At Oberlin, victim status gives you privilege to shoplift
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
he outcome of a lawsuit against a liberal arts college in northern Ohio highlights how little cultural elites have learned from Donald Trump's shocking 2016 victory.
A jury awarded $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages (almost certain to be reduced to no more than $22 million) to Gibson's Bakery in its suit against Oberlin College. The case was heard in Lorain County, a heavily unionized former Democratic stronghold, which Barack Obama carried comfortably twice. The obvious revulsion of the jury for Oberlin College may be a favorable omen for Trump's reelection bid.
The events leading Gibson's Bakery and its owners to file suit against Oberlin College and Vice President Dr. Meredith Raimondo for defamation, tortious interference with business relationships, and infliction of emotional damage began November 9, 2016, the day after Trump's electoral triumph.
Store clerk Allyn Gibson — a grandson of the owner of Gibson's Bakery, which has been serving the college town since 1885 — rejected the false ID proffered by Oberlin freshman Jonathan Aladin in an attempt to purchase wine. At the same time, Gibson noticed that Aladin had two other bottles of wine hidden under his coat, and he called the police to report the attempted shoplifting. Aladin and two female students fled the store, with Gibson in pursuit. By the time Oberlin town police arrived at the scene, the three students had overcome Gibson and were pummeling him. The three were arrested.
All three students were black.
The next day, the Oberlin campus erupted in student protests aimed at Gibson's Bakery. Protestors also stood outside Gibson's passing out leaflets that read: "Don't buy. This is a racist establishment with a long account of racial profiling and discrimination."
Protests are common at Oberlin, once considered among America's best liberal arts colleges, with a superb musical conservatory attached, but of late more a parody of the excesses of identity politics. Oberlin gained international notoriety in 2013 after the reported sighting of a Ku Klux Klan supporter in full KKK regalia on campus. The figure in question turned out to be a student wrapped in a blanket to keep warm. That was but one of several racial hoaxes to grip the campus. In addition, black students have protested too little fried chicken in Afrikan Heritage House offerings, and Asian students have bewailed inappropriate "cultural appropriation" in the preparation of banh mi sandwiches and General Tso's chicken. The administration and food services duly apologized for their insensitivity.
There is, in fact, no evidence to support the claim that Gibson's Bakery is racist or has engaged in racial profiling. Most telling, Aladin and his accomplices pleaded guilty to theft and specifically averred that they had not been racially profiled. Of the 40 people arrested for shoplifting at Gibson's in recent years, only six have been black. A current black employee at Gibson's told the student newspaper, "If you're caught shoplifting, you're going to end up getting arrested... It doesn't matter what color you are." And Emily Crawford, a member of Oberlin's communications staff, sent an e-mail to colleagues in which she recounted conversations with 15 local "people of color" among her friends, not one of whom believed that Gibson's is a racist establishment.
Indeed if Aladin and his cohorts were profiled, it was more likely because they were Oberlin students, not because they were black. Over 80 percent of the shoplifters at Gibson's and other local businesses are Oberlin students. Though quick to accuse others of exercising white privilege or flagellate themselves for their own, large numbers of Oberlin students do not hesitate to assert their own privilege to pilfer from local business owners.
Jake Berstein, co-editor of the monthly campus paper Oberlin Review, detailed as much in a 2017 article titled "The Culture of Theft." One student told Berstein she had twice stolen pasta noodles from Gibson's: "It wasn't expensive and I felt like it.... I just preferred not paying for it, but I could have." Students typically justify their theft as part of the cost of doing business for the stores they victimize, reports Berstein. Local businesses report tens of thousands of dollars in annual losses from such pilfering.
Oberlin College and its dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, however, were not socked with such huge damages for the protests by their students, but rather for the college administration's own role in those protests. The jury did not believe Raimondo's story that she was present at the protest outside Gibson's to ensure that neither students nor the bakery came to physical harm. And jurors were outraged by Oberlin's evident and ongoing lack of concern with the damage to Gibson's and its owners' reputations from being labeled racists.
According to witnesses, Raimondo (who besides the title dean of students is also the special assistant to the president for equity, diversity and inclusion) passed out leaflets, joined the chanting against the store through a bullhorn, and raised her hand in power salutes. (She denied the charges.) In addition, the college was accused of having printed the leaflets distributed free of charge. Raimondo herself implicitly confirmed that her relationship to the students was not simply one of outside observer. After professor emeritus of theater Roger Copeland wrote a letter to the student newspaper attesting that he had known the Gibsons for years and they were not racists, and criticized Raimondo and the college's then president Marvin Krislov for actions that constituted a "staggering, potentially bankrupting loss" to a small family business, Raimondo responded in a text that she'd "unleash the students" against him, were it not for the desire "to put this [matter] behind us."
Oberlin College dining services, perhaps out of fear of angering students, suspended its long-standing relationship with Gibson's, and Raimondo was accused of pressuring a major supplier to cut off Gibson's. Prospective Oberlin students were told on campus tours, according to the plaintiffs' complaint, that Gibson's is racist and assaults students.
Across the board, senior Oberlin administrators communicated great hostility toward Gibson's. When news broke that the three students would receive no jail time, Toni Myers, director of Oberlin College's Multicultural Resources Center, texted, "After a year, I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store." The students' guilty plea did not "change a [expletive] thing for me," wrote Tita Reed, special assistant to the president, who was also seen at the initial protests. She lambasted the Gibsons for their "combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim." Oberlin vice president of communications Ben Jones wrote of the Gibsons, "[Expletive deleted]. They've made their own bed now."
Oberlin's senior administrators provide a textbook example of how college administrators have done so much to fan the identity grievance movements on campuses. The various vice presidents for diversity multiply like the frogs in Egypt, driving up the costs of university education, even as teaching positions remain stable or decline.
Had Oberlin College shown the slightest sympathy for the Gibsons, they could have avoided a lawsuit. But according to the testimony of senior Oberlin officials, the college never considered issuing a statement that the Gibsons are not racists or white supremacists. And Oberlin refused to reinstate commercial relationships with Gibson's Bakery, unless Gibson's instituted a policy of referring first-time college shoplifters to the college and not the police. David Gibson explained that doing so would only worsen his already serious pilferage problem by providing a symbolic green light to would-be shoplifters.
Oberlin's arrogance has proven its own reward in the form of a jury verdict against it in the tens of millions of dollars. And it may prove a harbinger of the 2020 election results, unless the progressive left ever deigns to ask itself the question: Why do poor and middle-class whites so resent being hectored for their "white privilege" and being accused of racism? With respect to Oberlin College itself that seems unlikely: Writing to the community in the aftermath of the jury's verdict, new president Carmen Twillie Ambar vowed that verdict would not cause Oberlin to veer from its "core values."
Related Topics: Intellectuals, Social Issues
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