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.
The three students charged in the case would plead guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespass in August 2017. They paid a fine, and, as a required part of the agreement, stipulated that Allyn Gibson’s actions on the night of the incident were not racially motivated. That the case was still moving ahead at that point was a surprise since, in December 2016, the student initially charged in the incident, Jonathan Aladin, had reached an agreement with the Gibsons to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempted theft. End of story… Except that the Oberlin Municipal Court judge overseeing the proceedings, Thomas Januzzi, in a highly unusual move, refused to accept the plea bargain. Instead, he insisted that the case be brought before a county grand jury where the charges against Aladin were raised to felony level. As the Oberlin City prosecutor said at the time in what would prove to be a tragic understatement, “The situation has created a certain amount of ill-will among segments of our community.” If the students saw the Gibson’s alleged racist practices as a stand-in for much larger racist incidents roiling the country, the judge also appeared to see the case as the vehicle through which he could deliver a much larger message about students at (all) liberal colleges and how they interact with the (often) more traditional environments in which they are located. His message: he wouldn’t let Oberlin College bully the merchants, even if the merchants appeared ready to settle. The court, he said, “is concerned about the potential precedent setting of permitting a business owner under these circumstances to assent to such an agreement where such a serious crime is alleged.” (You might, at this point, want to remind yourself of the exact nature of this “serious” crime.)
Almost a year later, Gibson’s would file its civil case against the college and Meredith Raimondo, the dean of students, charging them with libel, slander, infliction of emotional distress, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, negligent hiring and trespass. This, despite the fact that, as the student newspaper recently pointed out, “Whatever you think of the protests and boycott of Gibson’s, the responsibility for them lies squarely with students…[who] continue to openly take ownership of their actions.” Nearly three years after the initial incident, a Lorain County jury drawn from this economically distressed stretch of northeastern Ohio whose better days in steel and auto production are firmly in the rearview mirror, would find for the Gibsons, awarding them $11 million in compensatory damages.
Nor did it end there, for here was yet another opportunity to fasten national grievances onto local targets.
“What does it take for a company worth $1 billion to know you care,” Lee Plakas, the plaintiffs’ attorney, asked the jury in his closing arguments in the punitive damage phase of the suit. The jurors’ additional award of $33 million – more than Ohio code actually authorizes – would demonstrate just how much they cared. The Gibsons’ lawyers, urging the jury to read larger lessons into this case, encouraged the jurors to send a message to this “billion dollar company” that lay within their reach. Oberlin College would be made to stand in for those responsible for the humiliation and economic devastation of small-town America. As Plakas put it, in this case of “national importance,” the wealth of the college has “gotta be relevant now.”
Oberlin, of course, is not a “company” but a nationally ranked college and conservatory of music where many students not only identify with the school’s progressive past as the first interracial and coeducational college in the United States, but insist that this past continue to inform the present. Over the years, this has created tensions not only between students and administrators, but between the college and the town whose residents can be more conservative than the students, and are certainly less wealthy than many of the families of those attending the college.
The college has not been blind to these town-gown frictions. Over the years, among other acts, it laid out $2 million to purchase a local hospital on the verge of bankruptcy, then leased it back to a new medical center for $1 a year so that local residents and students wouldn’t have to travel 30 minutes to an urgent care center. It offers free tuition to Oberlin High School students who are admitted to the college. It donated $225,000 to the Oberlin Fire Department to help them buy new equipment. Its students partner with local schools and volunteer in many community agencies, and its alumni run many successful local businesses. This past August, the college introduced a new orientation program designed to help students consider more fully what it means to be town residents. Caring, in other words, is more complicated, and has been more reciprocal, than lawyer Plakas suggested.
But this history and the inescapable truth that the town and the college are co-dependent were absent during the proceedings, and certainly were not reflected in the jury’s decisions. The millions awarded to the Gibsons – certain to be trimmed down on appeal – will take a dramatic toll on the college which, like so many others, is financially squeezed despite its endowment. It will only increase the likelihood that staff, many of whom live in town and shop in its stores, will be laid off. Yet I hear no indication of this mutual dependence when I pick up my paper at Gibson’s. What I hear, rather, is talk of how the store should wring everything possible out of their “rich” neighbor. What I hear are the casual remarks from a customer cashing out in front of me. He was buying a newly minted brown baseball hat sporting the Gibson’s logo (“Since 1885”). “This is to show my solidarity with Gibson’s against the haters,” he pronounced. I wasn’t sure who the “haters” were; maybe I was seen as one of them because I could find no joy, and only sadness, in the jury’s verdict.
When town-gown tensions surface in a village the size of Oberlin (population 8,000), there is always a chance, and certainly a hope, that through conversation, serious listening, and open communication these issues can be resolved, addressed, or, at the very least, have some of their sharper edges sanded down. But when local conflicts become proxies for national resentments and anger, when they leave our small, far-from-idyllic town and are teleported to a national stage, these fleeting opportunities evaporate.
Conservatives, increasingly suspicious of institutions of higher education, will see in the jury’s outlandish award a long sought-after weapon to hit colleges and universities where it hurts them most, in their pocketbooks. Colleges, already threatened by President Trump with a loss of federal funds if they don’t punish students for blocking the free speech rights of outside speakers, now will be staring at multimillion dollar civil actions if they don’t curb their own students’ free speech. That, after all, animated the Gibsons’ legal action: Oberlin College was made responsible for its students’ speech, even though the college did not create, endorse or condone the protest flyer that was at the heart of the lawsuit. Welcome to the upside down world. You know you have arrived when the plaintiff’s lawyer, summing up for the jury, puts forward virtually the same argument that, when advanced by students seeking to protect members of their own community from racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic invective, has led to their being ridiculed as “precious snowflakes.” “Defamatory words in our country,” Plakas told the jury, “have become weapons as damaging as guns that shoot bullets.”
The jury’s decision in the Gibson’s suit will not heal the town, does not offer a way forward, and will make it even harder for the town and Oberlin College – working together as they should – to address the very real issues that plague us: the income inequality that increasingly has hollowed out Lorain County and so much of the country, the sense of entitlement that underlies the actions of some students at elite colleges like Oberlin, and yes, the racism that blights town and college alike. Sadly, I’ll now buy my paper elsewhere.
*The Gibsons, it should be noted, claimed a total loss of $5.8 million, which, besides losses at the store and bakery (which has always been central to the case), included projected losses to their rental properties and not being able to follow through on a plan to build more apartment buildings. The College’s attorney called these figures “overstated, inaccurate, [and] speculative,” while noting that Gibson’s had been seeing their revenues decline since 2010. [Addition added June 21, 2019 at 8:42 AM]
(Full disclosure if you didn’t already know: I am Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College, where I taught between 1986-2016 and directed the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence.)