By Nada Shoreibah ’23, Staff Writer
On May 24th, George Floyd, an unarmed black man suspected of using a counterfeit bill, died under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin pinned him unrelentingly for over eight minutes, even as Floyd repeatedly pleaded, “I can’t breathe” and eventually became unresponsive.
Police brutality disproportionately perpetuated against Black and Brown bodies is nothing new. In fact, it represents just one modern incarnation of a centuries-old legacy of systemic racism in the United States. Floyd’s murder, however, sparked unprecedented outrage nationally and globally. In response, protests for police reform spread beyond Minnesota to all 50 states. In Charlotte, tensions between officers and protestors are on the rise as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) continues to issue arrests and deploy chemical agents and rubber bullets at largely peaceful demonstrations.
Over five days of protests, the CMPD has made at least 100 arrests. Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston ‘07 was briefly detained last Friday for “failure to disperse on command” and is currently in legal proceedings with the department.
Winston graduated from Davidson with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and went on to lead a successful career in sports television and theater. He was first elected to the Charlotte City Council at-large in 2017 and is serving a second term as of 2019. Winston’s involvement in police-related activism began in 2016, following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. His family holds that Scott was reading a book in his car and exited unarmed when a CMPD officer, in search of an unrelated suspect, misidentified and fatally shot him. During the protests that ensued, Winston worked as a citizen journalist to convey images and voices he felt remained absent in mainstream reporting. In a dramatic photo by Charlotte Observer visual journalist Jeff Siner that went viral at the time, Winston stands shirtless in front of a row of baton-wielding riot police, fist raised in resistance.
Now an elected official with a supervisory role over the CMPD, Winston saw himself not as a protestor last Friday, but as a mediator. “That’s not my role anymore. Why would I be protesting […] while I am the entity now that is making the changes? I should go to the mirror and [protest],” he said on the radio program Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. “What I was doing out there was to try to deescalate the situation.”
The situation in question was a migration of approximately 250 peaceful marchers to a CMPD substation on Beatties Ford Road, where the protestors encountered police in protective gear. When some threw water bottles and stones towards police officers and vehicles, the officers deployed tear gas and began forcing the crowd northward. WBTV reported 15 arrests.
Footage of Winston’s arrest shows him backing away from a sizable group of advancing officers, speaking both to them and the protestors behind him. When he fails to leave the scene, officers swiftly encircle him, hold him down, and handcuff him. Winston later noted that the CMPD’s tactics then and at other protests did not match its supposed goals. “After Keith Lamont Scott […], we’ve had all these conversations, all this money spent on deescalation,” he continued on Charlotte Talks. “But when those difficult times come, that call is immediately abandoned by the CMPD.”
During Monday’s virtual City Council meeting, Winston directly questioned incoming CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings regarding his arrest. “What could I have done differently to not get arrested?” he asked. “When the dispersal order was given, you could have walked away,” replied Jennings. “I’m not gonna try your case here […], but the bottom line is that the people that left […] did not get arrested.”
After being held on a $1,000 bond, Winston was released at 1:00am on Saturday. He tweeted that as he undergoes legal processes, he is “confident that the whole truth will be presented and [he] will be exonerated of any wrongdoing.”
Protests continued through the weekend and show no signs of stopping. Hundreds gathered at Freedom Park on Monday for “A Justice Walk for George Floyd.” On Tuesday, an evening of peaceful protest organized by Kidz Fed Up & the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP turned violent. According to a video originally live-streamed by Queen City Nerve, CMPD officers cornered peaceful demonstrators beside a parking garage and fired pepper balls and tear gas at the group from behind, below, and above. Following an internal review of the incident, the CMPD stated there was “nothing to indicate whatsoever that there was intentional abuse on the part of our officers.” Presumably due to public outcry, the department has ordered a second, independent review by the State Bureau of Investigations.
A student, who will remain anonymous for concerns of personal safety, observed a marked difference in police presence when protesting in predominantly Black neighborhoods and predominantly White and wealthy ones. “There might have been a couple thousand people marching for hours […] at Myers Park, [Charlotte’s most affluent residential area]. The other protest I went to had maybe a couple hundred people,” he said. “I only saw six cop cars the whole time at the Myers Park protest. At the protest in the historically Black neighborhood, there were six cop cars just at the beginning. There was a big difference in the amount of force that was present from the start.”
He added that although he did not witness any physical provocations by protestors there, police reinforcements arrived at the predominantly Black neighborhood as the demonstration progressed. “The crowd was definitely angrier and shouting louder, but nothing happened until the police started surrounding them, pushing them, and driving cars through them […]. I’m not going to lie and say the Black community likes the police, but the police definitely was ready to escalate more.”
The same racial disparity informs which protestors the police arrest and the urgency with which arrests are processed. “It should be very arbitrary how long it takes someone to see a magistrate, but young, white college students seem to be getting in and out pretty quickly,” said a second anonymous student and Charlotte Uprising volunteer. “That is not true of Black protestors, and especially Black organizers.”
Charlotte Uprising, an organization founded primarily by Black and transgender activists in response to Scott’s shooting, is on the the frontlines of protest organization and support. It is among the largest contributors to the Charlotte bail fund and provides jail support for arrested protestors upon release.
“Being in jail is traumatic. There’s no medical attention, people are being released without shoes or without clothes at like four in the morning,” said the anonymous volunteer. “Jail support […] is like a first stop to meet immediate needs and get people plugged into a larger community of care.” Beyond these efforts, Charlotte Uprising is advocating for redistribution of the city budget. “They’re asking for city council members to not approve the current City of Charlotte budget, which would call for increasing police funding,” said the first anonymous student.