I went back to Oberlin on a Friday in June for the first time in a year or so. Even retired professors like me have to return books to the library (eventually). Driving off the Ohio-10 freeway, down East Lorain Street, past the organic George Jones Farm—named for a beloved botany professor, not the great country-and-western singer—I saw the first of several yard signs supporting Gibson’s Bakery in its lawsuit against Oberlin College and its dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, who is also vice president of the college. The previous day, a Lorain County jury had awarded Gibson’s an astounding $33 million in punitive damages in addition to the $11.2 million it had already assigned to the family business for compensatory damages.
The jury found that Oberlin College and its dean of students had maliciously libeled the Gibson family as racists and deliberately damaged their business by suspending and later cancelling its century-long business relationship with the bakery—all while unofficially encouraging a student boycott. And the jury found that the college had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the Gibsons themselves.
At least neither Dean Raimondo nor anyone in the Oberlin administration was found to have harmed the Gibson family dog. But someone did slash the tires of their employees’ cars; there were anonymous threats; and someone harassed the 90-year-old paterfamilias, Allyn W. Gibson, in the middle of the night, causing him to slip and crack three vertebrae. All because on November 9, 2016, his grandson and namesake, Allyn Gibson, who is white, had caught an underage African-American student named Jonathan Aladin first trying to buy and then trying to steal wine from the store with two college friends. When Gibson tried first to call the police and then to take a picture of Aladin with two bottles of wine under his shirt, Aladin slapped the phone out of his hands and ran out of the store. Gibson chased him across the street, tried to stop him, and was beaten up by Aladin and his friends. “I’m going to kill you,” Gibson reported Aladin saying. Aladin and his friends, Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone, were arrested. The Gibsons pressed charges against the students despite the college’s repeated demands that they drop them.
In court, Raimondo and other key players in the Oberlin administration were shown to have actively supported two days of student protests against Gibson’s after the arrests, cursed and derided the Gibson family and its supporters in emails and texts—“idiots” was among the milder epithets—and ignored those within the college who urged deliberation, compromise, and restraint. Oberlin President Marvin Krislov and others rejected the Gibson family’s repeated pleas to renounce the charge that they were racists, even when presented with strong statistical and anecdotal evidence that this was not the case.
In August 2017, nine months after his arrest, Jonathan Aladin pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft, aggravated trespassing, and underage purchase of alcohol. His friends pled guilty to the first two charges. All three students read statements to the court acknowledging that Allyn Gibson had been within his rights to detain them and that his actions had not been racially motivated. On the sidelines of the court, the director of Oberlin’s Multicultural Resource Center and interim assistant dean of students, Antoinette Myers, texted her supervisor, Dean Raimondo. “After a year”—that is, after the students were eligible to have their criminal records expunged—“I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store,” Myers wrote.
The fact that the students’ guilty plea was the result of a plea deal, as most criminal convictions are, and that the students’ allocution was compelled by the court (a feature of criminal justice with deep roots in common law) encouraged many students and faculty to believe that somehow this had still been a racist incident. How, exactly, was never made clear. What should Allyn Gibson have done with an underage customer who had just shown him a clearly fake I.D. and now had two bottles of wine under his shirt? Perhaps if Gibson had said something like “Come let us reason together: I can’t sell you wine, but I can share a nice cold Snapple with you while we discuss my family’s exceedingly thin profit margins and how we are both oppressed under neoliberalism,” things would have been different. They might even have found out that they had something in common, since Jonathan Aladin was the student treasurer at Oberlin, which also has thin margins.