Angry Mob at Art Rental Reveals Oberlin’s Ugly Side

The Editorial Board

Art rental is one of the most treasured Oberlin traditions, not just for the opportunity it presents — priceless art spending a semester in your dorm or apartment — but for the event itself: renting a tent from the Outings Club and camping out in the courtyard, imbibing illegal substances on school property after dark and listening to classmates howl their favorite songs late into the night. It’s a fundamentally communal event, which is why last weekend was such an unfortunate sight.

By 6:45 a.m., the sign-up list, a motley collection of papers scotch-taped to a pillar, was up to 220 people, and the lines of sleeping bodies filled the courtyard and several hallways. As 8 a.m. approached, a group gathered near the entrance to the museum, growing increasingly restless and more tightly packed. While a kind of line formed, many other participants sat sleepily on the other side of the courtyard or even outside the building, seeming to trust the authority of the list.

Over time, the mob — there’s really no other name for it — waiting outside the entrance became hostile: Students jostled each other and argued loudly over whether the list or line reigned supreme, with some stepping away from the group and raising their voices in an attempt to establish authority. When security guards opened the doors and called, “Next five!,” an awkward mad dash ensued, with some students respecting the order of the list and others that of the line. The Tumblr “What Should We Call Oberlin” summed it up best with a GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio shoving pedestrians aside while being chased through the streets of Mombasa in the movie Inception.

It was something out of a William Golding nightmare, a jarring look into the darker side of the human condition made even more so by the fact that it runs contrary to everything Oberlin proclaims to embody. But maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised — after all, this is an environment that the College unwittingly does a lot to foster.

Oberlin overenrolls year after year, creating stressful situations between students in the most basic facets of campus life. We’re looking at you, PRESTO: The annual waitlist scramble is, frankly, ridiculous, turning what should be a relaxed process into a bloodbath. The housing lottery is another perfect example, as the battle for off-campus housing has become a rite of passage for upperclassmen. In a small, isolated town like Oberlin, where you live can have an enormous impact on your college experience — just ask the seniors who spent three straight years in South or East. We may champion tolerance, but a distressing amount of the Oberlin experience is defined by competition and exclusion.

But this can’t adequately explain away what happened at Art Rental last weekend. That sort of antagonism runs contrary to everything we stand for as a place of respect and acceptance. So how is it that a school that holds forums and creates safe spaces for everything under the sun can turn this ugly? How does a school as fiercely independent as Oberlin fall prey to a mob mentality so easily?

There may not be a simple answer to those questions, but one thing is certain: Oberlin should be — has to be — better than this. Too often we renege on our promise of a permissive space, whether it’s shouting down a speaker advocating for fracking or shoving someone aside in our search for a Picasso. Tolerance can’t be just a carefully manicured facade we drop when it doesn’t suit us. Until that changes, we will never be a truly progressive campus.