Oberlin College: Bakery in Ohio Became Lightning Rod in Culture Wars – Rolling Stone
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How a Small-Town Bakery in Ohio Became a Lightning Rod in the Culture Wars

A legal battle between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College has struck a nerve

Gibson's Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, won a defamation lawsuit against the local college, sparking a national conversation.

Dake Kang/AP/Shutterstock

Gibson’s Bakery is a small, family-owned business in Oberlin, Ohio, a college town about 35 miles outside of Cleveland. In addition to selling sundry items and household goods, it sells cookies, rolls, and glazed doughnuts. Although Ohio’s liquor laws preclude it from selling hard alcohol, Gibson’s also has a small selection of beer and wine — mostly the type of low-budget spirits only the least discriminating of college students would likely imbibe.

It is the alleged theft of two such bottles almost three years ago that has led to the small, 134-year-old, family-owned bakery to become a focal point in the nation’s ever-raging culture wars. On November 9th, 2016, Allyn Gibson Jr., an employee and the grandson of the bakery’s owner, stopped a black Oberlin College student at the front of the store. The student had allegedly tried to use a fake ID to buy wine, and Gibson suspected he had hidden two additional bottles under his coat.

According to a police report, the student denied stealing the wine and, when Gibson tried to take a picture of him with his phone, slapped the phone out of his hand. The student then ran out of the store, leading Gibson to run out after him to Tappan Square, a park across the street. Some witnesses reported that Gibson put the student in a chokehold (though the Oberlin Police Department disputes this), and two female students joined the melee. From there, details are somewhat sketchy; while the Oberlin police report states that Gibson was observed “lying on his back with several individuals kneeling over him punching and kicking him,” eyewitnesses at the scene reported that the two other students involved in the altercation were attempting to restrain Gibson and prevent him from harming the student.

A small liberal arts college founded in the 1830s, Oberlin is reputed as a bastion of political activism: It was one of the first private institutions to admit black students, the first to admit women, and also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. (Full disclosure: The author attended Oberlin and worked for the college for a year after graduating in 2011.) So it wasn’t surprising that students responded to the incident outside Gibson’s with a call to boycott the bakery, as well as a protest outside the store.

On November 10th, 2016, hundreds of students showed up to protest outside of Gibson’s, distributing flyers alleging that Gibson’s was a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” A number of Oberlin staff and professors were also present, including Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, who, according to court documents, addressed the crowd on a bullhorn and handed one of the students’ flyers to a reporter.

In response to rising campus tensions, in November 2016, Oberlin temporarily terminated its long-standing business relationship with Gibson’s, which had long supplied baked goods for campus dining services. In August 2017, the student pleaded guilty to aggravated theft and attempted trespassing; as part of the condition of the plea deal, he was required to write a statement absolving Gibson of racial discrimination. “I believe the actions of Gibson’s employees were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale,” the student wrote.

In November 2017, almost a year after the initial incident, Gibson’s filed a civil suit against Oberlin College, alleging that the institution had directly participated in the defamation of Gibson’s by, among other things, purchasing refreshments and pizza for the protesters, and providing facilities for the students to print the flyers accusing Gibson’s of racial discrimination. It also alleged that the college essentially attempted to strong-arm the bakery into dropping charges against the students as a “quid pro quo for resuming business with Gibson’s,” and that although Gibson’s had requested an apology from the college, Oberlin refused.

In response, the college stated that it did not directly endorse the actions of the students and could not be held responsible as such. It denied that Raimondo had endorsed the protests, arguing that she was only present in a peacekeeping capacity to prevent the protests from escalating. (Two students who attended the protest confirmed this version of events, telling Rolling Stone that they did not witness her make any statements endorsing the protest.)

The college also disputed the Gibson family’s claim that the college had pressured the bakery to drop charges against the students, stating that it resumed its business relationship with Gibson’s a few months after the initial suspension, “without any strings attached and without any requirement or mention that the criminal charges pending against the students be dropped,” Scott Wargo, director of media relations for Oberlin, tells Rolling Stone. (The college permanently ceased its business relationship with Gibson’s after the family filed its civil suit, though students can still use “Obie dollars,” or campus currency, to buy items at the bakery.)

A Lorain County, Ohio, jury disagreed. In June, it awarded $33 million in punitive damages plus $11 million in compensatory damages. Judge John Miraldi later reduced the total award to $25 million, in keeping with the cap on damages established by Ohio state law. Nonetheless, Oberlin was not happy with the verdict. “We are disappointed in the jury’s decisions and the fragmentary and sometimes distorted public discussion of this case,” Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College, said in a statement. “But we respect the integrity of the jury, and we value our relationship with the town and region that are our home. We will learn from this lawsuit as we build a stronger relationship with our neighbors.”

Among members of the right-wing media, the response to the Gibson’s verdict verged on rapturous. Everyone from Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro to the New York Times’ Bret Stephens and old-school GOP pundit George Will weighed in on the verdict, quickly embracing the David-versus-Goliath narrative of an innocent small-town bakery being smeared by the liberal political-correctness machine. Will penned a Washington Post op-ed decrying Oberlin’s slander of Gibson’s Bakery, claiming the college was now a “disgrace” to its own progressive roots. Even Bill Maher appeared to revel in the verdict, saying on his show that “social justice warriors … are finally finding that maybe there’s a price to pay [for political correctness].”

In an email to Rolling Stone, Lee Plakas, the lawyer for Gibson’s Bakery, refuted the analysis of the case as an example of liberal ideology run rampant. “From the very beginning, we’ve asserted that this case is not a matter of politics, but an issue of right versus wrong,” he tells Rolling Stone, citing the avalanche of support the Gibson family has received post-verdict “from both sides of the aisle.”


But not everyone involved in the case
has gleaned the same message. If nothing else, the level of schadenfreude permeating from coverage of the case highlights the extent of right-wing antipathy toward not just the left, but higher education in general, says Oberlin’s Ambar. “What I think this really has done for us, frankly, is expose a perspective we knew was always there,” she tells Rolling Stone.“For some in the media, it is an example of what they [already] think higher education looks like.”

Indeed, Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says the verdict should be viewed through the lens of what she refers to as “a rapid decline in public trust” in educational institutions in the culture at large. The increasingly high cost of college, as well as the student-loan debt crisis, has contributed to a view of colleges and universities as insulated cradles of privilege that cultivate near-Maoist levels of groupthink, as well as “elitist and stigmatizing” views of those outside the campus bubble, Pasquerella says.

Oberlin is, in many ways, the “poster child” for this view, says Pasquerella: With its predominantly liberal, politically active student body, it’s almost like it was laboratory-bred to fuel conservative ire at left-leaning institutions. For this reason, right-wing outlets like Breitbart and the Daily Wire salivate at the opportunity to cover the types of local controversies that would otherwise barely merit a mention in a campus paper, let alone the national news, such as a 2015 protest against cultural appropriation in college dining services (banh mis made with ciabatta were cited as an example), or a 2013 Klansman sighting that turned out to likely have been a student wrapped in a blanket.

Oberlin’s location also plays a crucial role in right-wing perceptions of campus politics. Lorain County, where the Gibson’s trial was held, is split neatly along political lines: Though it went blue in the 2016 election, it did so by little more than 100 votes. The county is also more than 84 percent Caucasian. Indeed, with the exception of one juror who identified as Hispanic, nine of 10 jury members in the bakery’s case were white, says a spokesperson for Oberlin College. (Plakas disputes this, saying one other juror was multiracial: “The facts presented in court are what led to the verdict against Oberlin College, not the demographics of the jury,” he says when asked if race played a role in the verdict.)

Attorney Lee Plakas talks Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Elyria, Ohio, about the decision in his clients' lawsuit claiming Oberlin College hurt their business and libeled them. In the background are Allyn W. Gibson, Allyn D. Gibson, Cashlyn Gibson, 11, David Gibson, and Lorna Gibson. A jury in Lorain County awarded David Gibson, son Allyn Gibson and Gibson's Bakery, of Oberlin, $33 million in punitive damages Thursday. That comes on top of an award a day earlier of $11 million in compensatory damages. (Bruce Bishop/Chronicle-Telegram via AP)

Attorney Lee Plakas with members of the Gibson family. Photo credit: Bruce Bishop/Chronicle-Telegram/AP

Regardless of whether more people of color on the jury would have influenced the verdict, the case has inarguably exacerbated preexisting tensions between the town and the college. “There were two sides to Oberlin: That gorgeous Victorian area where the professors lived, then you go down the road to the state liquor store, and it was another area entirely,” says Kendra James, a writer who graduated in 2010. The widespread perception of privileged students “not treating the town with the care and respect it deserved,” coupled with the one-sided economic relationship between local businesses and the college, justifiably “could breed resentment” among locals, she says.

Some Oberlin students and alumni allege that from the very beginning, law enforcement’s handling of the shoplifting incident reflected this sentiment. The bulk of the police report documenting the initial confrontation is based on interviews with Allyn Gibson Jr., his father David, and another Gibson’s employee. Notably, it did not include interviews with witnesses who supposedly told cops the students did nothing wrong. The absence of statements from witnesses to the altercation “played a huge role in how everything unfolded,” Nathan Carpenter, the editor-in-chief of the Oberlin Review, which has covered the lawsuit at length, tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t think enough people are talking about that.”

In an email to Rolling Stone, Lt. Michael McCloskey, the public information officer for the Oberlin Police Department, says that the altercation in Tappan Square had no “relevance” to the case: “Operating from the knowledge that a theft offense was committed inside the store and that Gibson had a legal right to detain [the student] for said offense, the witnesses to the altercation outside were, frankly, not germane,” he says. McCloskey says 10 witnesses — three Gibson’s employees and seven people who saw the physical altercation in Tappan Square — ultimately submitted statements to the prosecutor for review. As for whether Gibson used unnecessary force in detaining the students, “certainly there are those at the scene who perceived Gibson’s actions … as unnecessary or excessive,” but “determining the reasonableness of Gibson’s actions is beyond the immediate scope of the responding officers’ activity at the scene.”

Additionally, despite Gibson’s attorneys claims that the bakery had never faced any official reports of allegations of racial profiling prior to this incident, such allegations date back at least three decades. According to an April 27th, 1990, article in the Oberlin Review, two students of color led a boycott against the bakery after David Gibson — the father of Allyn Gibson Jr. — had allegedly asked them to vacate their seats to make room for two white male patrons. In a photo published in the Review, one of the women carried a sign reading: “Ours was not an isolated incident. Black people are constantly being harassed at Gibson’s.” In an interview with the Review, Gibson denied the women’s allegations, saying one of them had not purchased anything from the store. (When asked about this incident, Plakas referred to the students as “disgruntled”: “This incident, much like the one that led to this case, was not at all racially motivated,” he says.)

Court documents from the trial also referenced a comment on Gibson’s Yelp page to underscore that such allegations “had persisted for years” and were a matter of public knowledge. Such documentation “details the credible evidence that existed to provide full and proper context for the protests,” a spokesperson for the college says.

Plakas denies that these allegations are relevant. “I have seen no credible evidence that suggested the Gibson family has ever engaged in racial profiling or discrimination — and the defendants did not present any such evidence at trial,” he tells Rolling Stone. He also cited testimony from current and former Oberlin employees stating they had no knowledge of discriminatory practices from the Gibsons, including the former president of the college, the current chief of staff, and special assistant to the president for community and government relations.

But a number of alumni of color who spoke with Rolling Stone said they felt uncomfortable shopping at Gibson’s and avoided it for this reason. At least one current Oberlin employee was apparently prepared to testify to this effect: Chris Jenkins, associate dean for academic support, who testified that he bought pizza for students during the protests. (Jenkins claimed to not know they were protesters.) According to Lorain County’s Chronicle-Telegram, at one point during his testimony, Jenkins, who is black, made reference to “perceived racism” at Gibson’s, and also began to say, “I personally have had moments in the store —” in relation to his own experiences there before he was cut off by Gibson’s attorneys. (When asked about Jenkins’ testimony, Plakas says he cut him off because the college did not identify him as a witness to testify about racial profiling until after the trial began. As a witness in the case, Jenkins is unable to provide comment to Rolling Stone, the college says.)

In the bakery’s defense, Plakas also points out there is no official record of any students of color filing a complaint against Gibson’s, and that according to police records, 80 percent of those arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s from 2011 to 2016 were white, while 15 percent were black, a breakdown that is relatively consistent with the actual demographic makeup of the city. (In 2017, a journalist at the Oberlin student newspaper the Grape argued that these statistics, though not inaccurate, were incomplete, and that if one took arrests of minors into account, the percentage of shoplifting arrests of people of color rose to about 32.5 percent of all arrests.)

But Kameron Dunbar, a recent graduate of Oberlin who participated in the protests, says that to an extent, the lack of on-the-record reports is to be expected. Such a response is “in line with anti-black racism in American history: oftentimes, people don’t file complaints,” he tells Rolling Stone. “They just stop going.”

Of course, whether or not the discrimination allegations against Gibson’s were legitimate or not was not at issue in the civil case — what mattered was whether or not the college or its representatives directly endorsed the boycott or participated in the protests against Gibson’s. While the college has disputed that the administration took a stance on the case either way, texts read at trial from Dean of Students Raimondo and other college administrators do reflect, if not bias against Gibson’s, a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the case. For instance, in response to an op-ed from a former faculty member criticizing the college’s handling of the protests, Raimondo wrote in a text message to another administrator, “Fuck him, I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us” — an expression of frustration that, whether merited or not, certainly doesn’t do much to counteract the perception that the college somehow was weaponizing students against a small-town retailer.

But the idea that students could somehow serve as tools to implement a university’s progressive political agenda — an assumption that, in many ways, is at the heart of the case — is one to which Oberlin students vociferously object. “In my mind, the biggest inaccuracy has been the narrative that college administrators somehow organized or orchestrated the protests,” says Oberlin Review‘s Carpenter. “Every action that students undertook was completely autonomous, and students continue to take full responsibility for them.” Dunbar agrees, saying that if anything, many students during the protests criticized the administration for not being more vocal in support of the boycott and were dismayed when the college resumed relations with Gibson’s in early 2017. “Students aren’t agents of an institution in the same way employees are agents of a private company,” he says.

More broadly, however, among higher-education and free-speech-advocate circles, there is a sense of anxiety that the decision could fuel the right-wing sentiment against so-called “social justice warriors,” as well as set a precedent for student activism on other campuses. “I think the Oberlin case will lead to increasing moral distress for college administrators who are being asked to balance President Trump’s recent executive order mandating the protection of free speech on college and university campuses and the fiduciary responsibilities of safeguarding their institutions against liability,” said Pasquerella. “There is concern on the part of some college presidents that this decision will have a chilling effect on free speech and will make it more difficult to ensure the safety of their students engaged in off-campus protests.”

When asked if the verdict would have such an effect, Plakas was fairly dismissive. “It’s important to remember that Oberlin College was not on trial for the free speech of its students. Instead, the jury determined, unanimously, that Oberlin College libeled the Gibsons,” he said. “With every significant right we have in this country, there are equally significant responsibilities. Libelous statements do not enjoy any protections under the First Amendment. Recklessly aimed words can be as dangerous as recklessly aimed bullets.”

But by some accounts, this effect has already started to spread. A molecular biology professor at Wesleyan University, for instance, has sued the school for defamation on the grounds that it allowed students to distribute flyers accusing him of being a sexual predator; the professor, Michael McAlear, argued in part that Wesleyan aided and abetted defamation by allowing students to use its printers and copiers to print out the flyers, similar to the argument that Gibson’s used in its initial complaint.

Ultimately, while the verdict was almost certainly influenced by a confluence of racial and economic tensions specific to Oberlin itself, its potential implications could very well extend beyond the college. In hailing the verdict as an unequivocal victory over political correctness and social justice warriors, many conservatives seem to have not quite taken these implications into account. The argument that academic institutions have an obligation to intervene in student protest and bar potentially libelous or defamatory speech does not necessarily bode well for anyone on either side of the aisle, Ambar says. “Conservatives should be concerned as well if people’s frustration with political perspectives and ideology gets meted out in punitive damages in court,” she says. “Because tomorrow, it’ll be speech that conservatives think is important [that will be on trial].”

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