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Protesters call for Shelby Twp. officials' removal after online posts

Jasmin Barmore
Special to The Detroit News

Shelby Township — Dozens of demonstrators gathered at Shelby Township offices Wednesday calling for a township trustee and police chief to resign after they posted remarks on social media that protesters have called racist.

Kiarra Coger of Shelby Township holds a sign she painted as people protest against racism on Van Dyke Road near the municipal buildings on Wednesday.

Trustee John Vermeulen is under fire for a Facebook page featuring a meme last week that portrayed the white mascot of Quaker Oats in bed with Aunt Jemima, the African American woman who represents the syrup brand, in bed together under the phrase "Cant we all just get along."

Vermeulen wrote "ROTFLMAO. Talk about being 'politically incorrect’ " ROTFLMAO is short for rolling on the floor laughing my a-- off. 

The post has since been removed.

Shelby Township police Chief Robert J. Shelide has apologized and was placed on a leave of absence earlier this month as officials investigated inflammatory internet posts that have been attributed to him, including one calling for "body bags" for "vicious subhumans" involved in recent demonstrations over George Floyd, whose death May 25 has sparked protests around the world.

“There are a lot of residents who don’t want the chief of police to be our chief," said Janet Debeau, who has been helping organize protests like the one Wednesday outside of Shelby Township municipal offices on Van Dyke.  Debeau said when the chief posted a statement on Twitter, she called the trustees, concerned. 

“ ... One trustee, John Vermeulen, answered, and I calmly asked him about this and voiced my opinion, and he hung up on me. That’s what led me to move forward and take it to the next level."  

Others worried about the tone it sets in the community when local leaders post controversial comments or memes.

 "Shelby Township has a lot of really good people. But there is a good solid number of very vocal racists in this community," said Navia Mccloud, a protester who said she's lived in the township 15 years. "It is very hard to live in this community and be a person of color."

The Rev. W.J. Rideout of Metro Detroit-based Defenders of Truth & Justice, who organized the protest Wednesday, said some people "don't want us out here because we are bringing to light."

"When you bring out their dirty laundry they get upset," he said. "But that's not gone stop us."

He said protesters want "the chief of police out and want this Vermeulen out and all the rest of them that are racist and discriminatory people. 

"They gave the chief of police a tap on the wrist."

Vermeulen and township supervisors did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday night. Shelide couldn't be reached.

Some protesters had signs that said Black Lives Matter and "racist" police officers had to go.

Trump supporters showed up to back the police chief. They gathered across from the protesters as drivers drove past honking horns in support of Trump. One supporter carried an oversize Trump 2020 Keep America Great sign during the demonstration.

"I think the chief spoke his mind and although he shouldn't have used comments like that, I agree with his beliefs," said Brett Imby, 16, who came with his father, a Trump supporter, to call for the chief to remain. "I don't think what he did warrants a removal."

Quaker Oats announced it plans to retire the Aunt Jemima brand, saying the company recognizes the character’s origins are “based on a racial stereotype.”

On June 16, Vermeulen and four other trustees suspended Shelide for 30 days and ordered cultural awareness training following controversy over inflammatory comments targeting Black Lives Matter protesters.