The Deltopia Experience

This is the story of how I became a real fucking journalist. Not just some kid who is a high school yearbook class. Not a freelance kid taking pictures of a local Halloween festival. A real fucking journalist who got tear gassed to capture one of the most pivotal stories of the year.

I was the photo editor for the Daily Nexus, so, like most college newspapers, I covered college basketball games, occasional student events, and not much else. It was a mediocre paying job, but it was fun. My colleagues were all wonderful individuals, and it was gratifying to see something be produced on a daily basis that would be printed. To see work produced in such a tangible, physical way was intoxicating and powerful. But at the same time, that work was boring. Nothing ever came through to us that was powerful, fascinating, or profoundly interesting. And nothing ever would. Or so I thought. 

April 5th of 2014. Deltopia.

Deltopia during the daytime was a sea of drunken revelers under a hot Santa Barbara sun, wandering aimlessly from street to street. Numbers had swelled from the previous year. It was like the streets of Isla Vista had become rivers full of drunk, drunk people.

Deltopia at night was slightly different.

That night, I was in my tiny broom closet of a room that I pay an arm and a leg for, playing video games. I got a text that I ignored. Then I got another. And then another, and then another, and then a nonstop torrent of text messages. My phone was buzzing so much that it almost fell off my desk.

It was the Daily Nexus group chat. Something about… the police? Reading closer, I noticed words that jumped through the phone screen and slapped me across the face: “tear gas,” “riot,” and “fucking insane.” As if on cue, a helicopter roared past my window and I began noticing the faint noises of megaphones and yelling. 

I poked my head outside my window and shouted at a group who was walking past my window.

“What’s happening?”

“The police are throwing tear gas at people, I think.”

“Holy shit, why?”

“I don’t know, I’m too drunk to care.”

I own a pair of running shoes. They’re pristine. They’re not pristine because I take good care of them; they’re pristine because I don’t run. That night, I grabbed them and sprinted all the way to Del Playa Drive.

I didn’t really know where I was going, but I followed my ears and just ran all the way down DP.

A very nice police officer told me I couldn’t go down Del Playa, that it was closed, that it was for my safety. I tried to say that I was with the press, which is sort of true, but he became even more firm.

I don’t know why I thought that would work.

So I thanked him anyway, bade him a good night, and walked away. And then I found an alleyway and ducked into it, bypassing him entirely, and continued running down DP.

It was a crowded night, but I could tell something about that night wasn’t right. As I got closer and closer, the police bullhorn became louder, and the smell of acrid smoke became stronger. I found myself pushing past growing and growing crowds to get to the front lines and get a picture of this whole mess.

When I finally broke through the crowds and got to the front lines, I quickly had my camera out and ready to go.

The intersection of Del Playa Drive and Camino Pescadero. It was a clash of titans, law enforcement on one side of the street, a drunken mob on the other. The police department was armed with body armor, riot shields, and assault rifles. On the opposite, inebriated college students armed with open containers, bricks, and the sense of invulnerability that young adults have.

Ahh... youth. 

Ahh... youth. 

I watched a group of young men, with t-shirts wrapped around their noses and mouths, try to push a dumpster in the middle of the street, towards the police. I suppose they thought it would serve as a barricade, as some sort of mobile tank for which they could get closer to the police. A policeman reached down into a box next to his feet, and pulled out a small cylinder. He pulled out a pin, and almost lazily lobbed the cylinder towards the dumpster.

It flew through the air as if time had slowed, and I remember my pulse skyrocketing and my feet backpedaling while I clicked madly away with my camera.

The cylinder exploded with a tremendous bang, louder than I thought was possible, shot little sparks everywhere, and then began pouring out clouds of white smoke. The smoke started out as steady flow, and then, as if the grenade suddenly became enraged, the flow quickened and began bellowing gas into a huge cloud.

I remember taking an involuntary little gasp as I was taking pictures, and then immediately regretting it.

What is being teargassed like? Tear gas is like breathing in spicy food, except you can feel it in your nose, deep in your lungs, and in your throat. Tear gas is like taking a first sip of too hot coffee, where just the air scalds your mouth and lungs, except every breath is that first sip. Tear gas is like being punched repeatedly in the chest so you can’t breathe and all you do is cough.

It's a sensation I won't forget.

I stumbled back away from the cloud of tear gas, tripping over my own feet, pushing people aside just to get away from it.

I remember hearing screaming and shouting and swearing. I remember only that because I couldn’t see anything. My eyes were burning and my contacts felt like two dirty fingernails gouging my eyes. I remember stumbling around, tears pouring out from my eyes, when someone grabbed me and pulled me to the side of a house. They took a whole bottle of distilled water and just poured it directly onto my face. Great, I thought, I’m being teargassed and water-boarded in the same night.

After another dousing, my eyes began to clear. I blinked away the water and I looked up to see a concerned student. She began shouting various obscenities about the local law enforcement, and pressed a water bottle into my hands. She said more swearwords, something about “fuck the police” and asked me what I was doing, gesturing to my camera.

“Taking pictures for the Nexus.”

“Fuck yeah dude! It’s like a fuckin’ police state out there!”

“I guess so.”

“Okay chillin’ man. Okay go get those fuckin’ pictures!”

I think at this point any reasonable person would have reassessed the situation. I was by myself at the scene of a riot. People were literally smashing cars. I’m pretty sure the police knew I was taking pictures. They might detain me first. My cell phone wasn’t working. Nobody knew where I was. Also, there was tear gas.

A reasonable person would have walked away and called it a night.

I was not being reasonable. I took that girl’s advice and went and got more of those “fuckin’ pictures.”

That riot was a seesaw of a night. Any time the rioters would become more brazen, throwing things at the police, the police would respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. With every volley, I would snap pictures, and then duck away from the cloud of tear gas. Sometimes it would work, but sometimes I would get hit with a cloud and the burning sensation would return.

All told, I must have been teargassed at least four times.

After a while, my camera battery died, because of course during one of the most important news stories of that year, it wouldn’t be fully charged. I pushed my way back through the crowd and returned to my dorm. I began quickly processing pictures as fast as I could, and uploaded a batch to our website as soon as I was done.

Included in the batch that ended up being the photo that was plastered all over the internet and shared far and wide. I was standing on the lawn at the corner of DP and Camino Pescadero, and a crowd of people had just been teargassed right in front of me. They were fleeing and tripping over each other, running towards me. It was that photo that became front page news, highlighting the insanity of Deltopia and the enormity of the incident. 

Shit was getting real.

Shit was getting real.

Social media was already abuzz from the incident, and blurry pictures and shaky video could be found on all corners of the internet. But I, alone, was the one with well-lit, news-quality pictures. I was the one who brought this story to the masses in a professional setting.

The Daily Nexus became the first responder on the ground. Our office phone was ringing off the hook for the next few weeks, with callers from all over the county, the state, and then the nation asking us for commentary. I had several calls asking for interviews, asking about my time on the ground.

When USA Today called me to ask for an interview, that’s when I knew that I had made it. I was a real fuckin’ journalist. Suddenly, everything was worth it and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. All the tear gas, all the dodging of rubber bullets, and even the running; it was all to set me up for this.

Journalism is about telling stories. I told the Deltopia story to an audience of thousands in those few weeks.

And now I’ve told it to you.