Today was Day 4 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.

Issues involving political ideology can get impersonal at times. In reading the comments and tweets about this lawsuit between a small business and a small college in Ohio, the public seems to be taking sides regarding their left or right leanings. Hardly anyone wonders how it feels to be forced to defend yourself in your home town against what you see as crazy accusations.

In Gibson’s Bros. v. Oberlin College, that focus just on ideology changed today. The jury hearing this case heard from the wife of the owner of the little bakery and convenience store about how hard it was for them to cower in embarrassment after a group of college students protested outside their business and branded them as racist.

On the other side of the coin, the jury heard from a vice president of communication for the school, who had hard time explaining how the school had little or no feeling for how bad Gibson’s felt after being labeled wrongly as racist, a sort of modern day version of “trial by fire” with the liberal arts college lighting the match. The communication specialist actually claimed the students were right about their accusations of racism, by Gibson’s against students, because the “police report is bullshit.”

Lorna Gibson, Wife of David Gibson

Lorna Gibson, wife of plaintiff David Gibson for about 40 years, was neither a crying sympathy-seeking witness nor an angry finger-pointer in being the first to give the family’s personal story on this case. Their son, Allyn, was involved in a scuffle with the shoplifters. Her father-in-law, 90-year old Allyn W. Gibson, is a named plaintiff, along with her husband David, and the bakery.

She was generally still confused by what the Gibson’s have gone through, trying to figure out why the university with which they shared the tiny city – for whom the business had worked for and with for more than 100 years — had used them, in Gibson’s attorney’s words, to “appease the students.”

Ms. Gibson said the family had no idea the protests were going to happen the day after three African-American students had been arrested for shoplifting and trespassing at their store. “I came into work at about eight in the morning, because that is our usual time to open and start doing the bakery items for the school, and we didn’t think the shoplifting [the day before] was much of anything.”

But later that morning, she heard through the grapevine that a protest was coming, and saw numerous students and others gathering outside their store. For those who have never been there, the store is extremely small, about 50 feet wide in front, with a small glass front door and big windows up front by the cash register.  As customers walk in, there are glass enclosed cases with freshly made cookies and candy on the left, ice cream on the right, and coolers and groceries in the back.

[Photo: Daniel McGraw for Legal Insurrection Foundation]

A narrow aisle is all that allows one to go from front to back.

[Photo: Daniel McGraw for Legal Insurrection Foundation]

Lorna Gibson immediately noticed some students coming in and harassing customers. “[A few students] came in and began taking pictures of people and making nasty comments to our customers shopping,” she said. “I asked them to leave and they wouldn’t, and then they started pushing their cameras in my face and yelling things at me.”

“The customers were being bullied and stopped from moving in the aisle and being yelled at,” she said. “I wouldn’t have this any more in our store and had to get them out.”

But once the student picture-takers left, she saw the crowd gathering and getting bigger (eventually hit about 200). Her longtime friend, Vicky Gaines, an Oberlin College staff nurse in the school’s health care facility, and an African-American Oberlin city native, fought her way into the store to comfort her friend. “I was so glad to see her,” Lorna said. “She calmed me down and said we should go outside to show them we weren’t afraid of them. I really was very nervous and afraid.”

They went outside, with “Vicky giving me a kiss on the cheek in front of all these protesters, and she said very loudly so they could all hear her, ‘Don’t worry, we’re all behind you.’ ”

Lorna Gibson said they spent the day pretty inside the store with very few customers, as the protesters weren’t actively blocking their door, but making it very difficult for customers to get through the crowd and the racist chants. But in early evening, Ms. Gibson wanted to go outside and get their few sidewalk tables and chairs back in the store. The protesters didn’t want her to do that.

“I told them I’d let them use these tables and chairs all day to protest, and to please let us have them now so we can put them back in our store now.” They eventually moved on and she got the outside furniture back in the store. Police then had to escort her and her father-in-law, Allyn W. Gibson, home after the first day of protests. They did that again for the following days as the protests continued.

Lorna Gibson also testified how some employees had their tires slashed, business dropped by about 50% in the months after the protests (“we had to let employees go, and down to a skeleton staff”), and how both her husband and his father, both plaintiffs in the case, have had serious physical and emotional damage.

Allyn W. Gibson, her 90-year-old father-in-law, fell and broke some bones in his neck when his home was broken into a few months after the protest. No one has been found or charged in the break-in, and police don’t know if it was protest-related. “He loved being at the store, loved socializing with our customers, but he can’t anymore,” she said.

As for her husband, David, Lorna says he has changed a lot. He was out of town with a previously planned trip with one of their sons when the protests occurred, and ever since, the event of November 2016  has made him “very sad and upset.” David Gibson was in the courtroom listening to his wife.

“We have all been disturbed by the lies that have been told about us, and the store being targeted like it was,” she told the jury. “David [Gibson] didn’t want to even go out and socialize with his friends any more because so many people looked at him in a strange way. He was so well known in this community, and he is ashamed now at what he has left to his sons.”

“It isn’t just a job for him and all of us. It’s been our life. It is crucial for him and our family. It is us.”

Oberlin College VP of Communications Ben Jones

Ben Jones, the vice president of communications for the college since 2008, testified as an “adverse witness” (meaning he was getting questioned by those suing his employer).  What his testimony showed was that the college geared their response to the protest and its aftermath so that it was in support of the students, and hurt Gibson’s in that student support process.

Jones helped draft a letter that the school president, Marvin Krislov, and the dean of students, Meredith Raimondo (a defendant in the case) sent out to students on Nov. 11, two days after the shoplifting incident and during the second day of protests. One paragraph said this:

“Regarding the incident at Gibson’s, we are deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the story than what has been generally reported. We will commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident. We are dedicated to a campus and community that treats all faculty, staff and students fairly and without discrimination. We expect that our community businesses and friends share the same values and commitments.”

Jones testified that a local paper asked them in late 2016 if they had done the investigative effort they had described in the letter, specifically by devoting “every resource” in finding the truth.  But they had not done any formal investigation. Raimondo suggested to Jones they should “dodge” the media’s question because “our phrasing was unfortunate” that they said they were indeed doing an investigation.

They eventually did tell the media they did no investigation of whether “there was more to the story than what has been generally reported … including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident” as the president and the dean of students had written.

Jones also testified the school administration asked student senate leaders (identified as “Kam” and “Thobeka)” for any suggestions or concerns for the letter from the school President and Dean of Students.

The students sent their criticism back, and they were generally good with the letter and approved it. “The greatest part is [that you are saying] there is more to the story than the police report or what is generally accepted.”

“We are grateful for the conscientiousness of our students,” Jones responded.

A longtime Oberlin resident, Emily Crawford, who also worked in the school’s communications department under Jones, wrote as the protests were going on one of her concerns that Gibson’s was being wrongly accused of being racist, specifically that “the students are on the wrong side of this issue” and “they refuse to [listen to] anything that doesn’t fit their narrative … the townspeople are furious. I find this misdirected rage very disturbing.”

The email response from Ben Jones was: “Gibson’s is not clean on this … The police report is bullshit, so obviously biased toward the Gibson’s … But the bigger issue, is that this is not an isolated incident, but a pattern.”

Jones continued his email response by writing that his evidence for his opinions on this racism and racial profiling by Gibson’s was confirmed by “high school kids who showed up yesterday to join the protest.”

Gibson’s attorney Lee Plakas seemed agitated by Jones claiming that the emails and texts had to be understood “under different contexts” to be correctly make sense in the court. Plakas shot back, “Would it have killed Oberlin College to say, ‘We got it wrong.’ ”

Jones answered, “This was between the students and Gibson’s. We don’t speak for the students. I was neither wrong nor involved.”

He also said he never talked to any police officers investigating the shoplifting incident and its aftermath after writing the “police report is bullshit.”

Plakas then quoted Raimondo in an email she sent that said “I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”

“Did the school unleash the students like a pack of wild dogs on the Gibson’s and can’t admit they are wrong for doing that,” Plakas asked Jones.

Jones didn’t answer vocally, and just shook his head signaling “No.”

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

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