Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College – Trial Day 3 – To “unleash the students” or not, that was the question
African-American bakery employee testified he saw Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo “standing directly in front of the store with a megaphone, orchestrating some of the activities of the students.”
Today was Day 3 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.
Oberlin College Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo completed her testimony, which started yesterday. She is a defendant in the case, and the plaintiffs had called her as an “adverse witness.”
What the attorneys for Gibson’s Bakery & Market wanted to establish was that Raimondo and other school administrators not only supported students saying that Gibson’s is racist and overseeing the November 2016 protests that passed out flyers saying such, they also wanted to explore whether Raimondo and other administrators had any “conscience” in how they made their decisions.
Not conscience in the sense that the school administration might have been feeling bad and felt sorry for Gibson’s, but more along the line that Oberlin College let being mean and nasty be a big part of the equation.
In other words, did bad personal feelings – an ill will toward the bakery/convenience store that had been doing business in the city since 1885 – come into play at all when the college decided to cut off ties with the small business as a bagel, donut and pizza dough food provider for the school cafeterias for the 2,800 students?
The plaintiffs’ lawyers had plenty of examples of what they told the jury was “personal beliefs overshadowing professional responsibility.” In one email, Ben Jones, the vice president of communications for the school wrote to his co-executives in the school administration that, “I love how these Gibson supporters accuse us of making rash assumption decisions, but are totally blind to their own assumptions … all these idiots complain about the college.”
He closed with, “Fuck-em … they’ve made their own bed now.”
When Roger Copeland, an Oberlin College professor of theater and dance (he is “emeritus” status now) wrote a letter to the campus newspaper soon after the protests ended, and criticized how the school was treating Gibson’s in the letter, Jones sent a text message in caps saying, “FUCK ROGER COPELAND.”
“Fuck him,” Raimondo responded in a message. “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”
Raimondo was given these examples and others and then asked a very simple question. “When personal beliefs get involved in decision making, does that have an effect on trying to maintain professional responsibility?” asked plaintiffs’ attorney Lee Plakas. She was asked specifically about herself and the higher-ups in the Oberlin College administration.
Her answer was quite surprising.
“Their position is to not have a position,” she said.
Several of the jurors shook their heads in surprise when they heard that from her.
She was then asked similar questions again in various others ways. Her answers were equally vague, and quite hard to figure out in basic, common sense terms.
Asked if she thought dropping “F-Bombs” connected with school policy decisions was bad professional behavior for an administrator for a prestigious higher education school, and did she consider responding and saying it isn’t appropriate, she said, “I wouldn’t have considered that an appropriate response.”
When asked if she thought that personal feelings should not interfere with professional responsibility, she responded that “I’m not sure what you mean by interfere.” Lastly, she was asked if people should always separate personal opinions from their job. Raimondo said, “I do not agree.”
The reason this testimony is important in the case is that Gibson’s is claiming they suffered greatly — economically and from a damaged reputation — from student-led protests that occurred on Nov. 10-11, 2016 that claimed they were racist. In trying to prove libel and defamation, the plaintiffs are arguing that not only did the school do harm by helping the student in their protests, they were more than just acting as administrative overseers in their actions, showing a malice with intent that helped make the damage worse.
Lee Plakas asked Raimondo if the action by the school was at all related to the school’s problems they were having with minority students’ perception of the school. A 14-page list of demands was released by the Black Student Union in December of 2015 saying the school “include(s) Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity,’ when in fact this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy. “
“You did these things to appease the students, for the school to be thought of as treating minority students better, right?” Plakas asked.
“That statement is absolutely false,” Raimondo answered.
Clarence “Trey” James and other witnesses
There were other witnesses called by Gibson’s side that are very relevant in this overall argument of “active” participation by the school in causing damage to the business.
Clarence “Trey” James, an African-American who had worked at the store since 2013, first denied that any racism existed in either the store’s treatment of its customers, or how he has been treated. “Never, not even a hint,” James said. “Zero reason to believe, zero evidence of that.”
James said he had moved to Oberlin from Cleveland to have a better family life for his young daughter. He is a single-father of a teenager, and he said that he and his daughter were invited over Dave Gibson’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.
James said he was working at the store during the protests and could see Raimondo directly outside the front door, as he was working the cash register near the front windows and store entrance. Raimondo has claimed she was merely at the protest because it was her administrative duty to oversee the safety of the students and to keep the event “lawful.” She has repeatedly said she was not an “active participant.”
But James said he saw Raimondo “standing directly in front of the store with a megaphone, orchestrating some of the activities of the students. It appeared she was the voice of authority. She was telling the kids what to do, where to go. Where to get water, use the restrooms, where to make copies.”
The copy making was needed to get more flyers for the students to pass out. These flyers said Gibson’s had a long history of racial profiling, had assaulted the shoplifting students, encouraged a boycott of Gibson’s, and gave a list of other stores to shop with.
James said Raimondo was taking part in the distribution of these flyers. “She had a stack of them,” James testified, “and while she was talking on the bullhorn, she handed out half of them to a student who then went and passed them out.”
The level of “participation” in the protest grew to higher levels with the last two witnesses. Two employees who worked in the school’s music conservancy offices (just down the street from the Gibson’s store) said students were allowed to use the conference room in their offices, make copies of the flyers that said Gibson’s was racist, use the restrooms of these offices, and were brought in pizza and beverages by the music conservancy administrators that had been ordered by the school.
The school has denied they participated in the protest in any way beyond trying to “deescalate” the tension.
The civil trial resumes tomorrow and is expect to last until the end of the month.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
WAJ adds: Based on Dan’s reporting of the testimony, today appeared to be quite devastating for the defendants. As mentioned in one of my prior notes, a tried and true tactic is to start your case by destroying the defense before you call your own witnesses. The Gibsons (father and son) have not yet testified, but when they do, the ground will have been prepared to provide them with credibility and to portray the attacks on them as hollow and meanspirited. Of course, we’re only in the second or third inning of this ballgame, and things could change as the college gets to present its case. But at this early point, it appears that the college is going to have to win this case on legal technicalities governing defamation and damages, not on the facts.)
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