Activists say Harper Woods mayor made 'white supremacists' remark

Harper Woods Mayor Kenneth Poynter, angry about a June protest outside his home, reportedly told community leaders and city department heads during a meeting last week that "I understand why white people would become white supremacists,” sparking outrage from civil rights activists.

Will Smith, a longtime Harper Woods resident and former city councilman who is Black, said Monday he was "extremely shocked and disappointed" when he heard the words come from the mayor's mouth and added that Poynter should step down.

"I think it is time for the mayor to resign and to issue an apology to each and every member who were at that meeting," Smith said.

Smith, who is African American, said Poynter called him Saturday to apologize.

A second activist who attended the July 21 meeting, Jaye Hill, said the mayor was out of bounds with his remarks about white supremacists. Hill, who is Black, said the mayor has since apologized to him but "for him to say what he had to say was wrong."

The mayor mishandled the apology, Hill said. "You said (the remark) to my face but you called me on the phone (to apologize)," he said. "It's not genuine."

Hill, a pastor and a youth football and baseball coach, said because of his faith, "I know I gotta love (the mayor). I live by Mark 12:30-31."

The city has been embroiled in controversy since the June 10 death of Priscilla Slater, 37, while in police custody. As of late Tuesday morning, Poynter had not responded to messages seeking comment. 

The meeting last week with community leaders and city department heads was held to discuss protests over the death of Slater, who was arrested June 9 at the Parkcrest Inn in the 20000 block of Harper by police responding to a report of shots fired. A man who was with Slater, Lewis Nichols, 27, also was arrested and charged with 20 felonies related to the incident.

Margaret Poynter, left, makes a brief statement next to her husband, Harper Woods mayor Kenneth Poynter, right,  outside city hall in Harper Woods, Mich. on June 15, 2020.

During a June 12 protest over Slater's death, the mayor's wife was accused of tearing up a demonstrator's sign; Margaret Poynter apologized afterward. Three days later, protesters showed up outside the couple's home, apparently sparking the mayor's ire.

Six police department employees — two supervisors and four civilian aides — were put on administrative leave in response to Slater's death. 

Demonstrations demanding justice for Slater and answers about her death have continued in Harper Woods, including a protest outside the city's police department Friday.

Protesters march for Priscilla Slater in Harper Woods on July 24, 2020.

In a statement posted that day on the city's website, attorney John J. Gillooly of the Detroit firm Garan Lucow Miller said officials are committed to ensuring that all residents and visitors "that they are entitled to fundamental fairness and due process of law."

"The Slater matter remains under investigation by the Michigan Department of State Police," Gillooly wrote. "As such, there have been absolutely no additional details available to officials at the City of Harper Woods as to the findings of the Michigan Department of State Police including, but not limited to, the manner and/or cause of death of Ms. Slater.

"While the City of Harper Woods respects the ability of people of all backgrounds to peacefully express their concerns by way of non-violent protests, we also caution people from jumping to conclusions regarding alleged wrongdoing on the part of our employees when matters are still under investigation by state officials."

Harper Woods also is dealing with a controversy involving members of its fire department. In a June 30 press release, city officials said they "became aware of a photo taken by Harper Woods Fire Fighters, on City property, and posted to a Facebook page that is not affiliated with the City. "

The photo included a firefighter "whose hand was positioned in what appeared to be a symbol that is associated with white supremacists," according to city officials.

"The City acted immediately after learning of the content of the photo and the firefighter was suspended pending an investigation by an independent source," the statement read. "The City of Harper Woods is deeply committed to equality and protecting the civil rights of all and affirms non-discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or age."