Editor’s note: When they heard that a man prominently featured in a dramatic photograph during the Charlotte protests had graduated from Davidson College, students Olivia Daniels and AJ Naddaff decided to learn more about him. A version of this story appeared in the student newspaper, The Davidsonian.
We followed a tip.
We heard that the shirtless man, fist clenched to the sky as he faced off against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg riot team in a photograph that went viral, was Davidson College graduate Braxton Winston.
Media outlets across the country chose this photograph by the Charlotte Observer’s Jeff Siner for their reports on the Charlotte protests. Winston’s stance of defiance illustrated the police-civilian tension that emerged from the Sept. 20 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, 43, by CMPD Officer Brentley Vinson. The image, taken from behind, doesn’t show Winston’s face; one cannot identify him beyond an athletic upper body and long, dark dreadlocks. Perhaps that is why it became a defining image in the coverage.
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In his “Science, Policy, and Society” class two days later at Davidson, anthropology professor Dr. Fuji Lozada discussed what had happened. He handed students a packet that included the photos most widely circulated by the media.
There was Winston, fist in the air.
On the next page was another photo of Winston, posted to Facebook in July. It shows him, smiling, beside Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally. To Lozada, that was the Winston he knew, and this was the point he wanted to make: Activists and protesters on the streets could be anyone, and they certainly are not defined only by media images.
What does define Winston?
Born to a military family in North Carolina, he was raised in Brooklyn, New York. After attending the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover,Massachusetts, he was recruited to play football for Davidson College.
When Winston arrived at the school in 2001, the relative lack of racial diversity in the student body struck him, he said. Then, during his first week of classes, 9/11 happened. He felt isolated from his family in New York, challenged by academics, taxed by the social situation.
He wasn’t mentally prepared. He took time off, working and then taking classes at UNC-Charlotte for a year. Eventually he returned to Davidson and graduated with a degree in anthropology in 2006.
Lozada said he was close to Winston during his time at Davidson. “I’m not saying that Braxton wasn’t ‘woke’ (or aware) during his college years, but he wasn’t in leadership in social justice,” Lozada said.
That changed on Sept. 20.
Making a decision
Winston, now 33, passes the Village at College Downs apartments every day on the drive from his NoDa home to Providence Day School, where he has coached for three years. On the day Scott died in the complex’s parking lot, Winston had coached a middle school football game and was heading home. He heard about the shooting through a group chat and, because of the proximity, stopped to observe.
“What I was hearing from (Scott’s) neighbors, family and friends was that... he was at this spot every day for years waiting for his kids to get home... There were a lot of unanswered questions.”
Time passed. The crowd grew. More police officers arrived.
Winston had had contact of a different kind before with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. In Nov. 2015, he’d heard screaming in his neighborhood. A domestic argument had turned violent. He intervened, acting as a translator for the Spanish-speaking woman and police, and helped care for her young son.
CMPD Officer Shannon Finis, who responded to the situation, said the woman’s boyfriend beat her so badly that her whole face was swollen. “Braxton helped by grabbing her little boy. When (the mother) went to the hospital, the little boy didn’t want to leave Braxton, so Braxton went with us to the hospital. He stayed the whole night, trying to make sure the little boy was OK as he clung onto Braxton all night long.”
About four hours after Scott was shot, Winston began to livestream video on Facebook from the protest, that had moved to Old Concord Road.
Even after the police he recognized advised him to get out, he stayed. Winston had never been involved in any protest movement. He thought of tear-gas or potential injury as “the price I got to pay to speak up on behalf of my children, [on] behalf of myself, and [on] behalf of what I believe in and what the world should look like.”
Later that night, the violence began.
Clashing with authorities
A cameraman by trade who films home games for the Charlotte Hornets as an independent contractor, Winston filmed the Sept. 20 protests on his iPhone, streaming on Facebook Live “ so people could ... decide the truth as they saw it.”
The tension between police and civilians escalated. Winston removed his shirt to cover his mouth from tear gas. He approached a line of police in riot gear and thrust his fist in the air in an act of civil disobedience, he said.
He moved to stand in front of police - intending to be face-to-face in protest, but also to shield them from rocks thrown by people in the crowd, he said.
Finally, his phone battery died, and he recharged it before he went to bed at 4 a.m.
When he woke up, he was stunned to see dozens of messages from family, friends and Davidson graduates, some of whom he had not been in contact with for years.
Keep livestreaming, they said.
That week, he also would be called a terrorist while having coffee with a community member.
Winston’s video caught the sound of a pop and the sight of spattered blood the next night, Sept. 21, as protester Justin Carr was killed.
Winston said he was hit with tear-gas canisters during the first night of protest. So when he decided to protest at the Sept. 25 Panthers-Vikings game, he brought a gas mask. That led to his arrest.
The City of Charlotte declared the game an “extraordinary event.” Under that ordinance, gas masks are illegal because they are seen as a way of circumventing police orders.
Winston was charged with a misdemeanor for possessing the mask.
He explained the arrest to his 9-year old son, who had heard different perspectives of the protests at school. His son was supportive, he said, and encouraged him to speak up at a city council meeting, saying, “Go, you gotta go.”
‘Speak what I know’
Winston, along with seven other protesters, was recently named as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the CMPD.
The suit does not seek financial reparations. Instead, said lawyer Jake Sussman, its goal is a court order directing CMPD “to not use excessive force” or tear gas and “chemical implements like pepper-spray and concussion bombs which we consider to be military grade weapons...against non-violent protesters.”
CMPD Major Mike Campagna countered that tear gas was used because protesters had become violent against the officers.
Said Sussman: “We don’t think that the way the protests were handled actually kept anyone safe. We think it actually made things less safe.”
Winston said he will continue to push for facts and dialogue that holds CMPD accountable.
“If protesters act wrongly, we are held accountable,” he said. “Yet, I have not heard one report of which CMPD has been assessed of making a wrong move.”
Winston said he was denied entrance to the Nov. 30 press conference, where it was announced that Vinson would not be indicted for shooting Scott. Winston said the District Attorney’s report put Scott on trial, not Vinson. “I don’t see any reason to not believe the DA’s response that there is no legal avenue to convict police officer Vinson in the death of Scott. That illustrates the problem and what we have been protesting. The policy is written to absolve the government from responsibility when they kill people without due process.”
Winston believes the hours of livestreamed video he provided offer truer context than mainstream media soundbites.
“I’ve only tried to speak about what I know, what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced,” he said. “Outside of that I tried to be quiet and show exactly what was happening.”
The next day, Winston again made the Observer pages, photographed in a discussion with Campagna outside police headquarters.
On Dec. 13, Timothy Andre Davis, 18, died from a self-inflicted gunshot during a SWAT situation and stand-off with the CMPD at his home on Sparrow Valley Way in Charlotte, police said. Winston livestreamed video from the room in which Davis died at the invitation of Davis’s mother, Kim, he said, in order to “bear witness to the scene of her son’s death.”
That day, Winston posted on Facebook: “The facts that I know for sure are that, for the second time in less than three months, CMPD showed up to serve a warrant on people that were alive and when CMPD left there were black men dead. #accountability.”
Winston pushed for weeks to talk with CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, he said, as he and other protesters called for Putney to resign. The two met on Dec. 14. Winston said they discussed potential CMPD-civilian interaction policy changes. He said he urged Putney “to find different, public ways to communicate with segments of Charlotte that feel over-policed and under-served because (Putney’s) methods haven't been working.”
Putney declined to comment for this article through an email from CMPD Media Advisor Robert Tufano.
Today, many CMPD officers recognize Winston.
Campagna invited him to take part in a police-civilian transparency training session, which he will do in the spring.
Winston said he hopes to become involved in public office eventually. He said he is working to produce a documentary using more than 20 hours of footage he shot from the Charlotte demonstrations and is currently seeking support via GoFundMe.
Winston said he also hopes to start a nonprofit organization to address institutional racism in Charlotte, and that he is trying to balance and pursue these aspirations while still supporting his young family.
He plans to attend Trump’s inauguration in January and livestream the event as a citizen journalist. He will also be speaking at Davidson College at 6:30 on Jan. 27 in a public forum about what has changed over the last couple months in Charlotte and how others can get involved.
Winston sees encouragement in the activism that he has witnessed in Charlotte over the past few months, particularly the unity and vigor of young people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the clergy. He hopes to see new leaders implement policy changes aimed at justice for all people. He also wants to continue to push for accountability in civilian-police relations.
“My method of protest is that I want to yell and scream and protest, so I can get into a room. And then when I get across the table, I can effectively voice the same message with different words,” Winston said. “That’s enabled me to connect with different groups that are on the margins as well as the people in power.”
Nicole Okubanjo, an assistant basketball coach at Providence Day School where Winston coaches, said, “Usually people engage in meaningful dialogue for a week and then it’s over. With Braxton, it’s been going on, and he is still on it.”
And his footage is still rolling.