David and Allyn Gibson, the father-and-son duo who owns Gibsons Bakery, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Oberlin College and its Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo. The eight counts alleged in the lawsuit amount to $200,000 and include charges of libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, engaging in deceptive trade practices, tortious interference with contract, and other accusations that resulted in “severe and permanent economic damage as well as substantial distress,” according to the court filings.
The 32-page lawsuit comes on the one-year anniversary of a series of protests directed at Gibson’s Bakery after an alleged incident of racial profiling in which three black students were arrested on shoplifting charges.
As I reflect on the power of that word — “alleged” — I’m reminded of an op-ed written by Professor Emeritus Roger Copeland in the Oberlin Review. In his article, Copeland argues that Gibson’s Bakery has not actually racially profiled its customers, as students claimed last November.
Instead, Copeland cites an investigation conducted by the Oberlin Police Department, in which Lieutenant Michael McCloskey analyzed shoplifting records at Gibson’s Bakery over the last five years. He writes:
“Lieutenant McCloskey revealed that the Oberlin Police Department looked at arrests for shoplifting at Gibson’s for the past five years to see if there was evidence of racism. Since 2011, there were 40 adults arrested for shoplifting, and 32 were white. 33 of the 40 were college students.”
For Copeland, Lieutenant McCloskey’s investigation is evidently enough to conclude that the Gibson’s altercation from last year was not racially motivated, as he goes on to write, “The facts of this case are no longer in question.”
It’s not that Copeland’s argument is wrong; it’s that it misses the point. In the Gibson’s case, facts are precisely what need to be questioned.
When I read Copeland’s article last September, something about Lieutenant McCloskey’s investigation didn’t sit right with me. For one, it goes against the narrative that I heard chanted by students at the Gibson’s Bakery protests: “Gibson’s is Racist,” “Gibson’s is Guilty,” “Hold Gibson’s Accountable,” etc. But even more than that, Lieutenant McCloskey’s data also conflicts with anecdotes from people of color living in the Oberlin community, those who claim to have felt “watched,” “followed,” or unduly scrutinized while shopping in Gibson’s.
So I decided to see if I could replicate Lieutenant McCloskey’s investigation into shoplifting arrests at Gibson’s.
Two weeks after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to Records Coordinator Sara Gentile of the Oberlin Police Department, I received an 87-line spreadsheet of all of the shoplifting arrests documented at Gibson’s dating back to 2011.
That’s when I realized: If you look at the last five years of arrests at Gibson’s Bakery, Lieutenant McCloskey’s investigation is technically correct. 32 of the 40 adults arrested for shoplifting were white and 33 of the 40 adults were college students.
But then I realized something else.
Lieutnenant McCloskey’s investigation is correct insofar as it only considers arrests made against adults shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery. If you include arrests made against minors (that is, individuals ages 9 to 17), there are actually an additional 18 cases that are not included in McCloskey’s data set.
Here’s why that matters one year later: In 14 of those 18 additional cases, arrests were made against black minors, the youngest being nine-years-old and the average being 13-years-old. If you add these 18 arrests to McCloskey’s original 40 cases, you get a new statistic that tells a dramatically different story about shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery.
In the 58 shoplifting arrests made at Gibson’s Bakery between 2011 and 2016, 19 of the arrestees were black shoppers. If 19 out of 58, or 32.8%, doesn’t sound like much, consider that black residents only accounted for 14.8% of Oberlin’s population according to the 2010 census. So one of two things happened over the last six years in Oberlin: Either a whole lot of black people moved out of town overnight or there’s a disproportionate number of black youth being arrested at Gibson’s.
Again, it’s not that Lieutenant McCloskey’s findings are wrong; it’s that they’re incomplete.
Using police reports dating back to 2011 and the logic of Roger Copeland’s op-ed, I could say a few things. I could say that, since 2011, the 58 shoplifting arrests made at Gibson’s Bakery have been made in response to under $250.00 worth of stolen goods. I could say that those 58 arrests average to less than five dollars each.
I could say that Allyn Gibson, the employee who physically detained a shoplifter last November, was the one who called the Oberlin Police Department in 27 of the last 32 shoplifting arrests. I could say that Allyn was the one who called the Oberlin Police Department in 14 of the 14 arrests made against black minors.
I could say that Allyn called the Oberlin Police Department in response to a customer eating a chocolate-covered blueberry without paying for it. I could say that blueberry cost $.67 and that that customer was arrested on shoplifting charges.
I could say that the youngest arrestee was nine-years-old, taken to Oberlin Police Station for shoplifting “Orbit Gum valued at $1.00.” I could say that Allyn identified the nine-year-old as a “repeat offender.”
I could say that there have been zero shoplifting calls made to the Oberlin Police Department since Allyn stopped working in the store last November. I could say with no shortage of evidence that 32.8% means Gibson’s Bakery has a race problem.
But, in truth, the only thing I can say one year after the student protests at Gibson’s Bakery is that I’m still not sure how I feel. All that this statistic tells me for certain is that the facts of the Gibson’s case are still very much in question and that it’s time to interrogate the sources we’re using to form our opinions.
But if not statistical evidence, then what?
The answer came to me a few weeks ago while interviewing a local business owner. I asked them what it felt like to own a store in the same town as Gibson’s Bakery. Here’s what they told me:
“Oberlin has all of the issues that Los Angeles has and all of the issues that New York has. Only in Oberlin, each of those issues has a face and a name. And sometimes, that issue happens to be your neighbor.”
In other words, if we’re really interested in getting to the heart of the Gibson’s case, let’s take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by the City of Oberlin, its two-block downtown, and its population of eight thousand. Nowhere but Oberlin, Ohio is it actually more difficult to ignore people than hear what’s on their mind.
Anecdotes about Gibson’s Bakery abound down the block and across the counter. Ask anyone who has lived in Oberlin for longer than four years and I promise that they’ll have an opinion about Gibson’s Bakery and the decision of students to protest it last November.
Oberlin, I invite you to use the Gibson’s protests and lawsuit as a very real opportunity to do better. Whether you’re coming to Oberlin as a first-year student, a college president, or someone who protested in front of Gibson’s Bakery last November, take the time to talk with the people in our community that you trust — and, occasionally, the people you don’t.
If you’re not surprised by what you hear, keep asking.
Contact Editor-In-Chief Lucas Fortney at firstname.lastname@example.org.