Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College – Trial Day 8 — “my dad was going to pass away labeled as a racist”
David Gibson: “Without [Oberlin College] coming out and offering a message that we were not racist, it was going to go on forever. They caused this thing, and they needed to step up and do the right thing. They never did.”
Today was 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.
In an emotional day of testimony, Gibson’s Bakery & Market owner David Gibson at one point looked at the jury and then across the room in the Ohio courtroom toward his 90-year-old father and his eyes welled up. “I realized very soon on how everything had been going in this, that my dad was going to pass away labeled as a racist.”
“They never did,” he said, looking to his father.
David Gibson, 64, is the final witness that the plaintiffs will call in this case. His testimony was riveting at times, as he put some clarity on how much his business had tried to work with Oberlin College on this controversial problem. Mainly, to get them to at least put out some sort of message that the business, founded in 1885 and a town staple for the school, was not racist and had been wrongly accused.He raised some important points for the jury that had only been hinted at in previous testimony, which certainly had some direct impact on how Oberlin College acted after students raised the issue of racism in protests about the family and their business in 2016:
• He had at least three official meetings with school officials in the months after the students’ protests, including one with the Oberlin College president. He raised the request each time (and in several other phone conversations) that if the school would send out some message saying the business was not racist, they might be able to move toward with some form of reconciliation without going to court. “They ignored me,” he said.
• At his meeting with President Marvin Krislov at the school-provided mansion the president lived in, David Gibson explained to Krislov how his father had explained to him that he would have a hard time expunging being called a racist at his age. Krislov didn’t think that was a big deal. “I’ve been called a racist,” Gibson says Krislov answered him when he shared with him his father’s comments.
• When Gibson’s had had their food service deals with the school cafeterias cancelled, David was called by phone by the private service company that ran the operation, and not the school officials, that his company was no longer doing food service. “The private company managers who called me all apologized for having to get rid of us after the good work we did for them, and I got the feeling they were forced to do so or there would be some problems for them if they didn’t,” Gibson told the jury. He added, “The service managers told me [the decision of end food service] ‘It comes from the college and it comes from the top.’”
• He said that the school repeatedly indicated to him that if the Gibson’s dropped shoplifting charges against the three African-American students who were charged with trying to steal three bottles of wine on Nov, 9, 2016, that they might be able to work out some deal to get them their school cafeteria work back. High ranking school officials also asked him to agree to call the school and not police when shoplifting by students occurred at his store. “I told them we could not give students special treatment because this was something police had to deal with,” he told the jury. “It wasn’t our call to decide who is prosecuted and who is not. They kept answering me by saying, ‘We have to put this behind us,’ and didn’t want to move forward until we agreed to special treatment for students shoplifting. But I kept telling them that we have to be consistent and call the police no matter who is stealing.”
• As to why he thinks this all happened? “I look at this now and realize they wanted me to drop charges this time, and set up a system when we would call the college for first-time offenders,” David Gibson said. “[The school administration] had been accused of being racists by students in the previous year, and I think they used us to deflect from that problem they had. I believe they were using us as a target so that their racial problems with their students would go away.”
Plaintiff’s attorney Lee Plakas kept Gibson’s testimony short, and this seemed to work well for the jury. The judge is not allowing much info on the protest itself where students chanted Gibson’s was racist, as the case is about how much did Oberlin College add to the accusations that Gibson’s had been racially profiling students shoppers at their store. Hence the two key pieces of evidence are a flyer passed out at the protests, and an Oberlin College student senate resolution.
Both say quite clearly that Gibson’s was racist and had a long history of being that.
David Gibson also testified that in early 2017, the school told him they had done an informal survey of town residents on the racial issues the local citizenry might have with Gibson’s and found no evidence of any racial problems with the business. Even with such clear evidence, the school still refused to do any letters or emails to students that Gibson’s was not thought of as racists among the locals.
Such a declaration to the student body and college community may have prevented this lawsuit. But Ferdinand Protzman, the college’s chief of staff, who was at one of the meetings with David Gibson, told the jury during his testimony earlier in the trial why the school didn’t put out any statement.
“We told them we could not issue a statement saying they were not racist because we never said they were,” he said.
David Gibson said that he continued to hold out hope that they could reconcile the issue with the school, but that never came about after almost a full year of trying. The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 7, 2017
“If this was just a problem with students, I was confident I would have been able to talk with them and solve this,” Gibson said. “But when I could see that the college was directly involved, I knew this was going to be devastating.”
“Once I saw how this was being handled by [Dean of Students] Meredith Raimondo, I knew this was going to be more than just a local issue. It was going to become much more national and more public. And then I could see it was beginning to roll around on the internet as these things do.”
Gibson was asked by Plakas “Why didn’t you just give up, give Oberlin College what they want?”
He answered with a defiant tone: “I am not going to just give up this business over something like this. If we were to close the store right now, it would be telling everyone that there is something to this issue of us being called racist. I’m not going to let that happen.”
“This business has made it through many generations of our family, and we have always been open to helping and defending the rights of students and people of this town at all times,” the continued. “My father tells how even though the store was going through tough times in the Depression, they would keep it open to serve the poor people free food in the 1930s.”
He also told the jury how devastating the loss of business since the 2016 protests have been. Neither him, nor his family members have been paid for the past two years. Gibson’s employed 10-12 people before 2016, and 6-7 of those were full-time, 40 hour workers. Right now, David Gibson said, the company employs 6-7, and only one is full-time.
The business’s financial problems were detailed by CPA Frank Monaco yesterday, and his cross-examination was completed in testimony this morning. Most of the dispute by the defense attorney was how monetary loss that Monaco detailed in his report was arrived at. Thus, the jury heard four hours about interest rates, inherent risk, value calculations, the time value of money, and how all were inconsistent economic variables. David Gibson did confirm later that he gave Monaco his and the business’s tax returns and that the accountant figured out most of his calculations by looking at tax filings and adding up the numbers.
By the end of his time testifying today, Gibson seemed tired of explaining to the jury how much money his business had been losing since the students’ protests, and thought of how all this affected his father. The 90-year-old Allyn W. Gibson was known as a very positive and outgoing Oberlin icon in the past, but had an accident in May of 2017 where his neck was broken as he reacted to a very late night pounding on his home’s windows. Police never found out who was doing the pounding, but Allyn D. Gibson did slip and fall on the concrete near his doorway.Since then, he cannot work any more at Gibson’s (he was delivering food to the Oberlin College cafeteria at 6 a.m. on the day of the protest), but still does like to sit outside in the warm weather and talk to children and patrons of the store.
David Gibson says even that has changed.
“My dad would sit around outside at the tables we put out, and children would gather around him and he’d tell stories about all sort of things and the history of this area,” David Gibson says. “He would always be smiling and having fun doing this.”
“Now, he sometimes sits outside by himself. For whatever reason, what happened before with him talking to so many people, just isn’t happening any more. It’s very sad to see.”
Court will be adjourned tomorrow (Wednesday), as Judge John R. Miraldi has a previously scheduled commitment. David Gibson will be cross-examined by the defense on Thursday, and Oberlin College will begin to present their own evidence on Friday.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
WAJ adds: David Gibson’s testimony certainly puts in perspective the tone-deaf defense tactic of denigrating and belittling the bakery’s business, including claiming it’s worth only $35,000 (not much more than the cost of room, board and tuition for a single semester at Oberlin College). I don’t know how this case will turn out, and I’m not predicting. But it’s hard to believe the jury doesn’t feel for this family caught up in a social justice warfare firestorm they didn’t cause, and that consumed their multi-generational business and their good name.
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.