected and shaped in some way by the events of May 23. While we’d all give anything to go back and avert that dark chapter of our history, it still demonstrates, three years later, how extraordinary this community — our community — really is.

Sam Goldman
The Bottom Line Opinions Editor 2014-2015

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