On Dec. 31, the sun set for Nicholas Heyward Sr. when this Gowanus, Brooklyn, NY, community member and long-time fighter against police brutality died at the age of 61. We say goodbye to a true comrade—a man that we have organized, marched and strategized with, and whose support filled us with love and solidarity.
Nicholas Sr. began organizing against police brutality after his 13-year-old son, Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr., was killed in 1994 by New York Police Department Housing Authority cop Brian George. Nicholas Jr. was killed while playing with his friends on the 14th floor of the building in Gowanus Houses, where he lived. Nicholas Sr. fought for and demanded justice for his stolen son for the remaining 24 years of his life.
He never received justice, as his son’s case was closed. But Nicholas Sr. continued to fight for his family, and he continued fighting for everyone. Many have called him a father to the movement against police brutality, which arose in the 1990s led by the families of those needlessly gunned down. He was a convenor of the annual October 22 March Against Police Brutality. He helped organize many Know Your Rights training sessions to keep Black children and young people safe, so much so that some called this training a “Heyward classic.”
I met and started working closely with Nicholas Sr. during the Akai Gurley campaign. Akai was needlessly shot and killed in Brooklyn’s Pink Houses by former NYPD officer Peter Liang during an illegal vertical patrol, in 2014. Gurley’s murder bore a resemblance to the killing of Nicholas Jr.
I wanted to organize around something that hit close to me—police brutality and police violence. When I started working with Nicholas, I did not have the organizing and deescalation skills, knowledge of strategies, and how to speak—which I have since developed. None of that mattered to him because he only cared about the camaraderie folks had for that struggle, for the community.
He was a true visionary. He organized for and got a mural honoring he son in Gowanus. He started summer tournaments in the Gowanus Houses park that he mobilized to get named after his son—turning a grave site into a safe space. And he did all of this while having compassion for others.
There is a love, a support that Nicholas gave that could never be put into words and never needed to be explained. He just had those things for all of us, whether or not you contributed to his 24-year struggle for justice for his stolen son or not. If he was able to fight alongside you in any struggle, he would and he did. When Nicholas called me his sister, or anyone else that was lucky enough to get those affirmations from him, you knew it was genuine, and that he meant it with all his heart and spirit. He continued to be a supportive part of my life through hardships and losses.
Nicholas Heyward Sr. has always been an ally to the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the ANSWER Coalition, marching with us countless times, and speaking at our events. He endorsed the People’s Congress of Resistance, which took place in 2017.
Even as his health started to fade, Nicholas still had the same loving energy. There is an empowerment in that. No matter what, this elder had our backs. He will live on through our organizing. But it is hard knowing that a fighter who loved like that, valued us like that, uplifted and held us like that, is no longer here because this system failed him. This will take us all awhile to process. We lost a pillar in our struggle when many of us don’t have a wall to lean on. He will not be forgotten.