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Saturday, May 31, 2014
Saturday, May 31, 2014
UCSB Students Confront the Isla Vista Murders
The students organized memorials on their own. They built shrines at the shooting sites that got continuous traffic, held a candlelight vigil in Storke Plaza for several thousand on Saturday, May 24th. All week, candlelight vigils for the victims appeared everywhere: at other UC campuses (UCB, UCD, UCI, UCLA, UCR, UCSC UCSD), and at universities from Corvallis Oregon to Granada Spain. UCSB students also organized a paddle-out from the beach below Isla Vista on Wednesday the 28th (fb event page; photo above: Christin Florenzie). For the occasion, the Santa Barbara Channel withheld both cloud and wind, allowing the glassy sea to suggest the reality of human benevolence and peace, in which passing on could seem, at least for a while, not like loss but like a special power.
The student events had two main features: they were self-organized, and they were beautiful. I heard many stories from students about the wrangling within the organizing: some Associated Students leaders did not want an open mike at the vigil, for example, while most other students did. It took a while for the latter to prevail, but it finally didn't matter, and in fact was part of the process that created huge, inclusive events for remembering and grieving.
These events were also striking for their aesthetics. Here's a Santa Barbara Independent image of the Storke Plaza vigil (borrowed from their good, comprehensive coverage):
Or another of a procession:
Even the daylit version showed the beauty of the assembly (photo: Lorenzo Basilio)
At the time of the murders, I had been teaching the concept of cultural agency via Doris Sommer and a great LA novel by Paul Beatty called White Boy Shuffle. The vigils and the paddle-out used self-organization to generate uncanny beauty. They were expressions of common grief and of our collective creative powers. Beauty is our experience rendered for us, in which we recover the power of our emotions. Beauty is a reminder, when created collectively in recovering from an annihilation, of the greatness of which we are always capable. The affected students gave the world an aesthetic education. Both individual and group improvisation change the ground rules and produce transformation, starting with reconstituting the community through these events.
When my Noir California lecture resumed on Thursday, and following our own short memorial for our lost student Chris Martinez, I said that what struck me most this past week was the outpouring of their intelligence. The work they let themselves do for regular classes is one thing, and the thought and feeling they bring to bear in an emergency transcends this. The crisis unveiled deeper powers, and with our students this came, for me, from the ripping away of their anonymity. Under this pressure of emotion that directly tied them (and us) to a common event, they deinstitutionalized themselves, and helped the same happen to many of the rest of us.
You lost your anonymity, I said to my class. You lost your anonymity towards yourself, meaning that your routine goals and functions no longer acted as a veil that hid other powers. I played a clip of the great True Detective sequence in which Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, says, "and you are reborn, but into the same life that you've always been born into." Senseless death tells us that this is true, that there is only one unchanging life we always wake up in, and yet your responses this week, I said, your remembrances and your organizing in all their brilliance, told us that this is false.
"We are reborn," by acting on what has happened, into a different life. This has been happening this week even as the grief goes on.
Several of us on the faculty asked the administration to include people who knew the dead in the formal university memorial in Harder Stadium. My own belief is that, in a memorial, the names of the dead must be spoken by those who knew them when they were alive. This did not happen at the official memorial service on Tuesday the 27th, which was in effect a kind of state funeral. Nonetheless, it succeeded through its own force majeure, as it gathered over 20,000 people who took every seat and then filled half the field.
The names of the victims, as known on campus, are George Chen, Katie Cooper, James Hong, Chris Martinez, David Wang, and Veronika Weiss. They were given to UC President Janet Napolitano to read, with the addition of thumbnail sketches of people who were of course all strangers to her. The official formality was interrupted by Chris Martinez's father, Richard Martinez, who read beautiful statements from the parents of David Wang and James Hong--there was again that power of connection that was so evident in the student-organized events. He also led a mini-rally for #NotOneMore, which seemed both appropriate and transgressive (this was debated even among the large majority of students who strongly support his gun control program), and also a relief in its transgressiveness, in that the spontaneous chant from the stands that followed Mr. Martinez's recitations embodied the energy of carrying on.
Like other bereaved departments, the English Department had its own memorial, in which faculty, staff, grad student instructors and undergrads were able to talk to each other and share memories. A number of Chris Martinez's close friends came to ours and one read a list of his favorite songs and books, his preference for good food over good clothes, his amazing ability to read every single one of the texts for every class, and quite a bit more. (We are collecting statements on the Noir California course site and I hope this will be among them.)
On top of the value of gathering, where we rediscover our ability really to be together, I also heard superb statements about the value of literature and of the humanities. One came from Natalie Holstead, on the right in the photo below, who quite remarkably described how literature links public thought to the experience of one's own emotions. She was crying as she spoke, or speaking through the feeling, which is a heroic power on which we were all getting a course from Richard Martinez.
Then it was over, at least for a few minutes.
Everyone in Santa Barbara and Isla Vista was following and and engaging in their own versions of the national arguments about the offensive media invasion of I.V., gun violence, the media's glorification of gun violence, the mental health system, all the varieties of misogyny, and the failure of men to take responsibility for other men's bad behavior. But no one wanted to discuss the killer, see his face, hear his name, or talk about his life and motives. Many people read the manifesto in private, and the discussions will come. But it's still too soon for that. Right now we're still focused on the incalculable loss, on the assault on the social fabric, and on our own abilities to overcome these things--eventually.