Something rather wonderful happened last week for those of us who have been the victims of a public shaming â€” as I was at the beginning of 2018 when some people dug up some sophomoric tweets Iâ€™d sent ten years earlier. The jury delivered its verdict in a lawsuit that a bakery in Oberlin, Ohio had brought against the neighbouring liberal arts college for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and tortious interference. In brief, students and staff at Oberlin College engaged in a long campaign to brand the local business as â€˜racistâ€™, inflicting a terrible toll on its reputation, and the jury sided with the plaintiffs.
The story begins on 9 November 2016 when three students entered Gibsonâ€™s Bakery, a shop thatâ€™s been serving the town since 1885, and tried to purchase two bottles of wine using a fake ID. When the clerk refused to sell to them, they tried to leave with the wine but he ran after them and ended up being assaulted until the police arrived and arrested them. Nothing particularly unusual about that, unfortunately. Between 2011 and 2016, 40 people were arrested for shoplifting from Gibsonâ€™s Bakery. But the three perpetrators on this occasion were black and the following day hundreds of students protested outside. The Dean of Students and other college officials brought the protesters pizza and helped them hand out leaflets saying, â€˜Donâ€™t Buy. This is a racist establishment with a long account of racial profiling and discriminationâ€™.
That wasnâ€™t true. Of the 40 shoplifters arrested in the previous five years, 32 were white. A black employee of Gibsonâ€™s told a local newspaper that racial profiling had nothing to do with it. â€˜If youâ€™re caught shoplifting, youâ€™re going to end up getting arrested,â€™ he said. â€˜When you steal from the store, it doesnâ€™t matter what colour you are. You can be purple, blue, green; if you steal, you get caught, you get arrested.â€™ Even the three students agreed. When they eventually pleaded guilty a year later, they each signed a statement saying they believed the actions â€˜were not racially motivatedâ€™. (To read more, click here.)