Beginning in 2017, I wrote half a dozen articles about the lawsuit against Oberlin College for participating in a campaign against a small family business accused of racism. In this case, the college not only joined the mob, but helped lead the mob against Gibson’s Bakery. Even after a massive jury award, Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar continued to refuse to apologize for her administration’s disgraceful and costly conduct. Now, an appeals court has upheld a $25 million judgment against the tiny college, and Oberlin has earned every penny of that penalty. Ambar still remains the president of the college.
This controversy began with a case of shoplifting. In 2016, an African-American student named Jonathan Aladdin was caught stealing a bottle of wine from Gibson’s Bakery, which was established in 1885 and has been closely tied to the college for more than a century. When the owner’s grandson attempted to arrest Aladdin, a fight ensued and the police were called. Aladdin and two other students, Cecilia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, were arrested. Students, faculty and administrators staged protests, accusing the bakery of being racist and profiling the three students.
Oberlin argued in court papers that the son and grandson of Gibson’s Bakery owners “violently and unreasonably attacked” an unarmed student, but that’s not how the police perceived it. Aladdin was charged with robbery, which is a second-degree felony, and Whettstone and Lawrence were charged with first-degree assault. Police dismissed the racially motivated claims and noted that over a five-year period, 40 adults had been arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery, but only six were African American. That’s not how the court viewed it either. When prosecutors reached a plea deal to reduce the attempted robbery charge, a local judge refused. He said the plea deal appeared to be the result of a permanent “economic sanction” from the college in which the victim had no choice but to give in. Eventually, all three students pleaded guilty.
The substance of the case does not seem to bother Oberlin officials or protesting students. The dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, reportedly joined the massive protests and even handed out a leaflet exposing the bakery as a racist business. When some people contacted Oberlin to object that the students had admitted guilt, the president’s special assistant for community and government relations, Tita Reed, wrote that it made no difference to her. Reed also reportedly took part in the campus protests.
Other faculty members encouraged students who spoke out against the bakery. The president of Africana Studies posted: “Very proud of our students!” Oberlin banned purchases at the bakery, pending its investigation into whether it was “a pattern and not an isolated incident.” Raimondo also pressured Bon Appétit, a major college entrepreneur, to cease operations with the bakery. Reed even suggested that “once the charges are dropped, orders will resume” and added that she was “baffled by their combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim”.
In June 2019, the jury awarded the Gibsons $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A judge then reduced the price to $25 million. This has just been confirmed and the appeals court also confirmed a payment of $6.2 million in attorney fees. That’s $31.2 million, not including the millions spent by the college to fight the case. If you add the same fees for college, that comes to $37.4 million in the fight against this case by Oberlin.
What is most striking about this case is the complete lack of accountability or remorse on Oberlin’s part. Notably, even after record judgments against the college, officials like Raimondo remained at the college and faced no apparent punishment for their conduct. (Raimondo recently left college).
President Ambar would not even apologize to this family. Both family patriarchs died during this litigation.
Yet the college itself is also a victim. The tens of millions of dollars lost by Oberlin could have enabled hundreds of students to take free classes at the school. It could have supported important research programs and grants. Instead, college officials burned the cash rather than stand up to a crowd.
Here’s the opinion: Gibson Bros. vs. Oberlin