When a jury awarded more than $33 million in punitive damages to Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family in its suit against Oberlin College, its action didn’t simply indicate the jurors’ desire to “make the college pay” for the injury ostensibly done to a local merchant. It traveled considerably beyond that since, as the plaintiff’s accountant had testified, Gibson’s Bakery calculated it only stood to lose some $2.8 million over the next 30 years, due to the claimed harm.* Rather, the preposterous size of the jury’s award was evidence that the case long since had leapt over its modest origins in an alleged shoplifting. In many ways, the Gibson’s-Oberlin conflict had become a national billboard on which the fault lines splintering the country were sadly advertised.
Gibson’s sells everything from donuts to the New York Times, the one item which brings me into the store daily. But it was wine that launched this cascade of trouble when an underaged Black student allegedly walked out with two unpaid-for bottles on November 9, 2016. Actually, as the police bodycam video indicates, the wine never left the store. (For one eyewitness account of what happened that night, fast forward to 6:55-8:27 on the video.) In any case, as the student left the store, Allyn Gibson, Jr., the grandson and son of the store’s owners who was working the register, pursued him across the street. City police ultimately arrested the student along with two of his friends, after a tussle which began in the store and which, according to the student eyewitnesses, was initiated by Gibson. (The police report of the event inexplicably excluded testimony from the three students involved as well as the student eyewitnesses who placed the first call to the police.)
News of the arrests spread quickly to the nearby campus, sparking a peaceful protest in front of the store the following day. One leaflet handed out by students described the store as a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” Students began to boycott the store and, some days later, the college suspended its traditional order of bagels and donuts as college officials pledged to “determine the full and true narrative” of what had happened that night. The college resumed its purchases less than a month later.
Now, it is quite possible that had this incident occurred a year before, or even a week before, little would have come of it. But November 9 was the day following Donald Trump’s unsettling victory, and many students were feeling exceptionally raw. On this particular November 9, for many students I would imagine, Gibson’s became the nearest target within walking distance against which they could express their anger at the racism which, in their view, had led not only to the mistreatment of their peers, but was tightly bound up with Trump’s electoral victory. A small, hometown store with its own particular complement of virtues and flaws – over the years, students of color had raised similar complaints about the store – would come to stand in for all that, in the protesters’ view, had just gone off the rails in the country. Continue reading