Protester Takes Police Officer's Suggestion, Runs For Council And Wins
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Last September, a photo of Braxton Winston went viral. He was shirtless. His dreads hung over his bare shoulders. He was raising his fist defiantly, staring down a line of police in riot gear. That photo was taken during protests in Charlotte, N.C., over the death of Keith Lamont Scott, who was fatally shot by police.
Hours after that shooting, Braxton Winston decided to stop by the scene on his way home from work. He found people shouting at police for answers, and things took a turn.
BRAXTON WINSTON: The situation devolved. And it was a night that no one expected and we had to - sorry.
GREENE: No, no. Take your time.
WINSTON: The thing I'd like to take out of that picture - what I like other people to take out that picture is that I'm willing to stand up and have the uncomfortable, inconvenient conversations. And I'm willing to do that for everybody.
GREENE: And you took your shirt off, put your fist in the air. What message was all of that sending in your mind?
WINSTON: Well, the reason why I took my shirt off was because I was using my shirt as a mask for the tear gas out there. We were tear gassed for hours. And I felt like - that we had to maintain our protest even in the midst of all that pain. So standing still, standing close with my fist up in the air...
GREENE: So it was helping you? It was like a position to hold your fist up. It was like a reminder for you to stay grounded in that moment.
WINSTON: Yeah, yeah. I mean, when you - if, you know - there was a lot of conversation that needed to happen. It was a lot being said, right? We were yelling and talking. But like I said, when you're in a cloud of tear gas and you're doing that, it really does amplify the effects of those chemicals. And it hurts. And it has bad effects on your mental and your physical.
GREENE: You've talked about this just being a moment. But it sounds like it is a moment that has stayed with you, and you still feel that moment.
WINSTON: It's one of the most impactful nights in my life. And it's - it has stayed.
GREENE: And there is now more to the story of that photo. Winston says he actually knew some of those police officers in front of him. And one of them told him if he really wanted change, he should run for office. So he did, and he won.
He's just been elected to Charlotte city council. And Winston told us that being part of the conversation is just as important as taking to the streets.
WINSTON: From last September, I was invited to many different tables. You know, I was invited to be part of the discussion. And I think that's so important - is to make sure that more people from different parts of Charlotte are part of the discussion because that's how we move things forward.
GREENE: Well, is there a risk in once you become part of the discussion that you become one of them, so to speak? I mean, I think now, you know, you oversee the police department. Next time citizens are angry at the police in Charlotte, I - you know, are you ready for them to direct that anger at you?
WINSTON: Absolutely. And that's what I - you know, that's one of the things that I've been saying. You know, that's the interesting dichotomy is so while we have to be agents of change, I do still have to make sure that the city is running. I have to make sure the trash is picked up on time. And the water is running. And the airport is accessible. And the fires are being put out. You know, this is one aspect of the change. And I need the people to stay engaged. We have to do this together. And I'm here for it.
GREENE: I just want to ask you about a specific case that may speak to the delicate position you're in. There was another man killed in these protests. You've left the door open to the possibility that police killed him. And a fellow city council member said, where's the evidence? If you don't have evidence of this, then bringing that up and questioning the police in such a way could be really counterproductive. I mean, do you have evidence?
WINSTON: I am glad that we're going to have an open trial because, like I said - like it's been said, I believe in our Sixth and Seventh Amendment rights to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody is guilty. I have not accused anybody or of anything.
GREENE: But you've left open the door that police might've killed this man. I think your fellow council member is saying that's - as a city council member, that's not - it's not productive to leave that idea that the police did something dangling if you don't - if you're not sure. And I wonder if you see where she's coming from.
WINSTON: I don't think I'm - right. Let me answer your question. I want to make sure I answer your question. I don't know what happened to Justin Carr.
GREENE: This is the man was killed.
WINSTON: I saw - yes. I know I was standing about 15 feet away from him when he was wounded. I saw him fall into his friend's arms. I saw the life leave his body. There's a - that's what I saw. And I don't know anything else other than what I saw. I think Justin, his family, the city deserve an objective kind of displaying of the facts surrounding his death.
GREENE: I guess the question I'm getting at is, does this speak to you being in these two different roles? And if you're - and if you are under pressure from fellow city council members like that to be more careful with your words, then you might want to be?
WINSTON: I'm always trying to be careful to say what I mean and mean what I say. And that's the challenge for anybody in the public sphere. I do believe I'll continue to learn. And I'll continue to understand how to best serve the people of Charlotte and all the people of Charlotte. We have over 800,000 constituents that I represent in this citywide position. And my one goal is to do that in an effective manner that really pushes the city as a whole forward.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "KEEP ON")
GREENE: That was Braxton Winston. He's a newly-elected member of the city council in Charlotte, N.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "KEEP ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.