Yesterday concluded Day 8 of witness testimony in Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College. The events giving rise to the lawsuit have been said to represent “the worst of identity politics.”  You can read about some of the background on this case here.

Today was a day off from witness testimony due a a prior commitment of the Judge. For those of you who have not been following along, here are our prior trial posts:

Given that sitting through a complex legal manifesto in person like the Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College can be “Zen Buddhism” at times and “Zen Garbage-ism” at others, it is good to take a step back from the courtroom bubble at times and take a deep breath. So put up with my ramblings below, as I try to make some serious sense of some things, and have some fun with some others.

One caution: If you think of this civil case as the simple good vs. evil, take a step back yourself. This case has a little taint of that in it, but it is still in a courtroom, and the legal sense of good and evil and the cultural determination of such opposites, operate in different galaxies. So as much as people think this is the MAGA hat people against the SJWs movement, not really. It’s more about the basic big bully accused of beating up on the little guy. But beating them up with the type of bats we haven’t seen much before.

So, here’s some thoughts to clear up your mind and mine:

Why Isn’t Gibson the Younger Being Called to the Stand.

A lot of people have been wondering why Allyn D. Gibson, the guy in his 30s who worked the cash register at the store and tussled with the shoplifters outside Gibson’s Bakery & Market on Nov. 9, 2016., is not going to be called to the witness stand by his family’s lawyers.

This is what I have gathered as the reasoning for that. First, the case is not about the shoplifting itself legally; that has been decided and adjudicated and specific details of the crime and protests are not allowed to be used as evidence in general. The plaintiffs’ attorneys figure that they have already gotten into evidence through police testimony that Allyn D. was beat up in the park across the street from the store by the three Oberlin College African-American students after they tried to steal wine, and his father yesterday testified as to the specific racist libel allegations against Oberlin College. Plus, the grandson of 90-yer-old Allyn W. has little usable evidence about the key parts of this case, i.e., the school’s role in promoting the racists views of Gibson’s through their alleged activity with flyers passed out at the protests and posting a college student senate resolution accusing the store of racism the day after the shoplifting occurred.

The plaintiffs also figure that Allyn D. has a good chance of being called as an “adverse witness” by the Oberlin College side, and they are wary of having him hit the stand more than once. So they figure having him called as an adverse witness is safer than having him open to cross-examination twice. He still may be heard, but not in the way most expected.

Where is All the Political Upheaval Testimony?

I have had to answer these questions of political ideology about this over and over again, but again, to understand the basis of this case, you have to get your mind more legal that political.

These two pieces of evidence that matter, and not much else does in this civil case: 1) The student senate resolution says “Gibson’s has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and resident alike” and 2) the flyer passed out at the protests says, “A member of our community was assaulted by the owner of this establishment” and “The is a racist establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”

[Flyer handed out by protesters outside Gibson’s Bakery]

The judge isn’t allowing any speculation as to what political ideology these statement belong to, and rightly so. The plaintiffs have hinted at that aspect of the case, and may find ways to brings such speculation into the minds of the jury during cross-examination of the college administrators  and students expected to testify next week. But don’t expect the judge to allow too much of that.

One theme that will be raised by the plaintiffs in cross next week, however, is how the school looks like it is in the throws of a personality crisis. What that means, and what David Gibson raised in is testimony yesterday, was that the school was having issues with its more radical minority students, and used the racial anger over shoplifting accusations against Gibson’s to deflect that student anger away from the school. We’ll get more into that as it comes into play from the witness stand when the defense puts on its case.

The Fugue State

A psychology professor I know told me he thought all the problems Oberlin College is going through right now on this case have to do with being in a “fugue state.” Like you (more than likely), I had no idea what it was and he pointed to me to this definition:

Dissociative fugue (formerly called psychogenic fugue) is a psychological state in which a person loses awareness of their identity or other important autobiographical information and also engages in some form of unexpected travel … The onset of a dissociative fugue state is usually sudden and follows a traumatic or highly stressful event … Dissociative fugues are associated with difficult events, such as natural disasters and wars, as well as severe marital or financial distress. In addition to confusion about identity, people experiencing a dissociative fugue state may also develop a new identity. Dissociation is generally thought of as a defense against trauma that helps people disconnect from extreme psychological distress. A dissociative fugue state is a condition in which a person may be mentally and physically escaping an environment that is threatening or otherwise intolerable.

The psychologist thought Oberlin College has been in a decades long huffy and snotty transition phase, and the election of Donald Trump and the racial protests that happened within a few days of each other were the highly stressful events that caused the confusion about their identity and pushed them over the edge. What’s the chance Oberlin College will mount a “personality crisis from dissociative fugue” defense?

Sherwood Anderson and the Railroad Walk to Cleveland

A famous northern Ohio writer who has slipped into obscurity was Sherwood Anderson, the early 1900s American leader in the change of the novel style.  William Faulkner once said, “Sherwood Anderson was the father of all my works — and those of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. We were influenced by him. He showed us the way.”

His most famous work is “Winesburg, Ohio,” published in 1919, and some thought it might be a quaint story about the charms of a small Ohio town at the turn of the century. But it is not quaint at all; more about the cultural change of society in the early 1900s going from agricultural to industrial and how the common man couldn’t handle all that. Too much technology and too much big city life being forced on them. Most of the characters in this book felt so trapped and alienated that Anderson coined a term for them: “grotesques.”

Every day in court at this Gibson Bros. V. Oberlin College trial, I am able to look down at the house where Sherwood Anderson lost his mind more than 100 years ago and started writing. The house is just six blocks away from the Lorain County Courthouse in downtown Elyria.

On Thanksgiving Day of 1912, Anderson was the president of the American Merchants Company of Elyria and went into the office. He was known in town as a bon vivant business guy, and his wife Cornelia was at home preparing the Thanksgiving meal for the couple, her visiting out-of-town parents, and their three children. But he seemed rather odd at the office. His assistant, Frances Schute, also there that Thanksgiving morning, later noted that he was “acting queerly.”

He was 36, a captain of free market industry, had a beautiful wife and three children, and decided he couldn’t stand that life any more. I’ll let the Ohio literature expert Buckeye Muse take over story:

He turns and says to [Frances Schute], “I feel as though my feet were wet, and they keep getting wetter.” He writes a note for Shute to give to Cornelia, and then leaves his office, walking out into the clear, cold day. His note to Cornelia reads “Cornelia: There is a bridge over a river with cross ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be all right. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow through my hair. Sherwood.”

He walks past his factory [in Elyria] next to the Black River and continues eastward along the railroad tracks. The crossties, rails, and gravel make rough walking for a man in dress shoes. Three days later a Cleveland pharmacist sees a man enter his drugstore. Hair unkempt, his face covered with four days’ growth of beard, his shoes battered, his trousers covered with mud up to the knees, Sherwood Anderson tells the druggist he has no idea where he is or how he arrived there. He doesn’t even know his own name. For nearly four days this neatly dressed, handsome man in his suit has been walking along railroad tracks, sleeping in fields and nibbling on the detritus of the recent harvest: hard corn kernels and cast off apples he has scavenged from fields and orchards. He produces a pocket notebook and gives it to the pharmacist, who calls one of Anderson’s friends in the Cleveland area. He takes Anderson to Cleveland’s Huron Road Hospital for treatment, where he remains for several days and recovers from his ordeal.

Over time, Anderson moved to Chicago to become an advertising copy writer and his new life as novelist took off. “Winnesburg, Ohio” is still a standard to be read in English Lit classes, and no doubt Oberlin College students have been reading it this year.

But every day, as testimony begins, and I think of how unhinged people can be, I look down at that home below, and think of the crazy guy who walked on railroad track for 35 miles in 1912 and moved on with his life. BTW, I can see the RR tracks from the 7th floor window in the courthouse too.

But I also think about what Anderson wrote in the first chapter of “Winesburg, Ohio” while looking down from my perch at where he used to live. It was about an old guy who was lying in his bed dying off, and contemplating what life really means. This is what the old guy came up with:

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

After listening to testimony each day, about young intellectuals deciding that people who make cookies and bagels and sell beer to them are racist, I look down at the house where this once famous writer lived, now old and rundown and in a bad neighborhood, and think of his theory of how the grotesques turn truths into falsehoods. And how this writer came to this conclusion in the time when Gibson’s Bakery was first doing business with Oberlin College.

Testimony will start again tomorrow with David Gibson’s cross-examination by the defense. If all goes as planned, the defense portion of witnesses will begin Friday.

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1


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