South by Southwest made national headlines last week, but not because of the unveiling of a new tech gadget or the sudden rise to fame of an indie band. Rather, SXSW became the backdrop for tragedy, as 21-year-old Rashad Charjuan Owens evaded a DUI checkpoint and drove a car onto a street that had been closed to traffic for pedestrians. He crashed into a crowd of festivalgoers, killing two and injuring 23 more.
The national media reacted with shock, appropriately so, but to anyone who was in Santa Barbara in the early 2000s, this was something we’d seen before.
The UC Santa Barbara campus, while technically a part of Santa Barbara, is actually about 10 miles north of the city’s downtown. The majority of UCSB students live in a small, unincorporated, densely-populated town called Isla Vista—or IV, as students creatively call it—adjacent to the campus and hovering over the Pacific Ocean on an eroding cliff. IV is a strange place. The location is idyllic, almost paradisical, crammed chockfull with seriously beautiful young people who live in mostly rundown, overpriced apartment buildings owned by slumlords. IV, and in particular the cliffside Del Playa Drive—or DP, as those ever creative students call it—is the place that gives UCSB its party school reputation. On weekend nights, students fill the streets, roaming from house party to house party, mostly on foot, often walking right down the middle of the street (woe be to the poor fool who tries to drive a car down a jam-packed DP on a Saturday night).
Late on the night of February 23, 2001, a UCSB freshman named David Attias drove a car down the 6500 block of Sabado Tarde Road at 60 miles an hour. It was Friday night, and there was heavy foot traffic on Sabado, just one block over from DP, and Attias indiscriminately side-swiped parked cars before crashing into a group of pedestrians, killing four people and seriously injuring a fifth. Attias, who was high on several drugs, jumped out of his car and began calling himself “the Angel of Death,” and he probably would have gotten beaten to death by an angry crowd of students had the police not quickly shown up and arrested him.
UCSB is a big school, with more than 20,000 students, but IV is a small place, and shock rippled through the community. I personally didn’t see the carnage—I walked by the intersection of Sabado and El Embarcadero 10 or 15 minutes later, and by then it had already been taped off by the police and there was a news truck on hand—but several of my friends reported walking by immediately afterward and seeing the bloody, battered bodies in the street. And it turned out that the pedestrians Attias hit were a group from the Bay Area. One of them, Nick Bourdakis, had been a high school friend of my roommate, and had been a high school boyfriend of another friend of mine. (I had met Bourdakis, but wouldn’t say that I knew him.)
Attias’ trial dominated the news in Santa Barbara for more than a year (the UCSB Daily Nexus reporter who lucked into that beat got herself a job at the San Francisco Chronicle after she graduated), in part because of a seriously depressing development: the driver’s father was Daniel Attias, a Hollywood director who has directed numerous television shows, including several episodes of my favorite show, The Wire. Naturally, David Attias had the best legal defense that money could buy, and while he was convicted of four counts of second-degree murder, the jury ruled that he was legally insane, and sent him to a state mental hospital for treatment. In 2012, Attias was released to an outpatient program.
I didn’t know that Attias had been released until after the SXSW accident, when I was reminded of what is now called the Isla Vista Massacre and did some Googling. My first reaction upon reading he was out was, I can’t believe that motherfucker is free. My second reaction, which followed almost instantaneously, was The black guy in Texas ain’t gonna get that lucky.
And truly, the thing I’ve thought of the most in the wake of these tragedies is the crime-and-punishment aspect—because I’m not sure how to feel about it. It makes me so mad that Attias got off so lightly for what he did. I think federal mandatory minimum sentences are fucking bullshit, and that our country is way too eager to throw people in jail and write them off (America incarcerates a far greater percentage of its population than any other developed nation), but on the other hand, Attias killed four completely innocent people and didn’t have to do a day in a real prison; he got what my aforementioned college roommate called a “Rich Kid Pardon.” Meanwhile, the authorities in Texas immediately said they would be pursuing capital murder charges against Owens, raising at least the possibility of the death penalty. (Texas executes almost as many prisoners as the 49 other states COMBINED.)
Does Owens deserve to die for what he did? I don’t really buy into the validity of the death penalty, so I’m inclined to say, No, though I do believe, if he’s found guilty, that he should pay a heavy price for his crime. He should certainly pay more of a price than Attias did. But isn’t it a problem that he almost certainly will pay more of a price than Attias did?
There’s not a lot that we can do to prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening. But the way we react to them says a lot about us as a people, as a society. And to me, these two cases show that, once again, race and social class play far too large a role in who pays for what in this country.