The night of November 10th, 2016 was long and arduous for the Oberlin College Student Senate. We called an emergency meeting around 9pm that evening to discuss how we would respond to the ongoing student demonstrations outside of Gibson’s Bakery. The central question of the evening was “should we boycott Gibson’s and why?”
The group had mixed opinions. Some Student Senators were hesitant to call for a boycott—the incident in question between three students and a bakery employee was fresh and a few students felt we were rushing to judgment prematurely. Some felt as if they had everything they needed to know and were ready to act. I found myself somewhere in the middle—confused and apprehensive about moving too quickly on a sensitive issue while also recognizing the urgency to act in diligence to concerns of the student body.
Before the meeting, I tried to piece together why I wanted to vote affirmatively for a boycott. I didn’t know if students had actually stolen from Gibson’s, or if they had tried to buy alcohol underage. I certainly didn’t understand how or why they would try and do both simultaneously, which was the prevailing narrative by those eager to persecute the students involved.
Available facts on the matter were difficult to decipher, but there were some obvious red flags to me. For one, the police report filed on the incident did not have any statements on record from the three accused students or anyone beyond the Gibson family and employees. There was a physical altercation that happened outside of the store—I wondered why the shop employee left the comfort and safety of his establishment to assumably chase down these students.
There were so many unclear or missing pieces, but I had greater clarity in my own experience with Gibson’s in feeling followed and criminalized just by existing in the space. I went once my freshman year and never returned, and had heard of similar stories and experiences by Black faculty members, students, alumni, and community members. I believed my peers and professors. Student Senate, with myself being one of the most zealous advocates, ultimately voted affirmatively on a Student Senate endorsed the boycott.
When a jury ruled last month that Oberlin College libeled Gibson’s Bakery, I thought back to that somber evening. In many ways, it seems as though Oberlin is being held liable for the feelings of myself and others in the room that night, feelings that echoed the sentiments of our student body. For months now, I’ve questioned where are the defenders of free speech? The same people that scream intolerance whenever students decide to cancel a speaker. Students demonstrated our right to assemble on those cold November evenings to say that we would not tolerate such behavior by the stores we patronize out of our own free will. We used our voices to bring life and power to the lived experiences of others who felt they had experienced varying degrees of discrimination and malicious engagement by the bakery. Frankly, we believed if we didn’t want to shop there we didn’t have to; we didn’t have to eat the bagels they supplied in the dining hall and we could encourage our friends to do the same. If anything, we were exercising the same rights and liberties that we are so often critiqued for denying.
Oberlin College has been in the news many times just in my few years as a student. Whether it was for Black student demands on racial justice, student critiques on culturally significant cuisine offerings, or anti-semitism on campus, time and time again our student body has been illustrated as representing “liberalism gone mad.” We’re seen as progressivism in excess—the snowflakes whose strident and immature vision for the world yields coddling and entitlement.
It’s no surprise, then, that conservative media has framed this as a “blow to progressivism,” and others take joy in seeing David slay Goliath. But Oberlin College is no Goliath and Gibson’s Bakery is no David. Gibson’s, even as a multigenerational establishment, has never been owed the support of our student body. If anything, their multigenerational status gives Gibson’s particular favor and privilege in the community. It’s that security that brought a store employee to call the police knowing their story would be the only one that mattered, and the responding officers come and only take the testimony of the Gibson family and employees.
In that meeting room, on that wintry November night, we all thought we were doing what was right. We were running towards the noise.
Am I regretful of voting for the boycott? No. The narrative put forward by the Gibson’s attorney in court is one of Oberlin “letting loose” students to go and ruin Gibson’s brand for the interests of the college. In reality, we didn’t need to be “let loose.” We were not the college’s disposable arsenal. When myself and other student senators sat down and voted to boycott Gibson’s in the dark of night, we didn’t ask for our Dean of Students’ approval nor did we feel we need it. We are autonomous beings. We were acting in support of the students who decided that this issue was so important and so timely that they would stand up in the dark of a chilly November night to give voice to those whose voices had been curtailed. Weaponizing 1st amendment principles as a response to that, to fault a non-profit institution of higher learning for the financial interests of a private entity, seems like a greedy and dangerous response to our decision to speak.
I’m not sure if there will ever be a time when calling someone or something racist is no longer considered socially libelous before it is acknowledged as an unfortunate declaration of the reality of the marginalized. Racism in its most covert and overt forms is often still denied—take for example those who still believe the Central Park 5 had something to do with the assault and rape they were falsely convicted of, and support the president who put a bounty on their heads. I have been on the receiving end of racist internet trolling because of my involvement in this incident for years. I have been called a monkey and a nigger in my official Oberlin blog comments just for having the audacity to speak. This all being true, I would do it all over again.
I sat on these thoughts for weeks weighing the value of contributing this perspective to what has become a national dialogue, and for some a proxy to some of the nation’s most salient political conflicts. Such reservations were partially out of fear, the partner of vulnerability. At our core, Obies try to do what’s right especially when it’s difficult. In 2015, Michelle Obama encouraged Oberlin’s graduating class to run towards the noise. In that meeting room, on that wintry November night, we all thought we were doing what was right. We were running towards the noise. I still think what we did was right.