A Lorain County, Ohio judge awarded a family-run bakery $44 million after determining that Oberlin College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo helped students defame the business by claiming it was racist.
Gibson’s Food Market & Bakery owner David Gibson and son Allyn Gibson were accused of racism after Allyn caught an African American student attempting to use a fake I.D. to buy one bottle of wine while also shoplifting two more bottles with the help of his friends. David Gibson was awarded $11 million in compensatory damages on June 7 and the business received a $33 million award for punitive damages on June 13.
The bakery has been in business since 1885 and had always maintained a close relationship with Oberlin.
Student protests and boycotts reportedly aided by the school slashed the bakery’s income and resulted in several members of the Gibson family working for months without pay. In response, the Gibson’s filed a lawsuit in 2017 charging Oberlin and Raimondo with libel, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass.
“This case was about far more than just us. It’s about the community,” Allyn Gibson said after hearing the verdict. “And further, I appreciate from the jury the way they took care of this Goliath. It took a lot of guts on their part…they’ve made it so we have a chance, an opportunity to keep the lights on…for another generation.”
College President Carmen Twillie Ambar sent an email to students and alumni which said that the school’s legal battle was far from over. “Let me be absolutely clear: This is not the final outcome. This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process,” she wrote.
Here’s what you need to know about David and Allyn Gibson and their civil lawsuit against Oberlin College.
1. Allyn Gibson and Three Students Got into a Skirmish
On November 9, 2016, around 4:45 p.m., 20-year-old Jonathan Aladin, Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone, both 19, attempted to purchase a bottle of wine using a fake I.D. Allyn Gibson refused to give the I.D. back to Aladin and then pointed to the two bottles of wine hidden under Aladin’s coat.
Gibson told the students not to leave the store as he pulled out his cell phone to call the police. The students ignored him and started to walk out when Gibson took a photo. Aladin then slapped Gibson’s hand, causing the phone to hit his face. Aladin dropped the two wine bottles. Allyn Gibson grabbed Aladin and there was an altercation. Aladin then ran out of the store, with Allyn Gibson in hot pursuit.
When Oberlin police arrived at the scene, they found Gibson outside on the ground with Aladin on top of him and the three students hitting him. Aladin, Lawrence, and Whettstone were all arrested. Aladin was initially charged with robbery, which is a second-degree felony, while Whettstone and Lawrence were both charged with first-degree misdemeanor assault. After negotiations, the charges were reduced.
2. Students, Professors, and Administrators Protested against the Bakery
Immediately after the arrest of Aladin, Lawrence, and Whettstone, rumors began to circulate around Oberlin that the students had been racially profiled and one had been beaten by a store employee. Oberlin alleged during the lawsuit filed by the bakery that Allyn Gibson, who is white, “violently and unreasonably attacked” Aladin.
Students, faculty, and administrators were seen protesting the store. Fliers and posters were created asking shoppers to boycott the bakery. Inside Higher Ed reported that students carried signs reading “Fuck Gibson’s” and “Gibson’s is Racist.” Gibson’s lawsuit claimed campus tour guides told prospective students not to patronize the bakery.
The lawsuit also stated that Meredith Raimondo approved the purchase of gloves for protesting students, paid for by the school. Raimondo was the advisor to the student government, which passed a resolution saying that Gibson’s was a racist business.
The Oberlin Police Department conducted an investigation to determine if there was merit to the allegations of racism or racial profiling by Gibson’s. The lawsuit revealed the department found “a complete lack of any evidence of racism.” An investigation by Oberlin Police noted that out of 40 previous shoplifting arrests at Gibson’s over five years, only six individuals had been African American.
On November 14, 2016, Oberlin told their dining services supplier, Bon Appetit Management Company, to stop purchasing baked goods from Gibson’s Bakery. Gibson’s had provided baked goods to the college for many years and according to the lawsuit, “Gibson’s Bakery had not received complaints from Bon Appetit or Oberlin College’s administration about the quality of the bakery’s service or goods.”
Former Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov testified that he was involved in the decision to cease buying baked goods from Gibson but contended that it was because the students were boycotting Gibson’s food on campus. “The question for us was why would you pay for food that people won’t eat?” Krislov explained.
Gibson’s Bakery stated in court documents that even though Oberlin was aware of the police findings, the college encouraged demonstrations outside of the bakery, told students they could protest in lieu of attending class, allowed students to make protest fliers using the school’s copiers, and even provided student protestors with food and drink.
A Facebook post from Oberlin’s Department of Africana Studies also fueled the fire. “Very Very proud of our students! Gibson’s has been bad for decades, their dislike of Black people. Their food is rotten and they profile Black students. NO MORE!” it said.
Krislov told the court the school had been trying to work on resolving differences between the students and the bakery. “Our goals were three. We wanted to de-escalate what was a dangerous and frightening situation in our small town. We wanted to make sure that the legal process could proceed cooperatively and fairly. We wanted to try to work with the students to try to repair the relationship with the Gibsons,” he said. “We were not taking sides.”
3. The Students Pleaded Guilty and Admitted the Incident Wasn’t Racially Motivated
In August 2017, Aladin pleaded guilty to misdemeanor attempted theft, aggravated trespassing and underage purchase of alcohol while Lawrence and Whettstone pleaded guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespassing. As part of the plea deal which reduced Aladin’s sentence from a felony to a misdemeanor, the Gibsons requested a one-hour meeting with Aladin “where they could express their feelings as a small-business owner.”
Aladin, Lawrence, and Whettstone were mandated to each pay a $334 fine to cover Gibson’s medical bills after the assault. The defendants also read a public statement confessing to their crime and acknowledging that the incident had not been racially motivated.
4. Oberlin Wanted a “Free Pass” for First-Time Shoplifters
One week after the food contract was canceled, bakery owner David Gibson met with Krislov and Special Assistant to the President for Community and Government Relations Tita Reed to discuss the contract loss and explain how Oberlin’s refusal to halt the defamatory comments had hurt his bakery’s finances and reputation.
Court documents filed by Gibson’s Bakery said that Oberlin was willing to consider reinstating the bakery’s contract if Gibson’s would agree to not prosecute first-time shoplifters. In a follow-up meeting, Raimondo also asked that the store call school police rather than city police when shoplifters were stopped.
Gibson explained that a “free pass” policy would be unworkable and unacceptable, adding that it would be hard to determine if it was the person’s first time shoplifting or first time getting caught. “Gibson’s Bakery already loses thousands of dollars a year due to stolen merchandise, and such losses would certainly multiply if students learned they could steal without repercussion,” court documents said.
The school resumed purchasing food from Gibson’s via Bon Appetit in 2017 but refused to retract previous statements they had made about the bakery.
5. Student Anger May Have Been Fueled by the Election
On the Friday after the arrest of Aladin, Lawrence and Whettstone, Krislov, and Raimondo sent an email to students acknowledging that student anger may have been escalated by “fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election,” which had just been held three days earlier.
Known for being one of the first colleges in the U.S. to accept African American students, the school had encountered verified incidents of racism several years earlier. Oberlin made headlines in 2013 after a man was seen wearing a KKK outfit on campus and an unnamed student posted anti-Islamic posters, defaced Black History Month fliers, placed a “Whites Only” sign above a water fountain and displayed a Nazi flag on campus.
In 2017 the fliers calling for the “end of Jewish Privilege” were placed around the school. During this time, the school decided to stop notifying students of any hate-related materials discovered on campus unless school security and administration deemed in the materials to pose a threat.