Conservatives are often scolded for making too much of a fuss about the progressive left’s antics on college campuses and for complaining excessively about the destructive mob mentality that fuels many social-justice-warrior campaigns.
But a recent verdict in a lawsuit filed by a family-owned business in Ohio against Oberlin College reveals that the damage done by campus protestors and woke university administrators has real-world consequences. It also offers a glimmer of hope that we have reached a tipping point in the culture wars on campus.
On November 9, 2016, one day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Gibson’s Bakery owner Allyn Gibson, who is white, witnessed Oberlin student Jonathan Aladin, who is black, shoplifting two bottles of wine from the store. (Aladin, who was underage, had evidently planned to buy an additional bottle of wine using a fake I.D. but ended up stealing instead).
When Gibson stopped the shoplifter to retrieve the stolen items and call police, the thief attacked him, threw the bottles of wine, and fled the store. Gibson followed him and was attacked further by Aladin and two female friends (also black). As the police incident report reveals, when police arrived, they found Gibson on his back on the ground being kicked and punched by Aladin and the two female accomplices. Gibson told police that Aladin had threatened to kill him during the attack.
In a rational world, this would have been handled as a simple robbery and assault arrest. The facts of the incident were not in doubt, and many witnesses corroborated Gibson’s account.
But this is Oberlin, a campus that has become a caricature of political correctness. It is the place where students protested the school’s food-service providers because of a poorly-executed Banh Mi sandwich (there were also complaints about inauthentic sushi and General Tso’s chicken.) Students declared this an intolerable form of cultural appropriation, and school administrators quickly caved to their demands for more ethnically sensitive cuisine, setting up a meeting where students could air their grievances about the cafeteria menu and telling the school newspaper, “It’s important to us that students feel comfortable when they are here.”
The problem is that they are too comfortable—so comfortable in the knowledge that their feelings and ideological beliefs will be catered to that facts are no longer relevant to any discussion or debate on campus. In the case of Gibson’s, a simple shoplifting incident prompted the Black Student Union, College Democrats, and the student senate to launch a protest and boycott outside the store; the student senate even issued a resolution calling for an end to all financial support for Gibson’s Bakery by anyone at the university.
At the protest, students hurled expletives at customers, entered the store, and waved signs saying, “End Racial Profiling.” And not only students; Oberlin’s dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, attended the protest and passed out leaflets that read, in part: “This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”
The school did briefly stop doing business with Gibson’s, offering an unusual reason for doing so in a statement it issued two days after the incident: Donald Trump. “This has been a difficult few days for our community, not simply because of the events at Gibson’s Bakery, but because of the fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election,” the statement from Oberlin president Marvin Krislov and Raimondo said. “We write foremost to acknowledge the pain and sadness that many of you are experiencing.”
As for the actual physical pain experienced by Gibson at the hands of Aladin and his accomplices, the school was silent. Students and administrators who protested the store assumed that because the shoplifters happened to be black, the white business owner’s intention in preventing them from stealing must have been racist.
The claims that the store had a “long account” of racially profiling black customers was also repeatedly made without any evidence (a police investigation later revealed that in the past five years, only 6 of the 40 people arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s were black.) As a long-time Gibson’s employee (who happens to be black) told the student newspaper, “If you’re caught shoplifting, you’re going to end up getting arrested. . . When you steal from the store, it doesn’t matter what color you are. You can be purple, blue, green, if you steal, you get caught, you get arrested.”
The fact that Gibson’s had been serving the community for more than 100 years meant nothing. Nor did the fact that it was Aladin, not Gibson, who broke the law. As the Weekly Standard reported, Oberlin officials even suggested to local businesses that if students were caught shoplifting in the future, the school should be called, not the police, so that the thieves could be given one free pass for their actions.
According to the Legal Insurrection blog, which has followed the case since the beginning, all three of the assailants eventually “would plead guilty to shoplifting and aggravated trespassing, and would avow that Gibson’s was not engaged in racial profiling.” None served any time in jail. Even that non-punishment was too much for Oberlin’s administrator-activists. As Legal Insurrection noted, when news broke that Aladin and his accomplices would receive only probation, “Toni Myers, Oberlin College’s Multicultural Resource Center Director then, send [sic] out a text which said, ‘After a year, I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store.’”
In 2017, after taking a significant hit to their profits because of the protests, Gibson’s decided to hold Oberlin and its officials accountable for their kowtowing to student protestors. The bakery filed a civil lawsuit against the school (including Raimondo) for “libel, slander, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring and trespass.” This week, a jury agreed with the bakery’s claim that the school and its officials had acted irresponsibly and awarded Gibson’s $11 million in damages (if you’re concerned about runaway tort judgments, this might seem like a disturbingly high number for a small bakery, but considering that Oberlin claimed Gibson’s was worth less than $35,000, it’s not surprising the jury responded with a large damage verdict).
During the trial, Gibson’s lawyer argued, “When a powerful institution says you’re racist, you’re doomed.” As anyone who has witnessed the mob mentality among campus progressive activists can attest, student mobs only thrive because administrators allow them to do so. With their courtroom victory in Ohio this week, the Gibson family put college officials across the country on notice that people unfairly victimized and libeled by campus activists are done acquiescing to the mob’s demands.