The first “incel” rampage brewed in an idyllic California college town. Five years later, Isla Vista still copes with its darkest chapter.
This story contains descriptions of violence, extreme hate, and traumatic experiences that may be disturbing to some readers.
Siavash Zohoori was grabbing dinner to go at Pita Pit when it started. It was Friday, nearly 9:30 p.m., and his fellow students who hadn’t hightailed it out of Isla Vista for Memorial Day weekend were emerging from their apartments and beach houses to kick off another night of partying and fun. The University of California, Santa Barbara sophomore unlocked his new bike to head home. Then, from somewhere off to his left: bang, bang, bang, bang. “I wasn’t sure if it was firecrackers or actual gunshots,” he said.
Gyro on handlebar, Zohoori pedaled off toward campus. A handful of people strolled the sidewalk ahead of him. Near 7-Eleven, a black BMW coupe rounded the corner, heading his way. It veered onto his side of the street and slowed. That’s when he heard a volley of gunshots rip from the car. “I saw those two guys just fall,” he said, his voice softening at the memory. “So at that point I was really scared that they were dead.”
Zohoori threw his bike between a couple of parked cars and joined a pair of women in a dash toward 7-Eleven, ducking behind vehicles as they went. The manager, Ranjeet, ordered them into the supply closet in the back. Another girl appeared in the convenience store, shot and bleeding. Then, a sheriff’s deputy burst in — “Which way did he go?” — and ran back out. Ranjeet brought Zohoori and his closetmates water. Eventually, the chaos subsided, and he allowed them to leave his store.
“I think at this point I was shaking, but I felt fine,” Zohoori recalled. “It was so surreal — because I still didn’t realize it was a mass shooting. I had no idea.”
By the time he had retrieved his bike, three fellow students had been gunned down a few blocks north. Thirteen more were injured by bullet or car as the assailant’s BMW sped and swerved its way through the streets of Isla Vista. He’d find out that weekend that three more students had been stabbed to death that afternoon in the apartment two of them shared with their killer. The rampage ended when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger took his own life and his car crashed to a halt on beachside Del Playa Drive, not far from 7-Eleven.
The massacre of May 23, 2014 was only one episode in America’s unique penchant for mass gun violence. But it was also the first mass murder to call widespread attention to the deadly consequences of toxic masculinity, and an unexpected variant of it — rage at being sexually deprived. As mass killers are wont to do, Rodger left an opus — a 137-page autobiographical manifesto pinning blame for the “vileness and depravity” of humanity on sex, the “ultimate evil” behind which was the “human female.” Someone had to burn it down, and Rodger felt it had to be him.
I graduated from UCSB a year after the Isla Vista massacre and had moved on relatively easily from that bloody night — a resilience that has vexed me five years later. Call it a touch of survivor’s guilt — the feeling that I should have been more disturbed by what happened in my backyard, more relieved that I had biked back home from work that night unscathed. Looking back, I wondered how our tightknit world could have harbored this mad, lonely killer. Isla Vista is a microcosm of our gendered social norms, and May 23 showed me first-hand what happens when a disturbed mind meets unhealthy cultural attitudes — and, in turn, the extreme consequences one man’s twisted sense of masculinity can have on a community.
Some of my peers moved on with a newfound anxiety about the world, others with a commitment to help people. Going back to Isla Vista and interviewing folks there and elsewhere, I got a deeper look at the social norms that helped hide Rodger in plain sight. But when I returned to this densely populated student enclave of studying, partying, surfing, and art-making, I also find something surprising: a safer, more self-aware community than the one I left. But the question remains: Which will prove stronger, the entrenched mores of entitlement and dominance, or the efforts to abate them and build a healthier community? The place is a living social experiment.
Isla Vista has a history of rebelliousness. The half-square-mile Central Coast town got on the map in 1970 when UCSB students — riled up in part by a heavy-handed police presence — shoved a burning dumpster into a Bank of America, I.V.’s largest symbol of big business profiting off the Vietnam War. Gov. Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard.
The following decades’ teepee villages and community gardens gave way to a rock band in every other garage and then the party culture for which I.V. became infamous. Large-scale revelry, especially on Halloween and at the outset of spring quarter, have resulted in alcohol-fueled trips to the hospital and a drunk tank’s worth of arrests. On the rare occasion, a blitzed student would tip off the balcony of a Del Playa backyard for a sometimes-deadly forty-foot tumble to the beach below.
But the dystopian headlines are balanced by a sort of utopian milieu and idealistic civic experimentation normally associated with Berkeley in bygone decades. I.V. remains home to strong (but less pyromaniacal) political organizing and a pervasive environmental consciousness. The flourishing visual and performing arts scene has produced more successful musical artists — Jack Johnson, Steve Aoki, Iration, to name a few — than any place that small ought to. California’s mythologized surfer scene is, like, totally made real there. “This is a unique place — how happy it is when the sun’s setting and you see somebody skateboarding past you with a 30-rack on their skateboard,” says my friend Shomik Mukherjee. “Even if you’re not going to partake in it, there’s just this sense of fun.”
The common perception is that the place is Tortuga, the island in “Pirates of the Caribbean” where sloshed buccaneers and bandits engage in all manner of debauchery. “Every time we report on a crime in I.V.,” Mukherjee said of local press, “the comments section says, ‘Can somebody just bulldoze this place to the ground already?’” But the best cinematic metaphor, we agreed, is somewhere between Tortuga and “the bottom deck in ‘Titanic’ where Leonardo DiCaprio’s hanging out with all the working-class people, where everybody’s swing dancing.”
Still, 2014 was a notoriously ugly year. Even before the rampage, it had gotten off to a brutal start in February with the horrific late-night gang rape of a student on campus. (Last fall, one of the perpetrators was sentenced to 36 years in prison.) In April, the annual spring day-rager, Deltopia, ended in a haze of tear gas after bottle-throwing revelers — mostly from out of town but attracted by I.V.’s freewheeling reputation — confronted rubber-bullet-firing police. May’s rampage, as a friend of mine put it, “was kind of the cherry on top of the shit cake of that year.”
The afternoon David Wang, James Hong, and George Chen were murdered in Wang and Hong’s apartment, I had work at an I.V. sandwich and salad shop a stone’s throw from campus. Across the street from me at Starbucks, after his first murders of the day, the assailant ordered a triple vanilla latte. As he killed Veronika Weiss, Katherine Cooper, and Christopher Michaels-Martinez, and shot or rammed over a dozen others, I was stacking chairs and tables on the back patio, assuring myself someone was merely firing off an unusual number of fireworks. As the black BMW coupe crashed to a halt between a Jeep and a palm tree, I was shooed away by a police officer at the oddly calm intersection of Pardall Road and Embarcadero del Norte. I biked the long way home to the sound of sirens and a mounting feeling of unease.
Work was deserted the following evening. My coworker and I half-heartedly wiped down some wobbly tables here, stacked some paper napkins there. Pandora played to no one. Then mourners emerged from the tunnel that funnels cyclists onto campus, each with a small candle in hand, their numbers blocking out the other side of Pardall Road. Elizabeth and I put down our wash cloths and napkins and stood at the patio edge. Could there even be that many students at UCSB? Who knew several thousand people could generate such a silence. We communed wordlessly from the sidelines as the light began to fade over the cortege. The following Tuesday, the attendance record at UCSB’s Harder Stadium may have been set during a second memorial. The vast majority of those 20,000 didn’t know the six we lost, but it felt like we did: They were avid readers, aspiring engineers, standout academics, athletic, kind friends—the UCSB student body distilled into six individuals. Students wanted nothing more than to close ranks and turn inward to find healing. But the news vans had already arrived.
No level of trauma is immune from the lens of a camera or the thrust of a microphone. No amount of time, it seems, is too short for inane interrogations like, “How are you feeling right now?” or “What is it like to have this happen in your backyard?” For a while, a news van remained in shouting distance of I.V. Deli Mart, where Michaels-Martinez died, for photos of the bullet holes and of students placing small memorials around a scraggy tree that’s no longer there. Once Rodger’s apartment was revealed, the lenses and recorders went there, too. “Just to go to the store, I was hopping over this back fence so they wouldn’t see,” recalled Chris Pollard, who also lived in that apartment complex. “It was just one of those things where as soon as you walk through the front gate, you just get swarmed.” These intrusive reminders of our tragedy had to leave before we could really gauge each other’s reactions.
One of the most most jarring realizations was how close any one of us could have come to being killed, too: a different route home from campus, a quick run to the store, less apprehension about answering an after-hours pounding at the door. Like Zohoori, I suspected the gunshots I heard stacking tables and chairs on the restaurant’s back patio were fireworks. If I had been working my job a couple months longer, we would have finished closing up shop sooner, and I’d have been biking down Pardall Road as a black BMW sped my way.
The route, at least at first, was anything but random. Stop №1 was UCSB’s Alpha Phi sorority house, a charming white apartment complex with a neatly manicured garden. Thankfully, his aggressive knocking went unanswered. As he lingered outside the building, my friend and editor at the campus newspaper, Anjali Shastry, biked past on her way to a late-night session in the newspaper office. She noticed that black BMW, engine running, someone sitting in it.
“I just remember thinking that was a really nice car. I rode right by him as an easy target on my bike. Like, if he decided to just start shooting right there, that could’ve been me.”
Soon after she passed the sorority house, he did start. Weiss and Cooper lost their lives as they walked past the house.
I met Shastry and a couple other friends at a coffee shop in Fremont, in the Bay Area. It was hard not to wonder what the quiet patrons around us thought of our conversation. Shastry knew Michaels-Martinez from the English classes they shared; at the time they were in a California noir course. “He was the only person in the class who actually read Grapes of Wrath,” she recalled. They had a paper due the coming week, “and a bunch of us from that class were going to meet at the [Isla Vista] Starbucks on Sunday, and that’s why he didn’t go home that weekend. He was supposed to go home that weekend.”
Shastry paused. She had returned to Starbucks. Two days after the violence, she received her notification reminder to meet. “We went to the Starbucks and we sat there and we waited and we kind of hoped he was going to show up.”
Scott asked, Had you not found out yet?
“We knew on Saturday, but we just had that weird ‘No, no, no, we go — we had a plan. So if we just go, he’s going to show up.’ And he didn’t show up.”
Ria Perera, a freshman at the time, was Weiss’ lab partner in a computer science class.
“Going back to class where I would normally sit next to Veronika, and then having her seat be empty — like, nobody touched her seat for the remainder of that class,” she said. “It was always empty.”
Perera didn’t know Weiss well, “but when we lost her, I felt her loss more than I felt her presence before. And that’s the interesting part, I think, about the grief — the significance is a little bit on a different axis.”
As spring quarter 2014 wound down, Zohoori was eating in a dining hall when a stranger named Lauren walked up to him. She had heard about his ordeal. “How are you doing?” she asked. It was as uplifting for him as it was unexpected. Over those few weeks, “everyone really, really cared for each other,” he said, “and when they’d say, ‘How are you?’ they’d really mean it.”
When he headed home for the summer, he was hopeful the “strong sense of solidarity and collective healing” he experienced would permeate and purify I.V.’s social milieu. But his sense, when he returned in the fall, was “it was right back to where it had been before.”
Exactly three years and eleven months after Isla Vista’s deadliest night, a 25-year-old man rented a white Ryder van and headed southbound on Yonge Street, Toronto’s main commercial thoroughfare and longest street. For over a mile, past high rises and shops, he mowed down anyone in his path. Ten were killed; eight were women.
Classmates of Alek Minassian described him to the media as a loner, seemingly harmless, and extremely socially awkward. Before starting the engine, Minassian posted to Facebook, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” — a reference to the supposed organized campaign of retribution by self-proclaimed “incels,” or those who are “involuntarily celibate.” “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!” he wrote of the high-status men who frequently get laid, and the attractive women with whom they sleep. “All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
The subsequent media storm revealed that Rodger was not the first “incel” killer, and Minassian was not his only disciple. Take Marc Lépine. In 1989, he entered a Montreal engineering school, separated women from men, and shot to death 14 of the former. In a manifesto, he blamed women and feminists for ruining his life. Or take George Sodini, who killed three women and injured nine more in 2009 in a women’s aerobics class in Pittsburgh. His main beef, he wrote in his diary, was the utter injustice of being single. “I dress good, am clean-shaven, bathe, touch of cologne — yet 30 million women rejected me — over an 18- or 25-year period,” he complained. The eight-digit figure was his estimation of the number of “desirable single women” out there. “A man needs a woman for confidence,” he blogged. “He gets a boost on the job, career, with other men, and everywhere else when he knows inside he has someone to spend the night with and who is also a friend.”
Or look at Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015. “Here I am, 26, with no friends, no job, no girlfriend, a virgin,” he wrote in his own manifesto. “I long ago realized that society likes to deny people like me these things.” Like Minassian, he cited Rodger. In 2017, a 21-year-old who went by “Elliot Rodger” online killed two students at a rural New Mexico high school. The perpetrator of a shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee last November that killed two women expressed violent hatred for women online and once likened his adolescent self to the I.V. killer. Even Nikolas Cruz, who, last year, killed 14 students and three staff at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, appeared to look up to him. “Elliot rodger will not be forgotten,” he commented on a YouTube video about my former neighbor’s manifesto. In some unsavory corners of the internet’s Wild West — 4chan, Incels.me, Reddit — “Saint Elliot” has become the patron saint of violent misogyny. Users vow to purchase vanilla lattes in his honor. “While Saint Marc will always be the GOAT,” SaintMarcLepine wrote on the fourth anniversary of the Isla Vista rampage, “I still have lots of respect for Saint Elliot. May he never be forgotten.”
“It is men, not women, who have shaped the contours of the incel predicament,” Jia Tolentino wrote last year in The New Yorker. “It is male power, not female power, that has chained all of human society to the idea that women are decorative sexual objects, and that male worth is measured by how good-looking a woman they acquire.” It should go without saying that no one is entitled to take or receive sex. But Rodger and his cohort see how easily James Bond kicks ass, pushes the boundaries of flirting, and gets the girl — who happily goes along with it. And perhaps they identify with the awkward adolescent protagonists of “Superbad,” who wind up with the affection of their hot female peers. They see guys in their own communities working the rigged levers of social power to their romantic advantage. They don’t hear women’s thoughts or feel their emotions.
Two months before the Isla Vista tragedy, Eric Madfis, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Washington Tacoma, published a paper examining the seeming paradox that white, straight men from comfortable backgrounds — society’s most privileged — make up a disproportionate number of mass killers. “In fact,” Madfis wrote, “it is the very entitlements of his race and gender which make any subsequent life-course struggles and failures all the more unexpected, and thus all the more painful and humiliating.” This demographic’s unwarranted entitlements can give the impression that their individual or collective social, political, or economic failures were caused by those they’re ceding social, political, or economic standing to. It’s not just misogyny-inspired violence that stems from this, but all forms of alt-right carnage — racist, antisemitic, you name it — that fills our news feeds with appalling regularity.
Another study, from 2013, found that men respond to threats to their masculinity—being told they’re not tough, struggling to hold down a job, not having access to women’s bodies—“with extreme demonstrations of masculinity”: more homophobic attitudes, greater support for war, even “interest in purchasing an SUV.” And what’s more traditionally masculine than that plentiful and remarkably accessible favorite toy of Americans, the gun?
As great as the internet has been for so many facets of life and society, one of its ugliest features is the ability to pool and grow likeminded folks’ anger, resentment, and hysteria via relatively unregulated, anonymous forums like 4chan and Reddit. A guy disillusioned by a lack of romantic or sexual success finds a network of peers who share his grievances and say, Hey, it’s not your fault — it’s their fault. You’re the victim here. It’s the one salve for this person’s greatest frustration. The message is reinforced for him over and over — through human-written posts or content recommended by algorithms. It’s the Chads’ fault for cornering the market. And it’s especially the Stacys’ fault for shunning him and other self-proclaimed incels. For this guy, the role of our culture in shaping “the contours of the incel predicament” — if it was at all apparent to begin with — becomes wholly undetectable. And if the only message hammered into his head is that the world’s Stacys are making him the victim of the greatest injustice possible, well, buying some guns and going for a spin doesn’t seem like that outrageous a retaliation.
Not long ago, I found the black iron gate to Rodger’s former apartment complex open. It’s a clean brown and gray building with bright white trim and large UCSB-blue squares bridging the space between the first- and second-story windows. A row of palm trees rounds out the beach–paradise vibe.
The narrow courtyard was simply furnished in a way that provides the opportunity, but little incentive, to lounge. Near the door that once hid a crime scene was a quartet of empty chairs surrounding a table with a wide umbrella sprouting from the middle. It was a typical I.V. apartment complex: bicycles locked to the nearest secure object, a wetsuit flung over a railing, a Blaze Pizza box stuffed into a squat trash can.
Late one night over the summer of 2013, Chris Pollard sat alone in the courtyard, talking on the phone. In walked an on-and-off Santa Barbara City College student whose habit was to decline invitations to hang out in the communal space. He was crying and “limping like crazy.” Pollard convinced him to sit down. After a few hours of probing, Pollard finally got him to utter more than a couple words: “It’s just fuckin’ girls.”
Pollard now lives in Munich and has an easy smile and quick laugh. That’s got to be a plus when the unimaginable happens a few doors down.
Pollard said Rodger told him that night that he had been at a party trying to talk to a girl who wanted nothing to do with him. “He said he tried harder — that’s how he put it. He just said, ‘So I tried harder.’” Apparently, a group of guys at the party got mad “and basically jumped him.” When Pollard asked why, the reply was, “‘I’m going to fucking kill all of them. I’m going to kill myself.’” Stories of folks getting jumped were not new to Pollard, and he thought Rodger was being overly dramatic with that violent declaration. Pollard thought he just needed someone to talk to and recommended he visit the hospital for a cut on his head.
“From that night, I never saw him again,” he told me. The party, Pollard believes, was the final straw: “From that night on, he was planning the whole thing — which just blows my mind.”
But all signs pointed to a decline much longer in the making. Reporting from 2014 revealed Rodger’s struggles with socializing. In his manifesto and a video he recorded the day before, he took misogyny and toxic notions of masculinity to their most extreme and horrific conclusion. May 23 was to be “the day of retribution” for what he perceived as a long string of rejections and spurning from women. “Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men,” he says in his video, “but never to me.”
After their late-night talk, Pollard asked around. A man who had also been at the party told him that “all of a sudden he just hears that some guy tried to throw a girl off a balcony at that sorority, and that the guy took off running.” Pollard took Rodger’s claim to have “tried harder” to mean knocking the girl off the balcony. Rodger then supposedly left without his sunglasses and then returned for them. It was when he got back that he was jumped and apparently thrown off a balcony himself. For Pollard, the dramatic limp and unwillingness to discuss the night made sense.
According to Rodger’s account, he had drunkenly wandered into a party hoping to finally have sex before his approaching 22nd birthday. That none of the women “showed any interest in” him — a stranger wandering someone else’s party — immediately irked him. He sulked on top of a “wooden ledge” in the front yard, traded insults with a group of “obnoxious, rowdy” men and “pretty” women who had climbed up, tried and failed to shove them off, and got knocked off the ledge onto the street. He wrote of accidentally limping into a neighboring party to retrieve his Gucci sunglasses and got into — and lost — another fight. “If girls had been attracted to me, they would have offered to walk me to my room and take care of me,” he wrote in one Atwoodian passage. “They would have even offered to sleep with me to make me feel better.”
I met Siavash Zohoori at a Starbucks in Millbrae, south of San Francisco, on a day that couldn’t decide whether it was appropriate to rain. Tall in a plaid shirt with an optional top button, Zohoori would be your typical Silicon Valley millennial if not for his burning sincerity and conscientiousness. I point out that his using his watch to pay for his green tea was the most Silicon Valley–millennial thing I’ve ever seen. “I know, I hate it,” he said with a smile.
The coffee chain is a people magnet on rainy days, and we were relegated to the back table between the wall and the damp line of coffee seekers. The aftermath of the tragedy continues to haunt and inspire him. Zohoori works in the Office of Diversity and Equity in San Mateo County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, where he tells real-life stories, often related to mental-health stigma and substance-abuse stigma, to help folks recover. He occasionally moonlights with a similar job: public speaking on how to practice healthy masculinity and the healing power of storytelling.
“To me, I.V. culture is one that really subscribes to hegemonic values,” Zohoori said as his tea cooled. “It prioritizes whiteness, dominance, hyper-masculinity.” Party culture, he told me, meant drinking culture: trying to get sloshed so as to lower the bar, consciously or not, for hooking up or acting out other primal-seeming instincts and desires.
I thought back to one party where the lights eventually dimmed and the audacious host thought it was high time he lose his shirt, and that other guys should too. Eventually, I obliged. I’m a modest guy, but, as Zohoori would predict, I’d be damned if I were the one dude buttoned up. I had one motivation to attend the party — and I got to dance with her — yet there was something about the bare-chested ambiance that heightened the tinge of envy when another guy got to as well.
The misogyny and twisted masculinity that defined the killer’s warped worldview were extreme in their intensity, but some of the social norms and expectations that undergirded them also fester beneath the town’s party and hook-up scenes. It varies by man and friend group, but hiding behind much of men’s behavior are considerations of where they and their peers fall on an arbitrary hierarchy of masculinity. We don’t consciously weigh most of our actions this way, but we tend to have an intuitive sense of how cool (itself a product, in part, of masculinity) the guys around us are. Tiny cues we absorb throughout life inform what’s okay and what’s expected of us: that it’s acceptable to gawp at a woman you’re passing on the street, that you don’t want to be the guy carrying the lightest box during a move. Those cues compound and scale up to, say, pressuring a woman to go home with you so that you’re not the only man without a cool story the next morning. This competition necessarily prizes a certain type of femininity, and your standing in the male hierarchy is predicated in part on your success with that type. They’re social maladies that have long afflicted society writ large, and they can flare up when you mix a population of not-quite-fully-developed, hormonally charged young adults with new-found freedom and a culture of partying.
In college, Zohoori recalled speaking with a fellow student about the kid’s past hardships. Coming to college, the guy had adjusted his attitude to fit a more aggressive culture: “He straight-up tells me he can empathize with mass shooters — like, my freshman year. My response to that is check in with him every couple of months to see how he’s doing, realize he’s been affected by and socialized by his family and abused growing up, uncared for in his close community, and the victim of violence.” (Zohoori emphasized to me, though, that, while compassion and healthy masculinity are important, it’s not the responsibility of society — including those on the receiving end of toxic masculinity — to coddle such guys’ senses of masculinity.)
Isla Vista did not create Rodger, and the violence can’t be pinned solely on its culture, but that culture wouldn’t have pushed him in the right direction. That’s a hard pill to swallow: No one can say with certainty whether six people would not have lost their lives if I.V. — and the greater society of which it is a part — had had healthier social dynamics. But how can men have healthy opinions of themselves, of their fellow men, and a healthy respect for women when their social standing and success are predicated in part on getting girls and sizing up other guys? There’s limited recourse to social or self-respect for those at the bottom of the hierarchy.
And, of course, it’s dehumanizing to be the object of this competition. “I’ve been part of the trap a little bit — where there’s one frat bro who’s trying to get me really drunk,” said Fari Hadian, a friend and former coworker. “There’s another frat bro who is super-duper drunk.” She explains this predatory practice to me after a surfing sesh in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara. Frat Bro 1 is trying to set her up with Frat Bro 2, the super-duper drunk one. It’s easier to succeed (and then brag the next day) when the target doesn’t know what’s going on. What constitutes consent can get frighteningly warped or tossed out the window altogether. “It’s not like [these guys are thinking], ‘Oh, that girl is really smart and driven,’” Hadian said. “You want to get really drunk and hook up, never call her again.”
Navigating that kind of behavior is so much more than saying “no.” Friends and current students told me about never letting their friends out of sight, having constant access to their friends’ GPS locations, or not drinking at all at some parties. The amount of planning and preoccupation with safety surprised — and then embarrassed — me; I can’t recall a single time in college where I worried for my own or another guy’s personal safety. The differences in preparation and vigilance between men and women speak volumes.
Simply extricating oneself from all potentially unsafe social situations is easier said than done; it’s a fact that men have more control over professional advancement than women and that those decisions can be based to some degree — consciously or not — on how well women adhere to social expectations. Women, a couple female friends pointed out to me, are conditioned to care what men think.
And the onus to avoid traps like the one Hadian described is, at least in practice, on the woman. I got on the phone with Emily Montalvo-Telford and Alia Reynolds, previous and current heads, respectively, of Students Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit at UCSB. They agreed that victim blaming is still a prevalent issue. Montalvo-Telford said there’s little discussion around power dynamics and consent. “Yes means yes” is, on paper, the new standard of consent, but if a “yes” is given for another drink or a trip to the bedroom because the comfort level’s not there to say “no,” how fair is that consent? Accounting in the moment for such nuances, pressures, and power differentials might sound dizzying, but account for them we must when they have real impacts and leave lasting impressions about what is acceptable.
Partying is in the town’s DNA, but it would be dishonest to paint the entire community only with that brush. Step away from the kegs and red Solo cups, and that soft strumming floating from that bedroom window might be someone prepping for an upcoming Battle of the Bands. I knew some of the artists behind the dreamlike murals that adorn the facades of apartment buildings, businesses, and electric utility boxes. As common as the sight of someone strolling out of a liquor store with a handle is the sight of someone, board under arm, leisurely riding a beach cruiser to catch some waves before it gets dark. I occasionally joined the yoga enthusiasts for their Saturday morning routine in the park and picked up trash on the beach with volunteer clubs. Most I.V. men aren’t actual or wannabe pickup artists; healthy notions of masculinity and healthy men-to-men and men-to-women interactions are everywhere, too.
“There are a lot of different groups of people in I.V., and it’s wrong to only portray the ones who are falling off the cliffs or raping girls or partying super hard,” Hadian said. “And that group totally exists, but I feel like there’s a very big divide between them and the less-party, more-sober, healthy, active people of UCSB.”
III. A really big task
Within weeks of the rampage, Anjali Shastry started grad school in Maryland, and it wasn’t long before America got back to mass shootings. Her friends used to check in with her over text when one happened, but the violence became too common. “We’re all getting so inured to it,” she said. When another group of people falls to the barrel of a gun, Shastry will linger with the news for a moment, unable to believe it’s happened again — that another community is going through the same hell she endured — and then forces herself to move on. “I can’t live in that space forever,” she said. Same, it seems, for her friends. “I got zero texts from anyone about” I.V.’s fifth anniversary. She sent no texts either. There’s an uneasy balance between staying informed of important news events and preserving your mental health. “Seeing his face on the TV is never easy,” she said of the killer. “It makes me completely sick to my stomach.”
I can relate. I was back home near Los Angeles on the second anniversary, a fact I only realized when the local news filled the widescreen TV with that face. The revulsion washed over me more strongly than I had anticipated, and I left the room.
Unless desensitization gets you first, it’d be a wonder to witness the frequency of our mass shootings — in schools, movie theatres, night clubs, concerts, churches, news rooms, you name it — and not feel a tad paranoid. Then mix in mass violence in your own backyard. Hadian is “really uncomfortable” in large crowds, where there’s “an opportunity for someone who wants to hurt random, innocent people.” Shastry now works somewhere with a lot of foot traffic — “as likely a target as a school.”
“That doesn’t go away,” she said. “That doesn’t escape me — the possibility that someone could think of us as a target.”
The sheer physical size and population of the U.S. has helped inure me against their fears — even with dozens of mass shooting victims a year, my odds of getting murdered are tiny. I’ve also been lucky to have lived in places virtually free from single homicides. But that the carnage has, if anything, accelerated in the intervening years is chipping away at that defense. Just last month, two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio happened within 24 hours of each other, killing 31 and injuring over 50 at a Walmart and a bar. Six days before, three were killed at a garlic festival seventy miles south of me. What’s also nuts is that these rampages account for a fraction of our gun homicides, which receive a fraction of the attention and many of which have roots in unhealthy notions of masculinity. Going out in public increasingly feels like I’m tacitly accepting that I’m not safe.
Yet the aftershocks weren’t all bad. For some, the violence in our backyard created a newfound empathy.
“Whenever I would hear someone talk about their bullying experiences, I would have kind of my antenna up,” Ria Perera told me. She watches body language, listens for changes in tone. “I would kind of almost search for a little bit of darkness in everyone to see if they needed help.”
In addition to his public speaking, Zohoori is nearly finished with a guidebook for men working on their masculinity, co-written with UCSB sociology professor Victor Rios, with whom he became close after the violence. Zohoori held his most recent public talk on a warm Saturday morning in Menlo Park’s city council chambers, a stand-alone building in the city’s picturesque Civic Center complex. The timing was grimly apposite: That spate of mass shootings had just rocked California, Texas, and Ohio. “BOYS ’N’ GUNS” was projected in stark block letters onto a slightly crooked screen in front of the dais. A disparate crop of mostly middle-aged women trickled in; aside from myself and a city programming worker, the only men were a handful of Zohoori’s high school friends, whom he cajoled into the front row. Zohoori, sleeves of his white dress shirt minimally rolled up, began by recalling his first couple years at UCSB and the close call on May 23, 2014. The tougher the details, the sadder his eyes became.
Male resentment and violence, he said, stem from not living up to three lessons society hammers into us from the beginning: “We should have big muscles, we should get a lot of girls, and we should be making a lot of money and showing that money to people.”
Zohoori talked about the anxiety and nightmares that dogged him after the Isla Vista shooting and how telling his story — and “knowing that communities can respond positively to it” — healed his trauma. He recounted Lauren from the dining common, who, in the days after he had hidden in the 7-Eleven supply closet, inquired with much-needed sincerity how he was doing. What could we do in our day-to-day lives, Zohoori asked, to listen to folks compassionately?
Most of the crowd was reticent. One of Zohoori’s friends, Harsha Yeddanapudy, eventually threw up his hand. “I will try to show love to the men in my life who I think display twisted masculinity,” he said, Rather than distancing himself and intensifying their loneliness, he’d “try to actually really love them, even if I disagree with the way they go about some things, and just be there for them and be present.”
The discussion brought to mind questions that masculinity researcher Michael Kimmel (who, with mind-blowing irony, has faced sexual-harassment allegations) has asked his students: If you’re being, say, eulogized at your funeral as a “good man,” what does that mean to you? Responses invariably included “honest,” “caring,” “putting others’ needs before yours.” Then he asks what it means to be a “real man,” and he’d hear “take risks,” “take charge,” “suppressing any kind of weakness.” Zohoori’s message isn’t that having considerable muscles, sex, and money are bad, per se, but that our measuring stick for “manliness” should be the “good man” we all intuitively know.
The event adjourned, and I plopped down next to another of his friends, Zach Ellenberg. Had he ever considered any of these issues before Zohoori tackled them?
“Honestly, not at all,” he said. But, he added, as soon as Zohoori began discussing them with him, themes in his own life began to click.
The council chambers were closed up, and, back out in the South Bay summer, Zohoori came over to check in with me. I asked him whether storytelling is also the optimal way to realign men’s notions of masculinity. Definitely, he said. “I think storytelling can be so relatable.”
“To open up the space with my own vulnerability can help other people be vulnerable themselves,” he explained. He found men are less resistant to that than to “talking about stuff that we see on TV.”
It also helps to not just tell men “you’re perpetrating these things.” Rather, Zohoori said, they can be asked what they should do if they see other guys policing their fellow men’s masculinity. “Through that, they can also reflect on their morals and their actions to know that that behavior is wrong.”
Seems like a slow-moving solution, I said.
“It’s a really big task,” he acknowledged, “but we can all chip away at the issue.”
For the fifth anniversary this year, members of the Isla Vista and UCSB communities replicated the memorial walk I had watched from my restaurant’s patio, white roses replacing the little candles carried by the thousands of original marchers. School officials and the victims’ parents spoke, as did Ariel Bournes, an art major who in college did community outreach with UC police. The interactions he had in that capacity led the paint-splattered kid to want to become an officer, and a UCPD colleague eventually offered to take him around on a ride along. “We looked at our schedule, we worked it out, and we circled the date,” he told attendees under gray skies in Anisq’Oyo’ Park. Less than half an hour in, the gunshots started. “I got a front-row seat to things that no one should ever have to see.” The carnage didn’t derail his career aspirations. “We used art and protest and therapy and faith and food and tears and research and collaboration and passion and planning in order to heal and to protect and to overcome,” Bournes, now UCPD’s community resource officer, said. “It was exemplary. It was astonishing.” Attendees, including parents, university officials, local civic leaders, totaled several dozen.
Few college towns have a student–to–non-student ratio as lopsided as Isla Vista’s. Each year, thousands of residents depart with graduation cap in hand, to be replaced with a generation fresh out the dorms. “It’s literally like an entire town that recycles,” Chris Pollard said.
That means that despite the memorial blue-light displays, remembrance gardens, speeches, and scholarships in the names of the victims, the magnitude and impact of that night are increasingly abstract and remote for each new class that rolls into UCSB. The last four-year undergrads who lived through the massacre graduated in 2017.
I met Gwendolyn Wu and Shomik Mukherjee, the eventual inheritors of my college paper, at an artsy independent coffee shop on Pardall Road that has since closed. The large removable window next to us still bore a bullet hole. As we talked, students who were in high school in 2014 trickled in to study for winter-quarter finals.
Wu and Mukherjee started their UCSB careers four months after the violence, but “when I got to [freshman] orientation, they acknowledged it maybe one time,” Mukherjee said.
“They don’t associate I.V. with the shooting,” Wu said of newer students. “Even though I wasn’t here, I still walk past I.V. Deli and [think of how] Christopher Michaels-Martinez was shot here. … And there’s not that knee-jerk, automatic type of association that these new kids are experiencing.”
Spencer Brandt, who started at UCSB in the fall of 2014 and graduated in June, told me over the phone recently about a research paper he and a friend wrote in the spring of 2017 for a history class. They wanted to measure students’ knowledge of the tragedy, and they asked two questions: “Can you name any of the victims of the tragedy?” and “Can you name the perpetrator?” Ninety percent of respondents, Brandt said, could name the latter, while only ten percent could name a single victim. “I think that that really is one of those things that is not uncommon for events like this,” he said. “And it’s sad.”
He said, though, that he’s witnessed friends and male peers’ attitudes evolve as they become aware of “tendencies that can often lead to toxic masculinity.” But women, he added, have played an integral role as well, and he thinks the lessons of the Me Too movement have permeated Isla Vista—though organizing in that vein pre-dates the movement.
Right before I graduated, women students at UCSB led a high-profile sit-in at Chancellor Henry Yang’s office, demanding reforms to the university’s handling of sexual violence. They held another two years later, saying the university hadn’t followed through on the agreement they had reached. Their efforts have galvanized demand for and planning of a comprehensive resource center for sexual-assault survivors.
One proxy for gauging Isla Vistans’ attitudes is how they’ve reckoned with Me Too and its sister issues. Montalvo-Telford and Reynolds, the Students Against Sexual Assault leaders, told me the student body in general has become increasingly vocal around supporting sexual assault survivors, expanding resources for survivors, and opposing federal changes to Title IX procedures. They added, though, that growing solidarity around the general issues hasn’t appeared to translate into deeper knowledge of what constitutes and facilitates sexual assault or what resources are actually available to survivors.
Another challenge, they pointed out, is that it’s easier to take a stand on national-level issues like Me Too than on sexual misconduct–related issues at the community level. Accounting for that apparent discrepancy is a difficult thing to measure, Montalvo-Telford said, but “when the support that you have to show for survivors becomes very personal to the point of having to disassociate with certain people or step away from certain friend groups, I think that’s where the support for survivors really starts to become challenged.” Reynolds posited that, while individuals and peer groups are all different, seeing a friend behaving inappropriately can be difficult to call out. “I think that’s still definitely a pervasive thing,” she said of the student community. “Just the acquiescence of it, where they know it’s bad, but they don’t think it’s bad enough to call it bad.”
“Awareness is definitely necessary,” Reynolds added, “but awareness is not enough.”
One of student, university, and county leaders’ biggest hopes for change has been the creation in 2016 of I.V.’s community services district, a limited form of self-governance that tends to civic mundanities like street lighting, rental housing mediation, and police collaboration. Brandt is now the I.V. CSD board’s president. More people, he said, now look at I.V. less as a place to spend four years and more as a place to personally invest in. “That in and of itself changes the way that the average resident thinks about the way they live,” he said, “and both their behavior and how they’re going to treat the physical environment.” The CSD’s general manager, Jonathan Abboud, had also cited “continued energy and momentum in this direction.”
Quantitative measures of Isla Vistans’ behavior are promising. Robberies, aggravated assaults, and arson all peaked in 2014. Burglaries peaked the year before that. All of these crimes have seen drastic drops since that “shit cake” of a year, some by well over fifty percent. Forcible rapes have been cut by over two-thirds to seven. While the trend is encouraging, it still means that a traumatic crime, typically borne of male entitlement, is still devastating several people each year. (That statistic, too, doesn’t include the many instances of rape — often perpetuated by guys on a trajectory to success — that go unreported.) Arrests during Halloween, what was once I.V.’s premier collective party event, dropped from 225 in 2013 to forty-two right after the rampage, and have continued plummeting to nine last year. Halloween medical transports — fueled by alcohol — plunged over those six years, from fifty-one to two.
“The students are the ones that drive this stuff,” said Rob Plastino, commander of the Criminal Investigations Division for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and head of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol from 2013 to 2016. “If they’re willing to work with the community to make it a safe venue, then it will be so. And so far, it’s worked out.”
For more context, I met Abboud, UCSB’s 2013–14 Associated Students president, at the office of the town’s community services district on as dreary a day as the weather would ever permit on the Central Coast. The space, shared with an AmeriCorps member serving in I.V., looked like the campaign headquarters of a long-shot county supervisor candidate: a giant map of I.V., one computer, and a set of mismatched chairs around a plastic table. Abboud is a Santa Barbara City College trustee in addition to his CSD post. He remembers the surreal aftermath of the killing spree vividly: “It was like a movie almost. You can’t describe it.”
Whatever the connection between Isla Vista’s myriad problems and the violence of May 23, what transpired that night “brought to focus what happens when we get too lost in the sauce” of party culture, Abboud said over an afternoon snack.
Students, the university, and Santa Barbara County took a renewed interest in I.V.’s wellbeing after the ugliness of that spring quarter. More infrastructure projects got off the ground. Art projects sprang up. Resident–police relations reached new heights. I.V. is better behaved on paper, but whether all these tangible wins have ushered in intangible change is still less clear than even the tar-splotched ocean water. Is a toxic form of masculinity losing its impact on many students’ social relations? It’s “still pretty prevalent,” Abboud estimated, “but it’s not celebrated” as it used to be. He pulled out his phone and played a decade-old song by a former I.V. DJ:
How you party is how we pre-party, ’cause you ain’t from I.V.
I’ve been around the world, party till I hurled
I’ve never seen no girls like these
’Cause we party like an asshole
Drink until we shitshows
Up until about four
Wake up next to who knows
Abboud paused the grating track. “This song would never be made today,” he said, “but it would be made in 2007 in I.V. because what we celebrated about Isla Vista was different.”
It’s a relief that “Isla Vista” isn’t synonymous with mass violence the way, say, “Columbine” is with school shootings. That the names George Chen, Katherine Cooper, James Hong, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, David Wang, and Veronika Weiss carry less weight for each successive class feels sad but understandable. “I still feel like it’s important to remember who they are and what that event meant for Isla Vista,” Gwendolyn Wu said at the Pardall Road coffee shop. “Because it kind of profoundly shaped what Isla Vista is going forward.” In a place where bad habits die hard, Chen, Cooper, Hong, Michaels-Martinez, Wang, and Weiss opened the door for civic and social change in a way no one before them could.
At some point toward the end of my undergrad, I discovered the Wikipedia page, “2001 Isla Vista killings.” That’s when I realized Elliot Rodger had not been the first mass murderer in I.V. Thirteen years before, in February 2001, freshman David Attias, eventually declared legally insane, floored the accelerator of his Saab, plowing into anyone walking the 6500 block of Sabado Tarde Road. Four were killed right there. A fifth succumbed to injuries in 2016. A small glittering boulder in Little Acorn Park memorializes the tragedy. No one talked about it at my freshman orientation.
But we have to talk about Isla Vista — and Toronto and El Paso and Parkland and Christchurch. You can’t learn from tragedy unless you wrestle with and unpack its root causes and stare them in the face. Sadly, there are too many incentives not to look or too much socialization to even know where to look. But perhaps the bittersweet legacy of the victims of mass violence is the mobilization of folks like Zohoori, who give young men the tools to reorient masculinity’s flawed operating system. Just as you can’t predict who’s going to be the victims of the next mass shooting, you can’t predict when an opportunity to practice compassion or healthier masculinity can save a man from spiraling into violence.
I came to this story craving an unambiguously positive answer to how the community I love changed after its darkest chapter. But that’s not how change works. Just like the causes of our carnage are slow-building, multifaceted, and diffuse, so are the solutions. Chen, Cooper, Hong, Michaels-Martinez, Wang, and Weiss are the seeds of that change, and the friends and peers I spoke to are their first sprouts.