Around Charlotte’s government offices this week, people stopped Braxton Winston to shake hands and congratulate the newly elected City Council member.
One middle-aged African-American woman spotted him in the hallway Thursday afternoon. “Hi, Braxton,” she said, as they made eye contact. She smiled at him and quoted Sam Cooke’s 1964 song, written after he and his bandmates were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said, softly humming and singing a line from the song as she passed Winston. “A change is gonna come.”
But how much change can he make and how fast can he do it?
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You might remember Winston from his spontaneous entry into activism last year. An iconic photo shows him standing in between a police line and protesters, shirtless, with his fist raised in the air. Soon, he’ll be colleagues with some of the people he confronted during those Charlotte protests. He and hundreds of others demanded the police chief and other city officials resign in the wake of Keith Lamont Scott’s death.
Police arrested Winston during a protest that weekend, although the charges were later dropped. He also joined a lawsuit against the city, which has been dropped, alleging police violated the rights of protesters.
While there were no formal protest leaders, Winston emerged as a prominent figure and his participation gave rise to his first-ever political campaign.
With Winston’s election night win Tuesday – where he got the second-highest number of votes for an at-large City Council seat – the voices of protest are poised to continue commanding attention inside the Government Center.
His move into politics has attracted an atypical national audience for a local City Council member. Two days after the election, Chelsea Clinton – the former first daughter – used Twitter to send President Donald Trump a message, saying: “Mr. President, @BraxtonWinston is a superb example of an actual ‘very fine’ person.”
Then, hip hop artist and activist Common – who has more than 4 million followers on Twitter – called Winston an inspiration. He tweeted the famous photo of Winston and congratulated him on the election: “We can be the change we want to see in our society!”
Winston has the challenge of straddling both sides of a massive debate still roaring a year after Scott was shot and killed by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer. Some leaders of Charlotte Uprising, which emerged after the Scott shooting, and city officials have different versions of what happened to Scott and a protester, Justin Carr, who was killed outside the Omni Hotel. Prosecutors have charged Rayquan Borum and said he admitted to the killing. A trial for Borum, who has pleaded not guilty, has not been scheduled. Others, though, say Borum was framed and that police were too quick with riot gear and tear gas the night Carr was shot.
Winston leaves the door open that police killed Carr – a rare view on a council that usually strongly supports CMPD.
“I didn’t see what happened,” Winston said. “I know this, and this is what I have said from Day 1: Whether it was a police officer that killed him or a protester killed him or the hand of God came down and snatched the soul out of Justin Carr’s chest...Justin Carr did not have to die. He would have been alive if we had been allowed to continue our non-violent protest.”
Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the public safety committee that oversees CMPD, says she doesn’t believe police killed Carr. “If (Winston) has evidence to the contrary, then he should bring that to CMPD,” she said. “Otherwise it’s counterproductive.”
Disruption, though, is a part of Winston’s plan.
Winston says he wants an awakening and major changes – too many people in Charlotte, he says, are left behind, pushed aside and afraid. His interests go beyond CMPD, he said. He lists other priorities as road and public transportation improvements, affordable housing and job creation.
He plans to stay connected with his supporters and to steer the conversation by using what he calls citizen journalist tools – live-streaming video like he did during the protests and showing up places to share what he describes as his “subjective observations.”
Putney meets Winston
Winston, 34, was born in North Carolina and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and was recruited to play football for Davidson College, where he received a degree in anthropology.
He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children and works as a professional videographer. Most of his jobs are contract gigs, but he’s regularly filmed home games for the Charlotte Hornets.
In his free time, he has coached middle school football in Charlotte. Last fall, Winston was leaving one of his team’s games when he heard a man had been shot and killed by police. People were gathering outside the apartment complex where Scott was shot.
Winston decided to stop by. As the hours passed, more protesters gathered, more police officers arrived and tensions rose. CMPD used tear gas. Winston was broadcasting the situation in real time, using Facebook Live video.
Even as police called for the protesters to disperse, Winston took his shirt off to cover his mouth from the tear gas and fumes. As he approached CMPD’s police line, he raised his fist as an act of civil disobedience. That moment, captured in a photo by The Charlotte Observer’s Jeff Siner, went viral.
Several days later, Winston was arrested on a misdemeanor charge during protests outside of Bank of America Stadium after police discovered a gas mask in his bag.
Prosecutors dropped the charge against him last March. Three months later, he was criticizing the city again – this time as a council candidate.
“What we experienced in September was a supreme lack of leadership in all levels of government,” he said during a forum in June.
In an interview this week, Winston said he met with Police Chief Kerr Putney one-on-one after the protests. He said he asked for the chief’s resignation.
Winston said he’s no longer calling for Putney to step down. He said he believes Putney wants to make the city better.
In an interview Friday, Putney praised Winston – who will be one of his new bosses – for his commitment to the city. But he said Winston never asked for him to resign during their face-to-face meeting at law enforcement center.
“We talked extensively about the different perspectives (from the protests),” Putney said. “I was aware that he was one of many talking about me resigning. But (asking me to resign) was never a part of that conversation when we talked.”
Putney said his officers haven’t discussed the election and Winston’s possible impact.
Earlier this year, the Charlotte Fraternal Order of Police talked with City Council candidates looking for endorsements. Winston accepted an invitation to interview.
“I found him to be sincere, open and willing to do something (on issues like police pay),” said Harvey Katowitz, the chair of the organization’s three-person political committee.
They were so impressed with Winston that the committee recommended the police group endorse the one-time police protester.
The overall membership, though, rejected endorsing Winston. Their reason: his role in the protests.
Unexpected campaign help
Winston found allies citywide for his campaign.
The city’s most-famous banker, Hugh McColl Jr., helped Winston connect with donors and powerful supporters. Winston met the former Bank of America CEO at a community meeting after the protests.
Winston’s path into politics, McColl said, may be unusual, but he thinks he’s tweaked his style in a way that will work.
“I believe he’ll do well,” McColl said. “He understands he has to work with other people.”
But Winston will need to continue to finesse his communication style, said Lynn Wheeler, a former Republican mayor pro tem and council member, who criticized Winston before the election for his role in the protests.
“The worst thing that could happen for him is to make himself a lightning rod and create jealousy,” said Wheeler, who is now an unaffiliated voter. “There’s a natural rivalry between each member of city council.”
Winston says he’s prepared to collaborate, but he’s not going to stay behind a desk.
“I’m with the people,” he said Friday, adding that he’ll stay engaged with Charlotte Uprising and other organizations that push for social justice.
Pressure to conform
Winston may find it tough to bring change to City Council.
He will be one of 11 council members on a body that has sometimes been reluctant to share information with the public. Earlier this year, council members voted to turn off the television cameras during their public forum for citizens. Winston said that decision was a “disservice.” He said he will consider live streaming that portion of the meeting from his phone, even as he sits behind the dais.
Republican County Commissioner Bill James, who has recorded some closed commissioner meetings that he saw in the public interest, expects Winston to face pressure to conform.
“There is a push to not air any dirty laundry or internal disputes,” James said.
Theresa McCormick-Dunlap, a social worker, who participated in the Scott protests, says she hopes Winston doesn’t get “bogged down by the system.”
“It can be a little daunting to try and change a system that has been in place for so long,” she said.
Winston is likely to find at least one ally in his effort to change the system: incoming council member Matt Newton, an attorney who won the District 5 seat that covers east Charlotte.
Like Winston, Newton has sued the city over what he believed was police misconduct after his brother was shot and killed. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Newton also led an effort to reform the Citizens Review Board, which is tasked with evaluating complaints of police misconduct.
Newton predicts Winston’s ability to “speak from the heart” will win over some hard votes.
For Newton and Winston to have the most impact on police issues, Mayor-elect Vi Lyles would have to appoint them to the committee that oversees CMPD. Winston said he hasn’t spoken to Lyles about appointments.
The council’s other nine members did not make policing issues a key part of their campaign. Lyles emphasized that she stood behind Putney during the Scott protests.
But Winston joins a council of newcomers who may be open to new ideas. The council has five new members – all under 40 – who will start in December.
To avoid a misstep or a slow-down to his push for change, Winston says he’s forming strategy ahead of his swearing-in.
At the end of nearly an hour-long interview with The Charlotte Observer this week, he asked reporters if the questioning was almost complete.
“I was just elected to serve – I can’t wait to get to work,” he said, glancing at two thick binders. Inside were hundreds of pages to help new council members learn how the government runs.
Winston says he plans to read every page.