When Keith Lamont Scott was shot dead by police in Charlotte last September, it was the latest in a string of high-profile shootings that rocked the nation – and shook the small Southern city to its core. Braxton Winston was among those angry and horrified at yet another unnecessary loss of life – and decided to take part in the protest outside of Scott’s apartment that night.
That decision would change his life forever, leading to him become a representation of civil unrest – and a year later, an unlikely champion of political change in the city.
Winston was thrust into the public eye during the tumultuous days that rocked the relatively quiet city after Scott’s death when a photo of him shirtless with a fist raised in front of armed riot police was circulated nationwide.
He’s now in the public eye again – after being elected last week as the next at-large city council member in Charlotte after running on a platform of civil rights and social change.
‘After last September I really just had to figure out what I could do, what my role was and what my purpose was,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘I experienced, on the streets, a brand of leadership and experience that I’d never experienced before. I wanted what I was experiencing to change.’
Winston, a 34-year-old married father-of-three, has had a life-long interest in humanity. The Brooklyn, New York native previously graduated from Davidson College near Charlotte with a degree in Anthropology.
‘I look at things in terms of – how we do what we do,’ he said.
However, when Keith Scott, also an African-American father, was shot and killed by police on September 20, 2016 – any explanation escaped Winston, and the other residents of Charlotte. Scott’s death was later found to be justifiable under the law, and no charges were filed against the police officer who shot him.
In the days that ensued, the city would descend into chaos. Dozens of protesters and police officers were wounded, and another man, Justin Carr, was shot and killed just feet from Winston.
‘It was jarring. It was painful,’ Winston said.
‘I remember experiencing it – and we were all just looking at eachother like: is this real? Are we in a movie or something like that?’
Five days after Scott’s death, Winston participated in a protest during the Charlotte Panthers versus Minnesota Vikings game at the Bank of America stadium.
Dressed in all black, he was arrested by riot police for carrying a gas mask, which disobeyed the emergency ordinance that was put in place in the city limiting curfews and public displays.
When he was released – he got to work. Despite his challenges to the law – Winston maintains that he has always respected the role of government. He saw his lawsuit against the city as an expression of his rights – and an opportunity for local lawmakers to reconsider the treatment of its residents.
‘I don’t think when you express your rights there should be any positive or negative appeal to that. As Americans and Charlotteans and North Carolinians we need to know our rights. We need to be able to participate,’ Winston said.
‘We’re given these inalienable rights that allow us to be Americans and to have these difficult conversations. We’re a culture of laws and policies, so I’ve always thought that the leadership in government was very important. And as we’re going around having these conversations, it became clear that I could play a role,’ he continued.
As Winston’s political aspirations mounted, he decided to meet with the Charlotte Chief of Police, Kerr Putney, who was called by many to resign from his position after the Scott protests.
Their conversation was mutually beneficial, Winston said, and that both furthered their understanding of eachother’s perspectives.
His hope is that upon taking his city council seat in December, he can drive a narrative that can improve police/community relationships. Last year, tensions between law enforcement and the citizens of Charlotte were at a breaking point. Winston says that it’s crucial to look critically at what those circumstances can teach us.
‘It’s a very difficult job – being a police officer…We have to look at the conditions that we put our police officers under – it’s all hands on deck. We have to get it right. We all deserve to live in safe and secure communities. That’s really square one.’
Although the protests following Keith Scott’s death were violent and emotional – Winston said it was a moment of reckoning for the city, and what came from it was a greater love for one another.
‘It was beautiful – a lot of the broken glass gets shown on repeat but in terms of the person hours, and the fellowshipping and the conversating and the praying, the beautiful first amendment celebrations that were happening out here in the streets over that time – it was incredible,’ he said.
Winston created his platform in Charlotte by establishing relationships with important people in the community, and his genuine desire to make the city a better place inspired some unlikely supporters.
After announced his candidacy in June, he met with the Charlotte Fraternal Order of Police, who later officially endorsed him for the at-large city Councillor seat.
He continued his campaign with his family by his side – with wife Sheena, his 10-year-old son and two younger daughters. They took their mission out where it began – on the streets.
‘My wife and kids – they’re strong. My daughter was helping me knock on a lot of doors on the trail,’ he said.
The heart of Charlotte is its long-standing foundation in the banking community, and perhaps the largest figure in that realm is Hugh McCall – the founder and former CEO of Bank of America, who also endorsed Winston for the role and helped him connect with powerful donors.
The support continued to pour in – he was quickly endorsed by the local newspaper, the Charlotte Post, the Human Rights Campaign, and various LGBTQ groups.
He took his mission to the streets, with his family by his side, and attending all city council, county commission, and school board meetings he could. While there, he would live stream his discussions with city officials on social media.
‘Every time I’d go [live] even if it was a couple dozen couple hundred or a thousand or more, those are more people that are involved. And able to weigh in and ask questions – or go to a website or call or anything, inform somebody else. We’ll look for ways to do that,’ he continued.
When Election Day came on November 7, the polls were flooded. Winston’s months of hard work had paid off – voters by the thousands were turning up to support him. It was the highest turnout for a municipal election ever, Winston said.
When the results returned and news broke that he had won the city council seat, prominent figures such as rapper Common and Chelsea Clinton spoke out in his favor. Clinton wrote: ‘Mr. President, @BraxtonWinston is a superb example of an actual “very fine” person.’
The number one issue that he feels needs addressing in Charlotte is that of civil rights. A statistic he frequently references is that the city is ranked the worst in the nation for economic mobility – meaning the ability of an individual or family to escape poverty.
‘We look at how we end up in a place where we are 50 out of 50 in upward economic mobility, in one of the most resource-rich cities in the nation, which leads up to situations that allow for last September,’ he said.
According to Winston, children born into poverty only have an eight per cent chance of breaking that cycle – regardless of how hard their families work or strive to achieve education.
In working with his fellow city Councillors, Winston hopes that this gap can be bridged, and initiatives can be undertaken to make sure everyone in Charlotte has the equal opportunity for success.
‘We’re dedicated to having a great Charlotte. I have three children – that’s who I do it for. I stayed out there for them – and the city I can leave them to inherit,’ he said.
Winston knows that this will be no easy feat, and the road ahead will be long and arduous. But he’s not afraid of the challenge.
‘We have to remember that – in the end we are trying to do things that we’ve never done before,’ he said.