Twenty years ago this September, New York Police Department housing cop Brian George shot and killed 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. The boy was playing with a toy guy with other kids from the housing projects in Brooklyn where they lived when he and George met in the staircase. The City and the district attorney, Charles Hynes, argued that George mistook the toy gun for a real one and did not bring charges against George. Heyward's family and the kids playing with the young boy insisted he dropped the gun before the shots were fired. George never served a day in jail for the death, but the incident sparked 20 years of activism by Heyward's father, Nicholas Heyward Sr. Today, Hynes is facing a grand jury probe for corruption.
I met Heyward Sr. at several policing-reform events over the years and worked with him closely as we campaigned against the appointment and return of Bill Bratton to head the NYPD. Bratton was NYPD commissioner at the time Heyward Jr. was killed. He also famously called Heyward and the mothers of Anthony Rosario and Anthony Baez - who joined him as the well-known parent group Parents Against Police Brutality - a "bunch of fools" during an infamous 1995 town hall meeting in the Bronx alongside then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.
This year, Heyward's annual Day of Remembrance to honor his son's life and legacy marks its 20th year. Alongside friends, family, activists and residents of the Boerum Hill-Gowanus community, the event will once again take place in Nicholas Heyward Jr. Park - renamed in his son's memory. It may also have special meaning as the recent deaths of Staten Island's Eric Garner - a former Gowanus resident - and St. Louis' Michael Brown have thrust the continuing pandemic of police violence back into the national conversation.
I sat down with Heyward recently as he planned for his event, coincidentally taking place the same day as Al Sharpton's march for Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Josmar Trujillo: Mr. Heyward, what do you make of the recent cases of police brutality? Do you see progress?
Nicholas Heyward Sr.: Things have gotten a whole lot worse over the years with police brutality and mass incarceration. I think people have to tie them both together. This is violence placed upon black and brown communities. It's out of hand. Police have been allowed too much power . . . The way things are going, the powers that be are okay with the impact on communities of color - choosing to protect white privilege over the rights of our communities. The history of America tells us brown and black people have been on the receiving end of violence, but yet we are told that we are the violent ones. Mike Brown, like Eric Garner, are just more examples of black men targeted for virtually no reason. These were unarmed men. One for walking home and the other for selling loose cigarettes.
What do you make of purported "leadership" and the promises of politicians?
I don't look at someone like Al Sharpton as a civil rights leader anymore. His inner circle isn't full of grassroots activists. He's surrounded by flashy lawyers and a traveling circus. I've been around for 20 years. In all the cases Sharpton has been involved in, we've seen the same routine. I've never seen justice - in the sense that officers were truly held accountable. It was almost solely about money. It just goes over again; I'm pretty sure the same will happen with the Garner case here in New York. The same goes for politicians. It's sad to say, but we have been conditioned to believe that politicians are here to help us, to provide us services. Brutality is an issue, but you can even take something like homelessness - we don't seem to be making progress with that. How can New York City call itself progressive and have so much poverty? The majority of people are suffering in poverty. This also goes across the country. I was in Atlanta recently and the poverty is incredible.
What would you say to the young people, the generation currently being politicized by the Travon Martins, the Michael Browns of our era?
Young people across the country should be involved in police brutality and poverty activism. They need to recognize police as an occupying force. They [police] serve the rulers of the system - those who rule over us. That's not just in New York, that's all over the world.
The annual Day of Remembrance for Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. is this Saturday, August 23 at 1 pm. It will have children's activities, a basketball tournament organized by Nicholas Heyward Sr. and musical performances. It will take place in Nicholas Heyward Jr. Park, located on Wyckoff Avenue (between Hoyt and Bond) in Brooklyn.