ELYRIA — As the November 2016 protests outside of Gibson’s Bakery by Oberlin College students continued to escalate, Oberlin police considered calling in the county’s riot team to break up the crowd, a former Oberlin police sergeant testified.
Victor Ortiz, who was with Oberlin police at the time of the protests, said he and other officers were at the scene of the protests to try to maintain order. As a sergeant, Ortiz said other officers from the department were coming to him for direction.
“The officers would come to me and say, ‘Hey, this is really disorderly; we should make arrests,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Ortiz testified. “We were so far outnumbered; there was no way. That would have been like putting gasoline on a fire.”
Ortiz said after a few more minutes, he called a dean at Oberlin College whom he knew.
“I told him that if we can’t get this under control, I’m going to end up calling the county riot team in,” Ortiz said. “I was actually considering putting in some phone calls and putting the team on standby.”
Ortiz took the stand Friday in the opening day of testimony in the civil trial between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College. Gibson’s sued the college and Meredith Raimondo, vice president and dean of students, for libel, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass in 2017. The bakery also is suing the college for negligent hiring, retention and supervision.
In opening statements Thursday, the defense argued that Raimondo and other Oberlin College administrators and faculty were at the scene of the protests to provide a calming influence on the students and de-escalate the situation.
“If they were there to be a calming influence, I didn’t really see any evidence of that,” Ortiz said Friday. “They were kind of in and around the crowds.”
Jason Hawk, editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune, also was called to testify. He said students were shouting obscenities at him, calling him names and even spitting at him. Hawk also said that he was approached by Raimondo while he was at the scene, which he was covering for the weekly publication.
Hawk said Raimondo tried to block him from taking photos and gave him a copy of the flyer students were circulating that declared Gibson’s Bakery to be a racist establishment with a history of racial profiling.
Raimondo also was communicating with students through a megaphone during the protest, Hawk said. He said she was telling students there was a location where they could go to rest and get refreshments.
On cross-examination, Hawk said Raimondo never claimed to be an organizer or planner of the protests. He also said she wasn’t using the megaphone to call Gibson’s owners racists or repeat what the student protesters were saying.
The rift between the bakery and the college began in 2016 when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn Gibson, who is the son of the bakery’s owner, David Gibson. Allyn Gibson followed the student out of the store and the two got into a physical altercation.
Two other students got involved, and police have said when they arrived the three students were hitting Allyn Gibson while he was on the ground.
The incident became racially charged because Allyn Gibson is white and the students are black. All three students pleaded guilty in August to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.
Henry Wallace, who retired from the Oberlin Police Department in December after years of serving as a community service officer, said he was in Gibson’s Bakery “basically daily.”
Wallace, who is black, said he’s never felt a hint of racism while at the bakery.
“Anytime I’m downtown, I shop there,” Wallace said. “Sometimes I stop in for just a cup of coffee, but other times for anything that they had that I needed.”
When asked if he thought David Gibson was racist, Wallace answered “No, because he treats me just like he treats everybody else.”
Sharon Patmon, an Oberlin native, testified that her first job was a Gibson’s Bakery.
Patmon, who is black, said she was treated “always fairly, justly and with love” by the Gibson family in the five years she worked there. She also said she never saw any hints that any of the Gibson family members were racist.
Wallace testified Gibson’s Bakery would call police on all shoplifters, regardless of race. Ortiz agreed, saying Gibson’s pressed charges against all shoplifters “of all ages and races.”
Attorneys for Gibson’s Bakery also called multiple “adverse witnesses,” — generally referred to as hostile witnesses in criminal trials and meaning their testimony was compelled by subpoena and not voluntary. Some of them will reappear at the trial later, testifying on behalf of Oberlin College.
One of them was Ferd Protzman, chief of staff in the office of the president of Oberlin College, who testified that he learned Oberlin College Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Canavan had provided money to hire attorneys for the three students who got into the altercation with Allyn Gibson.
Testimony in the trial is set to resume about 1 p.m. Monday.
Contact Scott Mahoney at (440) 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SMahoneyCT.
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