Not at Rest

A family in turmoil compels us to ask if disposability exists in activism

Nicholas Heyward, Sr. at the Louis Pink Houses after the shooting of Akai Gurley (photo: Nina Berman)

On a rainy New Years' Eve, the family of Nicholas Heyward, Sr. assembled at a Brooklyn nursing home. The mood was somber, as the shock of his death didn’t set in. Facing the prospect of no longer having him around was something no one wanted to accept.

Nicholas Heyward, Sr. was a pillar in the New York City activist community. It was a position he didn’t expect but willingly embraced after the murder of his 13-year-old son in 1994, by a housing officer, at the Gowanus Houses. Nicholas Heyward Jr. was a diligent student and basketball player. The love he had for his son was unshakeable. Nicholas Heyward, Sr. fought for over twenty years, not only for his son but for all those who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement.

After his death, Anthony Beckford created a GoFundMe, on the behalf of his wife, Donna Carter-Heyward. She’s not the mother of the slain Nicholas Heyward, Jr., or his younger brother Quentin. She married Nicholas Heyward, Sr. on September 12th, 2015, at the House of the Lord Church. A shockwave ripped through activist circles, as word spread that an elder and familiar face had passed away from cardiac arrest. Many people attended the wake and funeral, and The New York Times published an obituary.

Nicholas Heyward, Sr. with Nicholas Heyward, Jr. (photo: Nicholas Heyward Sr. via Facebook)

This father was tenacious when speaking about the issue of police brutality — a mission that lasted for the rest of his life. Whenever a parent lost a child, he found a way to contact them. If there were people needed at direct actions, he showed up and often used his skilled oration to inspire crowds. He also aligned himself with grassroots organizations and traveled nationwide to raise awareness.

In 2016, Nicholas Heyward, Sr. was told that his son’s case will be formally closed, and no charges would be brought against the officer or the New York Police Department. He fought long and hard to have the case reopened, and this was an Earth-shattering conclusion. According to some people, this is what caused his health to take a nosedive. After fighting for over twenty years, his body couldn’t take anymore, and some speculated he died of a broken heart.

About nine months after the death of Nicholas Heyward, Sr., the annual Remembrance Day celebration for his son took place, and his absence weighed heavily on many. There was something that was brewing fairly unnoticeable — growing tension between Donna Carter-Heyward and some members of her deceased husband’s family. While it’s understood that she was instrumental in organizing the event, Quentin felt suspicion of his father’s ailments that led to his death.

COVID-19 caused this year’s Remembrance Day celebration to be canceled. Donna Carter-Heyward organized an event in Harlem for her fifth wedding anniversary. Food, winter coats, hand sanitizer, PPE/masks were given to the community. Currently, she’s trying to raise $50,000 using Facebook’s fundraising platform. Donna Carter-Heyward provides a lengthy explanation that the funds would go to laptops, coats, school supplies, and activities for children. Quentin isn’t convinced that her intent is altruistic, in fact, he accused her of using his father’s legacy and older brother’s death for financial gain.

Nicholas Heyward, Sr. holding a laminated funeral card of his son (via Stolen Lives Project, 1998)

For months, Quentin used Facebook to publicly accuse his father’s widow of arsenic poisoning, denying his father of an autopsy, spreading rumors that his father was addicted to drugs, and claimed they were informally separated. The Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Memorial Foundation’s Facebook page was recently deactivated and board members were ousted. This past June, family members of Nicholas Heyward, Sr. were upset with perceived alienation when she organized an event on his birthday. Quentin also revealed that his father’s gravesite doesn’t have a headstone. For the sake of fact-checking, a phone call was made to Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey — no headstone.

Others alluded that Quentin secretly resented his father, due to decades spent fighting to get his older brother justice. Even if that were the case, anyone could understand the reasoning. Quentin spoke at his father’s funeral where he unknowingly counteracted this narrative, “…that was his journey, his path, his calling. And no apology was necessary.”

Donna Carter-Heyward stood alongside Nicholas Heyward, Sr. for many years, while he fought for justice. Are the accusations coming from a son who needs someone to blame and can’t accept that his father’s body wore itself out, or is the outward persona of the grieving widow simply an act?

To clearly define the context of disposability: do social movements have an unspoken shelf-life when it concerns activists? Discourse on disposability in activism touched on abuse, transformative justice, and ableism. When applied to Nicholas Heyward, Sr.’s situation, it’s seen from a lens of exploitation. If a parent who lost a child to police brutality shows up to support direct actions, it provides validity and encourages the public to attend other events. When an individual — dead or alive — no longer possesses unique capital that could be utilized to promote movements, is the said individual no longer useful?

Quentin tagged many people who his father befriended in activism, and most of them didn't engage with the posts. Would a comprehensive mediation put suspicions to rest and finally bring peace, to move forward? Is it easier to side with his father’s widow because she has legal control over the foundation, and such an alliance is beneficial? If these claims were looked into, would it disrupt the goings-on of social movements in New York City? With Nicholas Heyward, Sr. dead, is it out of sight, out of mind?

Nicholas Heyward, Sr. was a man who lived with immense pain and committed over twenty years of his life to fighting against injustice. It’s jarring to think after all his hard work, he’s alone in an unmarked grave. A father who selflessly gave his life to not only fight for his son but to show up for others appears to be a footnote in contemporary civil rights history of New York City.

A boogie-down Bronx girl who knows the importance of reciprocity. An aspiring writer, humanitarian, and reluctant academic, striving for self-improvement.

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