After six years, justice — or some version of it — has finally been served for Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio. After having its name dragged through the mud for alleged racism because it tried to hold an admitted shoplifter accountable for his crime, the almost 140-year-old family business last week received a $36.6 million settlement from a defamation suit it filed against Oberlin College in 2017.
The case was appealed all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, resulting in the upholding of a 2019 judgment against the school when the court declined to hear Oberlin College’s appeal. But the payout wasn’t immediate. It took two-and-a-half more months and an embarrassing op-ed from one of the plaintiffs before Oberlin was shamed into coughing up the money.
In a statement released by Oberlin in September of this year, the college said, “We are disappointed by the Court’s decision. However, this does not diminish our respect for the law and the integrity of our legal system. This matter has been painful for everyone. We hope that the end of the litigation will begin the healing of our entire community.”
How magnanimous. There wouldn’t be any need for healing if not for Oberlin College’s role in fueling rather than helping to put out the fire that began in front of Gibson’s Bakery on Nov. 9, 2016. One day earlier, on Nov. 8, Donald Trump had won his bid for the White House. Within hours, protests were breaking out in cities around the United States, with some quickly turning violent.
In Oberlin, around 5 p.m. on Nov. 9, Oberlin College student Jonathan Aladin stole a bottle of wine from Gibson’s Bakery and was pursued out of the store and down the street by Allyn Gibson Jr., son of David and Lorna Gibson, who along with David’s father, Allyn Sr., owned and ran the bakery. Two female friends of Aladin got involved in the altercation, which ended with Allyn being beaten and the three students being arrested.
Within hours, a student-organized campaign alleging racial profiling and racism by the bakery called for a protest and boycott. The next morning, Oberlin College Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo got involved, attending and speaking at the protest, and on Nov. 14, the college decided to stop placing daily orders with the bakery — something it had been doing for years. In an op-ed penned in September of this year, Lorna Gibson described the ordeal:
The school put out a statement that implied that this wasn’t an isolated incident. The school’s student senate passed a resolution urging the school to cut ties with us, which was posted in a display case at the student center. Our business from the students themselves and administrators — we have a small grocery store and sell beer and wine in addition to our pastries and candies — dried up completely. And the students kept showing up to protest.
David met with the President of the school, along with other administrators, to try to get Oberlin to retract its baseless claims that we were racist, and to quell the small group of students who, in their passion, had gotten us so wrong. But Oberlin would not even consider issuing a statement, and allowed the public to believe that we were in fact “racist,” even after the students pled guilty.
Instead, the school proposed a deal where, in the future, if a student were caught shoplifting, we’d call the dean instead of the police. My husband and his dad believe firmly that everyone should be treated equally, so they refused. Eventually, in 2017, we felt that we had no choice other than filing a lawsuit against Oberlin (for libel, among other things) because David’s 89-year-old father, who had dedicated his life to the business, did not want to die being falsely branded a racist.
The three students ultimately pled guilty in a deal that provided for them to pay restitution but serve no jail time. And the Gibson family won their suit and — months later — received their settlement. But as is so often the case, the process was the punishment. David Gibson died of pancreatic cancer in November 2019. His father, Allyn Gibson Sr., died in February 2022 at the age of 93. Both lived long enough to prevail in court, but not long enough to reap the reward of that victory.
The System Worked, but Elites Have the Power
In a Dec. 18 Fox News interview, Lorna Gibson’s demeanor was not that of someone who just got handed $36.6 million. And why would it be? The damage — to the Gibson family and to their business — has been incalculable. Gibson said she plans, with the settlement, to fulfill her promise to her dying husband to keep the bakery open.
It is gratifying to see this sordid tale come to an end. In this case, at least, the system seems to have worked. Those who sought to use a simple shoplifting incident to push their own harmful and dishonest ideological agenda did not, in the end, succeed.
At the same time, it’s clear where the power lies in this country, and it’s not with the small business owner who’s simply trying to keep his doors open and do an honest day’s work. It’s also apparently not with the college student who doesn’t have the platform from which to mount years of legal appeals.
Instead, the power clearly resides with the deep-pocketed elites who lord over our nation’s institutions and with the academics and bureaucrats who have, for a long time now, believed they are untouchable.
It appears they still do. Oberlin College concluded its Sept. 8 statement by saying it isn’t worried about the effect of a $36.6 million payout on its bottom line: “Oberlin’s core mission is to provide our students with a distinctive and outstanding undergraduate education. The size of this verdict is significant. However, our careful financial planning, which includes insurance coverage, means that we can satisfy our legal obligation without impacting our academic and student experience.” Behold the privilege of the truly elite.
The Oberlin College “student experience” would be better served by teaching said students that it’s disgusting when mean, nasty bullies take advantage of the vulnerable just because they can, and that the best thing to do when you’ve screwed up is to admit you’re wrong and suffer the consequences. They could also teach students that shoplifting from local businesses is wrong and that, if you do it, you might get caught. Jonathan Aladin knows that now. Too bad Oberlin College doesn’t appear to have learned any of its own lessons from this whole disgraceful affair.