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Oberlin: How one College became the frontline in America’s Culture War

Oberlin College, Ohio, has long been renowned as a site of protest and liberal activism, with students speaking out about everything from microaggressions to the cultural appropriation of sushi. But their latest protest, attacking a local bakery over alleged racism, has led to the college being hit with a $25 million punishment (reduced from $44 million, $33 million of which was punitive damage). The case, and the reaction of the media to it, emphasize the cultural war that is shaping 21st-century US politics, and may mark a turning point in it.

The story begins on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. An African-American Oberlin student, Jonathan Aladan, went to Gibson’s Bakery and attempted to leave with two wine bottles under his shirt. The shop-owner’s grandson, Allyn Gibson, called the police and then apprehended the student outside the store, leading to a fight, which, later, also involved two black females. The police broke it up, arrested all three students and charged them with crimes – they later pleaded guilty, and made statements absolving Gibson’s of any misconduct or racial animus.

The case, and the reaction of the media to it, emphasize the cultural war that is shaping 21st-century US politics, and may mark a turning point in it

Immediately after the shoplifting arrests, Oberlin students began accusing the bakery of racial profiling. They launched protests, handing out fliers telling people ‘DON’T BUY’ and alleging that the bakery was ‘a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION’. They also began spreading rumours in the town that Aladan was ‘assaualted’ by Gibson even though, when the police arrived, they found the students punching and kicking Gibson. Leaflets recommended 10 rival businesses to which patrons could go instead.

Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit unreasonable for Oberlin College to be held accountable for the speech of its students – as a number of outlets argued, doesn’t this case represent a violation of free speech protected under the First Amendment? Lawyer Floyd Abrams argued that “the notion that uninhibited student speech can lead to vast financial liability for the universities at which it occurs threatens both the viability of educational institutions and ultimately the free speech of their students.” This is also the line that the college’s administration has taken – its Vice President Donica Thomas Varner wrote in an email that “colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students.”

Oberlin students began accusing the bakery of racial profiling. They launched protests, handing out fliers telling people ‘DON’T BUY’ and alleging that the bakery was ‘a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION’

But such a stance misses a major part of the story – Oberlin hasn’t been punished for the actions of its students. Rather, the college itself has been found responsible for getting involved with the smear campaign against Gibson’s.

The court found against the college’s administration, and particularly against its vice-president and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, because they actively supported the protestors – it’s not necessarily the case that the administrators were leading any campaign against the bakery, but they were certainly working closely together. Raimondo helped to orchestrate the protest, speaking on a bullhorn and handing out the aforementioned fliers (protestors were allowed access to administration offices to make more copies). Students were attended the protest were excused from classes, and officials provided free pizza and drinks for them.

A Facebook post by an Oberlin academic department stated that “Gibson’s has been bad for decades, their dislike of Black people is palpable. Their food is rotten and they profile Black students. NO MORE!” A few weeks later, Raimondo ordered the college’s cafeteria to stop buying food from Gibson’s – another official tried to use this as leverage against the bakery, stating that “once the charges are dropped, orders will resume”. The chief of staff, Ferdinand Protzman, also suggested another reason for this – the administration feared that the students would create a “tantrum” on campus, especially in the cafeteria during dinner, by throwing Gibson’s food on the floor and stomping on it. “Doesn’t that sound more like a nursery school than a college?” asked the bakery’s lawyer.

Because of the college’s war against them, Gibson’s claimed that they suffered damage to their reputation, economic welfare and community standing, and the jury appeared to agree with them. Their sales dropped by roughly 50%, forcing staffing cuts, and many of the family members had to work without pay. Some of their employees had their tyres slashed. On multiple occasions, they tried to settle with Oberlin but, after constant refusals, were forced to bring about a lawsuit.

Members of the local community also turned out to support the bakery, and to argue against any suggestion of racial bias. Over a five-year period, 40 people were charged with shoplifting from Gibson’s, 6 of whom were African-American (percentage-wise, exactly matching Oberlin’s 15% black population). Across the town, 83% of all shoplifting arrests were Oberlin students – in 2017, the ‘Culture of Theft’ was even discussed fondly in the school’s magazine. One local bookstore owner said that she loses $10,000 a year in stolen goods to Oberlin students.

Gibson’s claimed that they suffered damage to their reputation, economic welfare and community standing, and the jury appeared to agree with them. Their sales dropped by roughly 50%, forcing staffing cuts, and many of the family members had to work without pay.

But, interestingly, the school could not bring itself to condemn shoplifting despite the harm to the local community – Oberlin president Marvin Krislov wrote in an email to fellow administrators that “[I] worry that mentioning shoplifting will trigger… How about softening. What about reference to tense times?” The school also told the bakery that it would only consider reinstating business if Gibson’s agreed not to bring charges against first-time shoplifters from the school. The bakery, losing thousands of dollars a year in stolen goods, did not agree.

The Oberlin situation is an interesting case study in itself, but it’s also extremely interesting to see how partisan media has responded to it. Right-leaning outlets focused on the punitive damages awarded by the court, and saw the verdict as a damning indictment on Oberlin college and its administrators choosing to embrace identity politics. National Review, a US conservative news site, analysed the case with the headline ‘Oberlin is forced to check its woke privilege’ – something for which, it states, the college ‘is now set to pay dearly, and justifiably’. Similarly, conservative commentator Michael Knowles wrote a piece for Fox News, in which he stated that the college had learned the high price of ‘social justice’.

However, on the left, there was a completely different response, where there was a response at all. Whereas right-leaning outlets analysed every aspect of the case in almost joyous detail, news organisations such as CNN and The New York Times offers only a single, factual news story, and no editorials (save one which decried “knee-jerk liberalism”). Forbes offered a piece saying that the verdict was “harsh” because a white jury couldn’t “understand” the narrative of the black students. The only substantial piece I could find specifically on the side of the students was from The Oberlin Review – the college’s student newspaper – which published an editorial in which it claimed that major news coverage had missed the mark, writing that the ruling was part of an “increasingly authoritarian country” with “profoundly disturbing implications for free speech”.

The question of free speech and universities as a site of ideological clash has been magnified since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Conservative speakers, such as Ben Shapiro, have frequently been shouted down and no-platformed on US college campuses, leading to Trump signing an executive order in March requiring freedom of speech or the loss of federal funds in response. It has been suggested that one reason for Trump’s election was in retaliation to a form of left-wing identity politics and political correctness that is often seen as excessive, censorious and dangerous – with this verdict, commentators such Rich Lowry suggest that “well-heeled institutions tempted to join social-justice mobs” will suddenly be more hesitant to bow to pressure, potentially leading to a conservative cultural fightback and an end to “the absurd victimization culture” that is “poisoning [young American’s] minds.”

So, a case of shoplifting has spiralled out into a rallying call for a new stage in the US culture war – the question now is what shape that stage will take and, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, one wonders if a shift in the culture could also lead to a shift in the country’s politics.

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