NEW YORK CITY — At first glance, Saturday’s Remembrance Day for Nicholas Heyward Jr. seemed like the kind of late summer party that is so ubiquitous in Brooklyn’s housing projects, one last bash before the kids need supplies and clothes for the beginning of the new school year.
Young people, many of them around the same age as Nicholas when he was shot to death by a policeman 25 years ago, played on the basketball courts in the Gowanus Houses named after the slain boy; they got their faces painted as exotic cats or football players; they whizzed by on scooters and played tag and rock-paper-scissors.
Heyward’s baby brother Adonis squealed as he outmaneuvered the adults assigned to look after him while his mother Donna Carter-Heyward scrambled to make sure all the activities were in order. A year ago he spent the day on somebody’s lap or stowed away in his stroller. Now a 2-year-old, he was an energy-filled toddler scampering around the courts.
But amid the revelry there were memories that stung. This week’s celebration was unlike any before it, the first time Nicholas Jr.’s legacy would be honored without his father there. Nicholas Heyward Sr. died on New Year’s Eve after dedicating his life to secure some measure of justice for his son.
He managed to convince Ken Thompson, then the Brooklyn District Attorney, to reopen the case. Thompson worked with other elected officials to convince the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the Emmett Till case, so Heyward Sr. was hopeful that Thompson’s investigation would lead to a criminal charge. That wasn’t the case. In 2014, the new investigation’s findings were the same as they were decades before — Officer Paul George was not responsible for Heyward Jr.’s death.
As a father, Heyward Sr. was a rare sight among a network of parents and relatives baptized by tragedy, mostly mothers, who have moved to the forefront of a civil rights movement dedicated to changing police policy around force and finding some measure of justice for their slain loved ones, young people in communities of color. By his death he was considered an elder statesman.
He was the force behind his son’s Day of Remembrance, always on or near his birthday. Nicholas Jr. would have turned 38 last Sunday. The event went on, organized by his wife and a tight cluster of friends and fellow activists. But while the children had fun chasing each other with balloons, a shadow hung over some of the adults in attendance.
There was Anthony Beckford. He was so used to Nicholas Sr. hosting the event that when he arrived he found himself absentmindedly wondering aloud where his friend and activist ally was until the reality of his friend’s death sunk in anew.
There was Donna Carter-Heyward. She spent the day busying herself with all the activities going off as planned: the photo booth, the grill where burgers and hot dogs were cooked to perfection, whether the balloon guy had enough balloons for the big turnout. But at one point she stopped. She buried her head in her hands and pined for her dead husband.
“I just can’t stop crying,” she said. “I’m still in mourning.”
There was Quentin Heyward, who spent the early part of the day making sure the basketball game was going off without a hitch. He saw one of his father’s old friends, who hugged him. While they embraced Quentin broke down, wiping tears from his eyes.
And there was Quentin and Nicholas Jr.’s mother, Angela. Even though she and Nicholas Sr. divorced five years after a New York Police Department officer fatally shot her son, she still keeps the Heyward last name.
She stared up at the building where her son was shot and remembered that day. “I can never forget,” she said quietly. “It’s like it happened yesterday.” A faraway look crossed her face.
‘Please don’t let me die’
She was expecting a lowkey evening the night her son died. She had cooked the two nights before, so she wouldn’t have to toil in the kitchen. She could just heat up some leftovers, settle down and zone out to some television.
When she got home, Nicholas wasn’t there. His little brother Quentin said he was outside playing. They were playing cops-and-robbers, using a toy rifle with a little string tied on it. But it had started to rain. So Nicholas Jr. and his friends went into another building in the complex, one that 23-year old NYPD Officer Brian George would patrol.
After dinner, she went to lie down in the bedroom and watch some TV. She turned it on and found herself dogged by a nameless anxiety. Something told her to stand up and look out the window. When she drew the blinds, she saw a troubling sight. A group of plainclothes detectives were running along the courtyard, the one where Saturdays a DJ played hits that everyone danced to. One detail is etched into her memory. The detectives clutched at the guns dangling from their belts, to stop them from bopping around too much.
She ran outside to see what was going on and heard that something happened at another building. She ran to the building. She has no memory of her feet hitting the ground. She ran in and saw her son’s friends in a corner surrounded by police officers, but no sign of Nicholas Jr.
“What’s going on, what happened?” she asked, the panic growing in her voice. Now, she recalls, “But the kids, they were scared, intimidated by the police. They didn’t say anything.”
She called the elevator but it seemed like it was taking an eternity. One of Nicholas Jr.’s friends came over and put his arm over her shoulder. She grew impatient and ran to the stairwell.
She doesn’t remember climbing the stairs but ended up at the 14th floor. Two uniformed officers, a man and a woman, were at the door. They wouldn’t let her pass. “That’s my son in there, I am going to go to my son,” she told them. They wouldn’t relent. She peered through the little square of smudged security glass laced with wire mesh and could see men crowded around something on the ground.
She knew it was her son.
The officers led her downstairs and told her they were going to take her to the hospital, St. Vincent’s across the East River in the Greenwich Village. By the time she got there, her son had already been prepped for surgery. Medical staff wheeled Nicholas Jr. past her. He was unconscious. She hugged and told him he loved him.
“I would never see him with his eyes open again,” she said.
A doctor came out and handed her his sneakers and his socks. Detectives yanked them out of her hand.
“Evidence,” she remembers them saying.
The anesthesiologist wasn’t so cold, she said. He had a child, too, a son, the same age as Nicholas Jr. He told Angela his last words.
“He said I want to live, I want to live,” she recalled. “Please, please, don’t let me die.”
Back at the Gowanus Houses, Quentin was with a babysitter. No one told the 6-year-old what had happened. But he found out anyway. The TV was on with the local news. Before her babysitter could race across the living room to turn off the set it was too late. The last thing he saw before it went black was the picture of his big brother Nick. He was dead.
Since Nicholas Jr.’s father died, Angela said she is trying to rededicate herself to her son’s memory. She wants to start finding a way to leverage her son’s death to make a difference in the lives of children who are alive today. She is going to reach out to the school her son was attending when he died, and see if she can speak to them. She still remembers the late nights helping Nicholas Jr. with his school projects.
She is hoping the activity will help with the nightmares. They started up recently. Every night it is the same. She finds herself in a stairwell. She is alone and scared. Something is about to happen, something bad. She hears the loud report of a gunshot. She knows it’s that fatal shot, the one that is going to kill her son.
And then she wakes up.