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U.S. Marine veteran stands outside in the heat for hours with the words "I can't breathe" taped over his mouth

Posted at 11:17 AM, Jun 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-08 13:19:22-04

In a striking silent protest, a U.S. Marine veteran stood in full uniform outside of the Utah State Capitol on Friday for three hours, in the heat, with tape over his mouth. A message was written on the black tape that covered his lips: "I can't breathe."

Those were the words George Floyd pleaded as a Minneapolis police officer kept a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes, leading to Floyd's death last month. The incident, which was caught on video, sparked nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

On Thursday, thousands of protesters attended a demonstration at the Utah State Capitol. The next day, the Marine demonstrated alone in the same spot. Photographer Robin Pendergrast captured photos of his solitary protest, which quickly went viral.

The man has been identified as Todd Winn, and in an exclusive interview with CBS affiliate KUTV, Winn explained why he chose to protest in support of the movement in this way.

Winn said he taped his mouth to silence the voice he has as a veteran — one he says is a privileged voice — and he told KUTV's Kelly Vaughen he hopes to magnify the voices of so many others speaking out against police brutality.

As the veteran stood in the sweltering heat, he held a sign that read, "Justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and countless others." As the temperature reached the upper 90s in Salt Lake City, photos show Winn's shoes starting to melt in the heat, KUTV reports.

Winn, who is originally from Kansas, said he dreamed of being a Marine since he was a little kid. The 9/11 attacks, which happened during his senior year of high school, solidified his decision to join the service. "Frankly, I loved being a Marine," he said. "The camaraderie, the brotherhood, it's a connection that unless you've experienced, you can't really understand."

Winn said his time with the Marines opened his eyes, and he was able to let go of what he called the "small-minded ideas" he grew up with.

"You know, until I left home and joined the Marine Corps, I didn't really understand that that was wrong. Until I served with men whose skin was a different color than mine, who were the finest men that I've ever known, help me to learn that really we're all the same," Winn said.

He was deployed to Iraq and wounded twice, including traumatic brain injuries. He was medically discharged in 2007, derailing his plans to make a career in the Marines. He said he has spent several years dealing with PTSD, depression and short-term memory loss.

Winn provided KUTV with his U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs identification card, his Purple Heart citations, and photos from his time in the Marines to assure the public he is in fact a Marine Corps veteran, after some questioned his status. He said he finds the idea of "stolen valor to be pretty despicable."

Winn said his protest received criticism from some fellow veterans and strangers online. He said he agrees that military personnel should not protest or take sides on political issues, but he sees this human issue, not a political one, KUTV reports.

"Really, all I have to say to my fellow Marines and veterans is you're right. What I did in a prescriptive sense was wrong. But I believe that morally and ethically it was the right decision to make," he said.

Winn said he has no ill will towards the police, but is advocating for improvements in the way they handle escalation of force, tactics training and procedure.

He recounted the oath he took the day he was sworn into service. "Support and defend the Constitution," he said. "And there's no qualification on that. It's not 'until this time,' or 'only for these people.'"