The Rift

How 2 cheap bottles of wine tore a college and its community apart

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Vimal Patel
October 25, 2019

Oberlin, Ohio


The white man had his hands wrapped around the black teenager’s neck.

At least that’s what some onlookers said they saw. They screamed at the white man, pleading with him to let go. One witness tried to pry the man’s hands away. Another called the police. Another started to sob.

The fight had spilled outside onto the sidewalk by now, but it had begun at Gibson’s Bakery, over two $8.99 bottles of Barefoot Pink Moscato. The white man worked at Gibson’s. He was a Gibson, Allyn, the fifth generation in a family business stretching back to 1885.

The teenager was Jonathan Aladin, a sophomore at Oberlin College. Allyn D. Gibson later said he had seen Aladin tuck the bottles under his shirt before trying to purchase another bottle with a fake I.D. By the time police officers arrived, they saw two black women “whaling away” on Gibson, they said. He was on the ground. Aladin got loose from the tangle and ran across the street to the college green, where Gibson tackled him again, before the officers broke up the fight.

The officers heard conflicting accounts of what had happened. Several witnesses said the two women who had set upon Gibson were just trying to get Aladin loose from his grip. Gibson said Aladin had swung at him when he was merely trying to take a photo of the teen. (Another store employee backed him up.) Gibson kept him from escaping until the police arrived, and was beaten by Aladin’s friends. What more was there to the story?

That’s how the police officers saw things, too. They charged the two women with assault. “We’re not going off of what they’re saying,” an officer reassured Dave Gibson, Allyn’s father, on the scene.

And they charged Aladin with robbery, which in Ohio can result in years behind bars. Under state law, a physical struggle can raise petty theft to a second-degree-felony charge. Allyn Gibson was not charged.

“This matter should be considered closed,” the police report concluded.

It was just starting.

Over the next three years, the confrontation over the wine led to student protests, administrative scrambling, a civil-defamation case, and an eye-popping $32-million verdict against Oberlin.

The incident exposed the frayed relationship between a passionately progressive college and the community with which it had maintained an uneasy rapport. The aftermath tore the college and community apart.

Nationally, Oberlin College had already become a symbol for the oversensitivity of students. But the Gibson’s case revealed that the college’s problems weren’t with its national reputation alone. It had lost the trust of its own community.

When Jonathan Aladin escaped Allyn Gibson’s clutch and darted across the peaceful two-lane street to the college’s Tappan Square, he might as well have been crossing the border of a country with different laws and mores. Though he made it onto Oberlin’s property, the college could not protect him from the outside world.

That’s true even though Oberlin is inextricably linked with the small town that grew up around it after its founding, in 1833. The college keeps local businesses thriving and has helped its community avoid the fate of many hollowed-out Ohio towns. Among other things, the college runs a museum and operates a movie theater at a loss so students and locals have access to first-run films.

But differences between the young people who pass through the town of Oberlin for four years and residents who are there for the long term can strain that link. More than 90 percent of students are from out of state — many of them from big cities. They cross the street without paying attention to passing cars. They’re seen as hypersensitive to cultural affronts — at every corner they smell oppression. The locals don’t.

The town of Oberlin is liberal. But Lorain County, where many residents view the college distrustfully, is politically complex. In 2016, Hillary Clinton edged out Donald Trump by just 131 votes, but two years later, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, carried the county by about 20,000.

Brown’s pro-union populism resonates in an area historically tied to the auto and steel industries; it’s harder to understand an expensive private college with a history of political activism. The county’s per capita income: $29,000. Oberlin College’s yearly cost of attendance before financial aid: $74,000.

“Oberlin’s a very elite and sometimes elitist school in a county that has traditionally disliked us,” said Steven Volk, an emeritus professor of history who has followed the Gibson’s case closely. “You can go to Cleveland and they don’t even know about Oberlin. But in Lorain County, they don’t like it. They don’t like it because you have weird kids who wander around without shoes in the middle of the winter.”

Oberlin is under heavy pressure to make sure that its activist identity remains a draw, and not a drawback.

Oberlin College has always appealed to activists. The college was among the first to admit black students, and the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Even the college slogan embraces its activism: “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.”

Oberlin is under heavy pressure to make sure that its activist identity remains a draw, and not a drawback. Last year college leaders sent an open letter to the community explaining that it faced a $4.7-million deficit after investing in student amenities and faculty pay during the previous decade.

Who paid for the expansion? Students and their families. In 2007 an Oberlin education cost 46 percent of a median household’s income, a figure that college officials said looked “alarmingly high” even then. By 2016 the share had risen to 71 percent.

“The math doesn’t work anymore,” the president and board leaders wrote in the June 2018 letter. “The pool of students graduating from high school is no longer growing. Even upper-middle-class families are straining to afford an Oberlin education. And today we’re competing against less expensive alternatives (like highly selective liberal-arts programs embedded inside state universities).”

Part of the pitch to students is the appeal of the local community. But relations between the two are increasingly dissonant. Local merchants have reported significant losses from theft; in the few days before the Aladin arrest, three other Oberlin students tried to shoplift from Gibson’s — a white man, a black man, and a Filipino American woman. In each case, the bakery’s response was consistent: The student was arrested and charged.

But Aladin’s arrest was not the first time students had leveled accusations of disparate treatment at the bakery. In 1990, Dave Gibson asked a black student sitting at a table outside the bakery to leave to make room for other people. Two white men at the tables, according to the student, were not asked to leave.

Gibson explained at the time to the campus newspaper that the two white men had purchased something from the store and were regulars. “I tried to describe it to them in a calm and straightforward way, but they jumped right on it for whatever reason,” Gibson said. “Whether they are white or black, I do this to everybody. … What does this have to do with racism?”

And so it went. Decades of simmering tensions, a fragile peace, but the center always held.

Until it didn’t.

The day Jonathan Aladin was arrested wasn’t just any Wednesday. It was November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

The campus was morose. The dining halls fell silent. Many students and faculty members felt powerless.

Kameron Dunbar, a student senator, wore black that day, in mourning. The sophomore had come to Oberlin because of its art, music, and culture of activism. The campus is peaceful on any day, he said, but on that day it felt like an Edgar Allan Poe tale: dark, dead, broken.

Then Dunbar, who is black, got the news that was spreading fast across campus: Aladin, someone Dunbar knew to be thoughtful and “not a miscreant,” had been tackled and arrested at Gibson’s. A protest was being planned for the next morning.

The news brought back a painful memory for Dunbar. Freshman year, he had shopped at Gibson’s until one day when a store employee asked him to take his backpack off. The sign posted outside said all shoppers had to do that, so he complied. Then, he said, he saw three white people who were not asked to do the same.

“I did not write a letter to the editor, I didn’t make a big deal about it,” Dunbar said. “I just decided I wasn’t going to shop there anymore. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to someone who has never experienced it.”

Now he was thinking about how to respond to the struggle and arrest.

So was Meredith Raimondo, vice president and dean of students. Among her first official actions the next day: sending an iMessage at 7:38 a.m.

“A staff group will meet at 930 in Wilder 105 to talk about how to support students who are protesting,” she wrote.

Support.

That word would later be at the center of the clash of cultures: Oberlin College, and the world outside its walls.

In recent years, Oberlin had often found itself presented as Exhibit A in portraits of college students as coddled, left-wing “snowflakes.” In 2015 black student activists had made a lengthy list of demands, including firing professors they deemed objectionable. (The administration rejected the demands.)

Later students objected when the dining hall listed a sandwich as Vietnamese banh mi even though it used inauthentic bread and fillings — they complained that it was cultural appropriation. The New York Post headline read, “Students at Lena Dunham’s college offended by lack of fried chicken.” The New Yorker made Oberlin the test case for the question, “What’s roiling the liberal-arts campus?” “Oberlin” became easy shorthand for “students run amok.”

“A thing that gets mischaracterized,” said Carmen Twillie Ambar, who became president in 2017, “you can’t get it out of the bloodstream.”

And now more than 150 students, professors, high-school students, and other community members gathered on both sides of West College Street, holding signs that read “Allyn Gibson is a racist” and “Boycott.” Chants of “No justice, no peace!” pierced the cold morning air. Protesters passed out copies of a flier calling the bakery “a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”

Raimondo joined them. With a bullhorn, she told protesters where they were allowed to stand, and where they could find bathrooms and refreshments. Later she authorized the purchase of as many as 100 pairs of gloves for them, although those were never bought. A local journalist said the dean momentarily tried to prevent him from taking photos of the students, something that college employees on other campuses have done in an effort to protect protesters. Raimondo handed a copy of a flier to the same journalist.

Support.

“Support” from a student-affairs administrator doesn’t necessarily mean endorsement. “What Dean Raimondo did,” said Meredith Gadsby, an Oberlin professor who was at the protest, “was to make sure that the students who felt the need to protest had what they needed to keep themselves safe and healthy and organized while they did so.”

The protest lasted all day. As students shared stories about unfair treatment in the store, some black patrons came to the family’s defense. Vicky Gaines, a nurse at Oberlin College, said she had known the Gibsons for more than 35 years. She headed downtown immediately.

Sliding past the crowd and into the store, she found Lorna Gibson, Dave Gibson’s wife, alone and visibly distraught. Gaines asked her to walk outside with her. In front of the crowd — she needed the protesters to see this — the black woman gave her white friend a hug.

Dunbar, the student senator, popped in on the scene between classes. That night he walked to the student union, where he and some dozen other senators squeezed into a tiny room to hold a meeting about the bakery incident. There they approved a resolution that called for a boycott of the bakery, and for administrators and faculty members to publicly condemn the Gibsons.

Had Aladin in fact tried to shoplift two bottles of wine? For Dunbar, that wasn’t the point. What mattered more was the violence outside the store. The way the police had responded. The all-too-familiar excessive charging and criminalization of black people.

“Multiple truths can exist at once,” Dunbar said in a recent interview. “Eric Garner may have been breaking the law when he was apprehended for selling loose cigarettes in New York State. That doesn’t mean he deserved to die. At Oberlin you can admit that theft is wrong and also realize that Allyn Gibson shouldn’t have been beating his ass.”

Oberlin College was a steady customer of Gibson’s. Students could use their “Obie” dollars — a prepaid debit-card program — at the bakery, individual departments placed orders, and the college had a daily order for about $500 of baked goods like Gibson’s locally famous whole-wheat doughnuts, made with the same recipe for more than a century. But as the protest continued for a second day, student activists demanded that the college do no more business with the bakery.

The day after the student resolution calling for a boycott, college leaders said in an email that they were grateful “for the leadership demonstrated by Student Senate.”

“We are deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the story than what has generally been reported,” wrote Marvin Krislov, who was then Oberlin’s president, and Raimondo. “We will commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident.”

The situation was about to get more volatile, as people outside the city limits started making their feelings known. The next Saturday morning, pro-Gibson’s bikers, including the Hells Angels, showed up. They shopped at the bakery to make up for lost student business. They painted over a rock that read “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” Students got more outraged.

Texts and emails show that Oberlin officials were privately sympathetic to the students and incensed at the Gibsons.

College officials, according to court testimony, feared that if Gibson’s food was served in the cafeteria, activists would throw it on the floor and stomp on it. They suspended the daily bakery order. Meanwhile, over a series of meetings, they and the Gibsons tried to negotiate a peace. They talked about putting out a joint statement to the community.

According to the Gibsons, the college wanted them to drop charges against the three students, let first-time shoplifters off with a warning, and call the college instead of the police in the future. Emails indicate that some college employees explored using the bakery order as a bargaining chip to get Gibson’s to drop charges, but Oberlin officials later testified that they merely asked the Gibsons to call them in the future if students were arrested for shoplifting.

Why should they make special exceptions for Oberlin students? the Gibsons asked. Wouldn’t that just make it open season on Gibson’s inventory? The bakery asked for an apology from the college and a statement to the community that race had nothing to do with the Aladin incident.

Oberlin refused. The protests were created by the students, it said, and how could anyone but the Gibsons state categorically that race was not a factor?

President Ambar said recently that the college viewed itself as a neutral, third-party broker, trying to get the two sides together to talk. Raimondo said as much in a November 2016 interview with the student newspaper, The Oberlin Review. “I’d really like a resolution that works for everyone — students involved in the incident, the store owner, people protesting, everyone,” the dean said.

But texts and emails that later became public show that top Oberlin administrators were privately sympathetic to the students and, in some cases, incensed at the Gibsons for the violent confrontation and the bakery’s refusal to drop charges.

Two days after the arrests, Ben Jones, the college’s vice president for communications, wrote in an internal email that “the police report is bullshit.”

“It’s so obviously biased towards Gibson,” he wrote.

In February 2017, Oberlin resumed its bakery order, without either side’s having budged. Protests had ended, but students never really went back to Gibson’s. Walking into the bakery carried a social penalty. And business was hurting.

Meanwhile criminal charges hung over the heads of Aladin and the two students who’d been arrested with him. The city prosecutor, Frank S. Carlson, had struck a deal in December with Aladin’s lawyer to plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid jail time, but a municipal court judge had rejected the deal.

Carlson thought this was a case of kids trying to score free booze, not a felony offense. But he figured the legal system would work it out.

And he didn’t think the Gibsons were racist. Like seemingly everyone else, Carlson, now retired, had strong feelings about the credibility of Oberlin students. “I’ll tell you why,” he said. “When the next day you see these students out there carrying signs that say ‘Fuck Gibson’s’ and ‘Gibsons are racist,’ what does that tell you about their respect for empirical evidence?”

Carlson was friendly with the Gibsons, had gone on golfing trips with Dave. But that wasn’t all that shaped his point of view. He had been an Oberlin student himself, during the Vietnam War, when his dad, Ellsworth Carlson, was the provost.

One night in 1970, student protesters marched to take over the administration building while the president was out of town. With floodlights glaring, it was the provost who confronted them and talked them down from their plan.

Frank Carlson, now 70, remembers overhearing fellow students in a dining hall call his dad a “puppet or something.” It still stings. “I knew he was trying his best to do what was best for the college and its students,” but students jumped to conclusions and made him into a convenient villain, Carlson said.

“I saw that happening again with the Gibsons.”

For the three people facing criminal charges, placing their freedom in the hands of the community was risky. In August 2017, all three pleaded guilty to lesser charges that didn’t carry jail time, a bargain with a condition: They had to state in court that Allyn Gibson had been within his rights to detain Aladin, and that his actions were not racially motivated. If the defendants didn’t get in any more trouble, they could have their records sealed after a year.

At least one Oberlin administrator who was in the courtroom was infuriated by the legal process.

“After a year,” texted Toni Myers, at the time director of the Multicultural Resource Center, “I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store.”

The next month, Roger Copeland, a retired theater professor, offered his take. Long a thorn in the side of administrators, Copeland had recently lamented the college’s contemplation of trigger warnings. In a letter to the editor in The Oberlin Review, he wrote that the college’s “boycott” of the bakery was “disingenuous and utterly unwarranted.”

The college didn’t have a public response to the critique. Some officials had a private one, however.

“ROGER COPELAND,” wrote Ben Jones, the communications vice president, in a text message to Meredith Raimondo. He preceded Copeland’s name with an epithet that left no doubt about his distaste for the professor.

Dean Raimondo responded in kind, adding, “I'd say unleash the students if I wasn't convinced this needs to be put behind us.”

That was not to be. In November 2017, almost one year to the day after the confrontation in the store, the Gibsons filed their civil suit. The student protests — which the Gibsons argued the college had aided — were libelous, the lawsuit claimed. The college and Raimondo, who was also named in the suit, had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the family and interfered with its business, the Gibsons said.

The wound from the protests was still fresh in town. In conversations across campus, at restaurants like The Feve, where town and gown mingle, and in newspaper editorials, debate over the bakery case raged on.

What were you more outraged about? Entitled, social-justice-warrior students stealing from a small business? Or a black teenager facing years behind bars for what many felt should have been a petty-theft charge? What was the bigger injustice? A college not doing enough to temper activist students, or a shopkeeper attacking a student as horrified onlookers watched?

By this time, the college had made a series of moves that could be woven into a damaging story about its behavior after the Aladin arrest. And the Gibsons found the right storyteller.

Visit Lee Plakas’s office in Canton, Ohio, about 80 miles southeast of Oberlin, and you’ll be surrounded by lions — on the wall, on coasters, on the elevator button that takes you to the building’s eighth floor. The lion is his law firm’s logo.

“When you’re litigating high-stakes cases,” said Plakas, the lead lawyer for the Gibsons, “you have to have a mentality that you are in a jungle, and you’ve got the talents and strengths to personify the lion.”

In 2017, he went for Oberlin College’s jugular.

“We’re conditioned from an early age to yearn to hear a story, to listen to a story, because the story answers all the questions,” Plakas said. “It starts at the beginning. It takes you to the end. Everything is logical.”

Now, in front of the Lorain County jury in the civil trial, he told the tale of an arrogant college, blinded by a business strategy of treating childish, leftist students as customers. Oberlin “supported” them in hurting a local business, Plakas told the jury. A college employee carried a stack of fliers at the protest, where a bullhorn-wielding Raimondo handed out at least one. The college “published” the Student Senate’s boycott resolution through its email system. It suspended business with the bakery and tried to use its leverage to get “special treatment” for students found shoplifting.

After several weeks of testimony, Plakas cracked open a King James Bible.

“What does ‘fire and brimstone’ mean?” he asked during his closing statement, recalling Toni Myers’s text message. “The torments suffered by sinners in hell.”

That’s a punishment, he added, that lasts forever. Malice.

“We’re going to send a message not only to this school but to all schools,” the lawyer said, “that we expect you to be the adult in the room.”

College administrators already dealing with demands from the Black Student Union, the lawyer said, offered up the Gibsons as a sacrificial lamb to direct activists’ rage at another target.

Oberlin was going “off the rails.” No one could stop it — except the jury, he said, which had the awesome power of ordering Oberlin “to change.”

“Your verdict will last for years,” Plakas told them.

The college’s lawyers tried to wrest control of the narrative and make a First Amendment appeal. They implored the jury to remember that this was, after all, a libel case. All this private venting about unleashing students and raining fire and brimstone was not central to the libel claim — and wasn’t even made public until after the civil suit was filed, they argued.

The Student Senate’s resolution and the protest flier were protected speech, the lawyers argued, but even if they weren’t, the college was not the “publisher” of the speech, nor did it condone it. The news reporter was going to walk away from that protest with a flier no matter who handed it to him. That’s what reporters do.

“Why has the college become the scapegoat for everything?” said Richard D. Panza, one of the lawyers hired by Oberlin. “I would like you to ask yourself that question when you are in the jury room deliberating. And I think through the use of your good common sense, you are going to arrive at the right answer.”

The answer was a stunning $44-million judgment — $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages. The figure was lowered because of state caps on punitive damages. Oberlin College, for now, is on the hook for almost $32 million. Its governing board voted in October to file an appeal.

Supporters of the college lament that Oberlin was punished for being Oberlin, by Lorain County jurors who were fed up with elitism. Plakas doesn’t dispute that the jury wanted to send a message. That’s what a civil trial is for, he said: Airbags in cars, tobacco settlements, the recent multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma agreement — all are results of the civil-justice system sending messages to change institutional behavior.

With the Oberlin case, Plakas said, “We’re going to send a message not only to this school but to all schools that we expect you to be the adult in the room.”

But what does being the adult entail? Raimondo had followed the college’s handbook, President Ambar said recently: The dean was at the protest to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. If no staff members had been present, Ambar said, and there had been violence or property damage, people would have asked, Why weren’t you there?

“We might have been sued for negligence,” she said. “So one of the challenges of this verdict is, What role do people want institutions to play?” 

Oberlin is now trying to figure that out. It’s paying more attention to teaching its students how to be good community members. After Ambar arrived, she created Community 101, a mandatory program during freshman-orientation week to educate students about the responsibilities of living in Oberlin.

One of the panelists this year was Krista Long, owner of Ben Franklin, a general store a few doors down from Gibson’s. On an August evening at the Warner Concert Hall, a block away from the bakery, she talked about theft statistics. The lost revenue wasn’t the worst part of such crimes, she said. It was the destruction of a relationship.

‘It’s a really sickening feeling when we find a box with missing things,” Long told the audience of several hundred teenagers. “It’s demoralizing to us. And it makes us feel like suspecting people that we really don’t want to suspect.”

Teaching students how to be better community members may be the easy part. How does Oberlin reclaim its narrative? The local hospital it helped save. The movie theater. The more than 100,000 hours of service that Oberlin students do each year for the community. Those aren’t what the college’s critics see.

Perhaps like nothing before, the Gibson’s affair has held a mirror up to Oberlin students, making clear a public image that strikes them as a distortion of who they are.

“I see Oberlin students as these wonderful, idealistic young people who come and put their different intellects together to try to problem-solve and imagine a better world,” said Kameron Dunbar, the student senator, now a master’s-degree student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “That is not what a lot of people think we are. They see us as bratty libs who waste mommy and daddy’s money to be crybaby snowflakes.”

Used with permission of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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