Today was the first day of testimony in the trial of Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College. I was in the courtroom, as I will be for every day of trial.

You can read about some of the background on this case here.

If there is one thing Americans agree upon these days, it is that the inmates have taken over the asylum. The various political sides and religious groups and age entities and the multiple genders of this country may not agree upon who are inmates and who runs the asylum — and perhaps how it might get fixed — but they all generally concur that something is messed up.

But in this rare world of agreement, most conclude that the most messed up of all the institutions is higher education, the boilerplate of America gone haywire. Costs out of control, free speech madness, parents bribing officials to get their kids in, sports more important than books, and as writer Gertrude Stein once said, suffering from “There is no there there.”

This higher education identity crisis of who is really in charge was on full display on the opening day of evidence being presented in the Gibson Bros. v. Oberlin College case in Elyria, Ohio. In fact, it all became clear what the primary issue in this case with the first witness.

[Gibson’s attorneys Owen Rarric (L) and Lee Plakas (R) in foreground, Judge John Miraldi at the bench][Photo: Dan McGraw for Legal Insurrection Foundation]

College Employee: Student Behavior Worse Than Nursery School*

Ferdinand Protzman, the chief of staff for the school administration and a 1975 graduate of Oberlin College, was on the stand Friday morning to testify why he didn’t think the school’s decisions to cut business ties with the little local bakery was a good idea after students launched a protest claiming Gibson’s was racist. The racist claim came about because students were upset that Gibson’s caught three African-American students shoplifting in November of 2016.

Gibson’s attorney Lee Plakas asked Protzman what was the reason for cutting ties with the business they had worked with for more than a century. He pointed out emails from various administrators that the student might have throw a “tantrum” on campus, specifically in the cafeteria while eating dinner, and that might be a good reason to get their cookies and bagels elsewhere.

“The concern was that the students were angry?” Plakas asked. “The fear was that angry students would throw food [made by Gibson’s] on the floor [of the cafeteria] and stomp on it?”

“Yes, that was one of the concerns,” Protzman answered.

“Doesn’t that sound more like a nursery school than a college?” Plakas continued.

“Nursery school students do throw food on the floor, yes,” Protzman said, adding “We are not the students’ parents,” as the reason the school could not tell the students to quit threatening to throw food on the floor and eat their dinner like nice people do.

For those who want more details of the “Student Food Stomp Threat,” the food to be flattened into the cafeteria tile was going to be donuts and bagels made by Gibson’s, but no one could was sure of the students were going to put cream cheese on the bagels before they jumped on them.

Oberlin Police Officer Victor Ortiz: “I didn’t see anyone trying to calm the students down at all”

If you think this part is funny teaching moment, listen to what former City of Oberlin police officer Victor Ortiz about the protesters outside of Gibson’s two days after the 2016 presidential election. He was an on-duty that day, and responded to the threat of the 200 or so people protesting. The police quickly assessed the situation, and Ortiz said he found the situation so dangerous that he was considering calling the Lorain County riot team to quell the situation.

“It was a mob mentality out there,” said Ortiz. “People were getting flyers shoved in their faces saying Gibson’s were racist, curse words were chanted, and they chanted how this business was racist too.”

This video, which was not played in court today, gives a sense of what the protest looked like as described by Ortiz:

Ortiz also questioned the supposition from Oberlin College that the school’s employees on the scene at the protest – including Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, a defendant in this case – were only there to calm the situation down.

“I didn’t see anyone trying to calm the students down at all,” Ortiz said. “Didn’t see any of them instructing the students not to use curse words and didn’t hear any of them tell their students not to shout that Gibson’s is racist. The sidewalks were filled up, and a lot of businesses closed in the early afternoon because they were afraid.”

What happened to set this all up was that an Oberlin College male student and his two female student friends were involved in being caught shoplifting wine at Gibson’s Bakery and Market, and a scuffle afterwards outside the store before the three were arrested. This all happened the day after Donald Trump was elected president, and the Oberlin College students seemed angry enough to protest and threaten to stomp on donuts and bagels as a way to express such anger.

Ortiz also settled an issue that has caused some dispute and consternation in Oberlin. Some in the Oberlin College community have expressed that one of the Gibson’s employees (Allyn Gibson) chased after the three shoplifters – one male, and two females – and beat them up unfairly and illegally outside of the store. In short, the school supporters have pushed interpretation of all this that the shoplifters were the victims of a crime, not Gibson’s

Quite the opposite happened, Ortiz testified, as he was one of the first on the scene and the police report backs him up on this.

“When we got there, we saw two young ladies [Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone] standing over [Allyn Gibson] and throwing haymakers at him,” Ortiz said. “The two women would stand over him and kick him, and then crouch down and throw punches. As we got closer, we could see [Allyn Gibson] on his back, with the male [Jonathan Aladin] on top of him and punching him.”

Another point made quite clearly by the Gibson’s was that they were not considered racist by the community’s African-American community and the city in general. Ortiz and another former Oberlin police officer said they dealt with Gibson’s on a daily basis, not because there was often trouble there, but because the downtown business area is very small and the police and business owners all know each other well.

Retired African-American Police Officer – “Gibson’s treated me just like they treat everyone else”

Henry Wallace, the city’s police department’s community service officer from 1984 to 2017, and who is also an African-American, told the jury “Gibson’s treated me just like they treat everyone else. They always treated everyone fairly and without any malice, and I say that because I have known them for more than 50 years.”

Oberlin News Tribune Reporter: Dean of Students handed me flyer, blocked me from taking photos

What became quite evident on the first day of testimony, however, is that the school seemed to perceive that they ran the town of Oberlin, and that the town was supposed to do what they were told to do. The city has a population of 8,000, and the school’s students and teachers and employees are half of that. This is a town that is only 35 miles from downtown Cleveland, Ohio.

That dominance was expressed by other witnesses. Jason Hawk, who was editor of the Oberlin News Tribune, with a print circulation of less than 1,000 in 2016, testified he was repeatedly blocked from taking photos of the protest by Dean Meredith Raimondo, and was handed a flyer calling Gibson’s racist by Raimondo. [You can read Hawk’s deposition testimony on Raimondo’s involvement here.]

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

Oberlin College Considers How To Get Charges Dropped Against Students

A deposition by former Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov said the school had about 400 people who live locally on a “no trespass” list, meaning those people were banned from setting foot anywhere on the school’s 440 acres.

Krislov said in parts of his videotaped deposition shown to the jury (he may testify in person later in the trial), that “a large number of the community were upset about it, because there were a disproportionate number of African-Americans on it.” (Krislov is now president of Pace University in New York City).

Amazingly, the school thought they could get Gibson’s and the city to drop the shoplifting charges against the three students, in exchange for the school business restored with Gibson’s. On December 02, 2017, less than a month after the protest, Tito Reed, set an email to her boss, Krislov, laying out how she thought things could be fixed. This is what the jury read today:

“So can we draft a legal agreement clearly stating that once charges are dropped the [purchase] orders [with Gibson’s] will resume. I’m baffled by their combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim.”

The trial testimony will resume Monday. The jury is deciding if Oberlin College defamed and libeled Gibson’s, and if they decide they did, how much money they owe.

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

WAJ adds: Based on Dan’s reporting about the opening witnesses, it seems that the plaintiffs are following a tried and true tactic: Before you put on your own case, destroy the defense. In the opening statement, the defense counsel presented a view of the college officials as peacemakers, not driven by ill will towards the bakery. Of course there is a lot more testimony to be heard, but it appears that the plaintiffs went straight after this defense narrative as the opening shot.

[Featured Image: Oberlin College student Jonathan Aladin in police car after arrest, via Police body cam video.]

*  This subtitle originally contained the word “Former” employee. As the text indicates, the person is question remains employed. The subtitle has been corrected.

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