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The Stolen Lives Project
by Jaime Adame
In a church across the street from the Gowanus Houses public housing development, Nicholas Heyward Sr. presided over a ceremony that was as solemn as a funeral, which in a way it was. Hayward's son was 13 years old when police shot and killed the boy in 1994, mistaking his toy gun for a real one.
"There is a lot of pain inside this building here today," Heyward said.
But the ceremony was not just for Nicholas Heyward, Jr. The gathering at the Cuyler Warren Street United Methodist Church was billed as an induction ceremony for something called the Stolen Lives Project, which is organized by the October 22nd Coalition. What all the speakers had in common was that a family member had been killed by the police.
While a few of the names of those killed had been featured in headlines, none of the cases went before a jury. The family members took turns at the microphone, and it became clear just how much their pain is mixed with anger -- at lawyers and at the police, at what they see as a horrible lack of justice. They cried some and they shouted more.
"Let me show you my son's picture," said Maryanne Dewgard, the mother of Egbert Dewgard, Jr, who was shot by a Drug Enforcement Agent during a foot chase. The agent, Jude Tanella, was indicted in the shooting but the charges were later dismissed. An appeal by the Brooklyn District Attorney's office is pending. "All I ask for is justice for my son," said Dewgard.
While the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office pressed charges against Tanella, others spoke critically of how investigations were handled in Brooklyn.
"District Attorney [Charles] Hynes doesn't indict cops. He will not indict a cop. That is a no-no.," said Phyllis Clayburne, the mother of Timothy Stansbury Jr., the unarmed teen shot in a Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project in January.
Jackie Nixon said that she was sure her 19-year-old nephew, Jamel Nixon, didn't have a gun when he was shot by police in the early hours of New Year's Day. "This hurts so much. The cops didn't give no warning. He didn't even see them coming," she said. "There's no justification for killing our kids like this. After they shot him, they just left him there."
After that shooting, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a press conference that Nixon was among a group of men who fired their guns into the air to celebrate the New Year, but that after being told to drop his gun by police, Nixon pointed it at the officers.
Cynthia Howell also spoke. She is the niece of Alberta Spruill, who died of a heart attack after police mistakenly raided her Harlem apartment. The city settled with the family after it filed a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.6 million dollar. "That money don't benefit nothing."
Lynne Stewart, a civil rights attorney currently on trial on charges that she supported a foreign terrorist group, also spoke at the ceremony. "We as a community have to come together and search for the political solution to this problem."
She also addressed the issue of race as played out on the streets in conflicts between white officers and non-white suspects. To make her point, Stewart cited the 20-year-old shooting of Eleanor Bumpers, a 66-year-old woman who was killed by police in 1984 when she lunged with a knife at police attempting to evict her from her Bronx apartment. "I know white policemen," said Stewart. "Eleanor Bumpurs is not their grandmother, is not seen as a grandmother."
The officer who shot Bumpurs was acquitted of all criminal charges.
Just a few days before the ceremony at the church, a Manhattan grand jury had indicted Officer Bryan Conroy on second-degree manslaughter charges for fatally shooting an unarmed man, Ousmane Zongo, last year. For reasons not clearly known and there are no witnesses Conroy gave chase to Zongo in a storage facility police had raided earlier to investigate a counterfeit CD and DVD ring.
Zongo, an immigrant from Burkina Faso, had nothing to do with the counterfeit ring, working instead in another room of the warehouse restoring African art and artifacts. Conroy, 25, had been guarding the room the police had searched, wearing a mail carrier's uniform because of his undercover dut, but with a police shield pinned to his shirt. Conroy pleaded not-guilty to the charges.
No one from the Zongo family was at Cuyler church. But the news of the indictment had done little to restore the families' faith in due process.
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