Photos courtesy of the author
It’s all very numbing to be a part of an experience like the one that happened in Isla Vista on May 23. I would always hear about tragedies like this in other parts of the country and world, and while I feel empathetic to the atrocities that happen every day, it is different when you are in it.
I’m a student at Santa Barbara City College. I traded in living in the hot Arizona desert to move to an apartment a block from the beach in one of the most beautiful areas in Southern California. From my classes I could watch the waves of the ocean, and from my bedroom window I can always see people going out to surf. Now I see flowers on the ground and a community trying to piece together last week’s events.
But after all of this, all of the tragedy that struck so quickly, I find myself asking, “What more can I do?” I know I am not alone in this. I have never seen a more united and close-knit community join together for healing as I have after this awful night.
Last Friday was a pretty normal day. I’d recently finished my last day of classes and was preparing for a summer free from lengthy papers and discussion forums. I did some laundry, rewatched episodes of Game of Thrones, and cleaned some old pasta sauce out of a filthy pan. A typical day that ended around 9 PM, when I passed out on the sofa.
I woke up to a loud BLAM. At first I thought it was the manager of the 7/11 next door slamming the dumpster lid, but when I heard three more BLAMs, one after the other, I realized something much more serious was going on. This wasn’t a convenience store throwing out past-due donuts.
Like a dumbass, I ran outside to see what was going on. My roommate screamed at me to get back inside, and we took cover in my room, ducking low close to my desk. From my bedroom window I saw a girl crying with blood running down her leg.
I also saw a black car peeling down the street, a car I would later learn was being driven by a madman with about five minutes left to live before he offed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. In about ten minutes, this crazed woman-hater ruined the lives of so many people. I couldn’t sleep that night. No one knew what had happened, and we couldn’t stop scanning the news reports for names of new victims, hoping the death count would stop rising.
The next morning I received a request to join a group called “The UCSB Week of Solidarity.” The community was coming together, creating a whole week of events to deal with the inexplicable tragedy.
There was a candlelight vigil Saturday evening, where 5,000 students joined together to march silently through the streets of Isla Vista. Name tags were given out at multiple booths before we began the walk, and within seconds it seemed like everyone around me was crying.
There are 26,000 people in Isla Vista. It’s hard to know everyone. But last week, there was a collective decision to face this tragedy in a peaceful way. Although much of the focus was on the crimes that took place, the residents of this town were focused on the bigger picture of restoration and unification.
The 7/11 I live behind used to be where I would get a Slurpee at odd hours of the night. Now it’s where I leave flowers and handwritten notes offering condolences to passersby and grieving friends. Hundreds of people have done the same. A container of colored chalk rests on the sidewalk next to all the flowers and is there for anyone to reach out and grab. As the week wears on, the chalk drawings continue to expand beyond the border of a few feet. Today, people prefer to walk in the street, avoiding stepping on the art created in memory of our fellow friends and neighbors.
The bullet holes in the windows of IV Deli Mart are now filled with flower stems. If you ignore the intrusive media crews' oversized news vans, the area is a beautiful, quaint memorial.
It’s been enlightening to see a small community come together to create something wonderful out of something so horrendous. From dog therapy to free massages to a paddle out to the ocean, there is an immense amount of love coming from the people in this beachside home away from home.
All of this was in my mind as I sat in the blue, fold-up chair listening to the girls next to me cry and hold up bunches of oversized sunflowers. I was squeezing the hand of my roommate who was supposed to help me stop crying, but she was already bawling herself. All UCSB classes were canceled this past Tuesday to mourn for the students that have left us. In a stadium that holds 17,000, people still had to sit on the grass due to a lack of space.
As I sat in the blue, fold-up chairs alongside so many other people, the events seemed to continue to process in my mind. Blue ribbons were pinned to all of our shirts, and we waited in silence for the ceremony to begin.
The stadium was the most packed place I had ever seen. Anyone I think I have ever passed by was sitting besides me. The whole stadium was filled with people, so much so that over 100 people had to sit in the grass or stand off to the side. Blue ribbons were pinned to all of our shirts, and we waited in silence for the ceremony to begin.
Religious leaders from the Santa Barbara community came up to speak to us, and the tears were now flowing more readily. The repeated question of the week was Why? Why did this happen? and Why do these things happen? were still valid questions, but maybe not as important as how we deal with these things after they happen.
By no means was this event a celebration, but it was one of the most meaningful things I have ever been apart of. Being able to help the home I love and support innocent people who were so suddenly taken was something I was proud to be a part of.
Christopher Ross Michael-Martinez’s father spoke on the podium in front of more than 10,000 people, where his message about gun control and violence was passionately heard. He only asked for one thing: When he raised his arm in the air, he wanted everyone who agreed with him to scream, “Not one more!” as a response to no changes in the NRA's policy. My eardrums pretty much blew out, but I screamed loudly alongside thousands of people. “Not one more!” we all said. I kept thinking about how horrible it must be for any parent to bury a child. If there is any positivity to come out of this, it was the response that came from these victims’ friends, neighbors, and communities.
It’s been over a week since the events occurred, but it still feels like it was last night. The overwhelming amount of love coming from all directions in this town is inspiring. I can walk down the street and see the chalk flowers painted on the sidewalks, brightly colored flower arrangements piling near the lampposts, and encouraging messages of peace and unity throughout the blocks of Isla Vista. It feels like I can’t turn on my television without hearing about the atrocities of the weekend, the panel of forensic psychologists trying to uncover questions that we might never get the answers to. But if I walk out my front door, the media’s portrayal of this town seems like a bad joke compared to how we really are coping.
What matters is how we carry on and heal, and together as a unifying group, we have proven that there is calm after the storm and we can lean on each other in times of tragedy.
Although the undying question is Why and how could this have happened?, maybe what is more important is the aftermath of it all and how it will shape our future experiences.
I refuse to watch any of the programs covering this event because its depiction of what happened seems to only focus on negativity. Not to say that this event wasn't a combination of deadly catalysts waiting to explode, which it was, but that it happens, and things like this happen all over the world, but what matters is how we respond.
In a book written by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, she takes the words out of my mouth about a possible utopia that can bloom from a world of darkness. Tragedy is embedded in life and from events like this one and many others. A unique humanistic trait shines through us all, and we desire to help the people around us, not only comforting them but also healing ourselves.
Out of tragedy comes so much more, and like Solnit says, “Many events plant seeds, imperceptible at the time, that bear fruit long afterward.”