After a mother’s terrible loss, a new life of activism
It’s not easy running a national social justice campaign when you live in a trailer and have to worry about things like a leaky roof.
But Susan Bro has embraced that challenge in the year since her daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist in the 2017 Charlottesville protests.
Many, particularly on the left, have paid homage to Ms. Heyer and made her death a rallying cry for fighting racism and injustice. For Ms. Bro, carrying on her daughter’s legacy has been an uphill battle, whether it’s keeping the fundraising momentum going, or navigating criticism for being too outspoken.
Bro occupies an interesting space in a society in turmoil, as a working-class white ally of people of color. For the past year, she has been pouring her heart into a progressive cause, but also trying to keep the door open to those with differing perspectives – including her own relatives, some of whom are Trump supporters, some of whom have unfriended her on Facebook.
Her daughter’s death catapulted Bro from a life of canning green beans and contemplating retirement to the front lines of a national clash that last year’s Charlottesville protests exposed. That clash, revealing deep divisions around issues of race and equality, heritage and constitutional rights, could play out again in an Aug. 12 anniversary rally in Washington this weekend. And it threatens to further roil the country as the United States heads toward a not-so-distant future in which whites will become the minority.
While Bro still feels anger and periodic waves of grief, she has not only sought to take a public stand against hate – but has also found the fortitude to listen to critics.
“If they have something negative to say, think about it, absorb it, see what might be true about it,” says Bro in a phone interview. “Don’t automatically discount everybody who comes at you – they might be right.”
Bro has been criticized for her willingness to talk to people from a variety of backgrounds; local activists pressured her not to attend a Listen First Charlottesville event held this spring, aimed at bridging divides in the community. She went anyway.
Bro’s example inspired others, including University of Virginia student president Sarah Kenny. She was writing her thesis on the women of the alt-right, one of whom she witnessed Heyer’s mother interacting with during the Listen First weekend.
“I glimpsed [her] forgive this former neo-Nazi for the ideology that took her daughter’s life,” says Ms. Kenny. “Few experiences have overwhelmed me with awe and hope like this moment of radical reconciliation.”
A costly fight
Heyer, a high-school graduate who had worked her way up to becoming a paralegal in a Charlottesville firm, was making enough money at 32 to live on her own for the first time. She held a second job as a waitress, and was dressed in her black work clothes when she attended the Aug. 12 rally to counterprotest the white supremacists and white nationalists who had come from across the country to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Heyer’s plan to head to work after attending the rally – and all her plans and hopes for fighting racism and oppression – came to an end when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio rammed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing her. Or so it seemed.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” said Bro during a eulogy at her daughter’s funeral. “Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”
Indeed, thanks in no small part to Bro, Heyer’s memory is living on in the fight against injustice.
A biracial schoolmate who remembered Heyer standing up for her on the school bus, started a GoFundMe campaign for the family that raised $225,000 in just a few days.
Bro didn’t know what to do with it all, says Alfred Wilson, the African-American lawyer who hired Heyer at Miller Law Group in Charlottesville. “What Susan said was, ‘Hey, I don’t want all this money, I shouldn’t be getting this money, what should we do with this?’ ”
So together they established the Heather Heyer Foundation to help fund college educations for people passionate about positive social change.” So far they've given out eight scholarships worth at least $1,000 (they partnered with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on several of those, providing a total of $5,000 to the students). They are working on creating a $5 million endowment and hope to be able to supply a $40,000 a year scholarship to a student within the next two years.
“Susan likes helping and likes doing things for other people, so I don’t think Heather would be surprised by her doing this,” says Mr. Wilson, though he adds that the understated Heyer might be “mortified” to see her name out there so much. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, look at me,’ she was more about, ‘I’m going to be there and I’m going to make a change.’ ”
Encounter with a Confederate supporter
Many of the same issues that drove Heyer to counterprotest are still present in Charlottesville a year later, Bro says, citing a lack of affordable housing and police traffic stops that disproportionately target people of color. Though the city council in January elected a new black mayor, Nikuyah Walker, she says Ms. Walker has hit roadblocks in her efforts to bring about significant change.
Bro, for her part, has sought to educate herself more about the African-American experience.
She recently participated in a pilgrimage taking dirt from the lynching site of John Henry James – killed by a mob in Charlottesville in 1898 – to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. There, the jar of dirt joined hundreds of other jars from lynching sites across the US. The group, about 100 strong, rode a bus through the South, stopping at civil rights landmarks and museums along the way.
“She told me that until now she didn’t realize what white privilege was,” says Wilson. “She told me, ‘Alfred, here you are, educated, two degrees, running a law firm, but I walk into the same store that you walk in, and they are going to follow you and not me. That is white privilege.’ ”
As Bro has learned more and taken on a more outspoken role, that’s led to some difficult conversations, including with family members, some of whom are Trump supporters. Bro declined to take a condolence call from the president after he decried the violence “on many sides” at last year’s rally, which many interpreted as assigning moral equivalence to white supremacists and the counterprotesters demonstrating against racism.
Some friends on Facebook have attacked her family members in online conversations, and she’s intervened.
“I try to give them a fair, balanced approach when I can,” she says. “I don’t always do a great job.”
She has also exercised restraint with strangers, including a man driving a truck with a Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate.
He was ahead of her in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, and she saw him look in his rearview mirror and recognize her. She made a conscious decision not to hate him. When Bro got to the window, she discovered he had paid for her meal.
“I think he’s probably one of the guys who believes in his heart of hearts that it’s all about history and not hate,” says Bro. “And some of those people are truly upset that Heather was killed.”
‘They just hate blindly’
Mr. Fields, the driver who killed Heyer, faces murder charges in a state trial slated to begin in November. And on June 27, a federal jury indicted him on 30 counts – including 29 of hate crime acts.
“The events of Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville are a grim reminder of why the FBI prioritizes its investigations of civil rights violations among the top of its criminal programs. I hope today will also be a reminder to those who are motivated by hate and intent on committing violence; we are going to be there, just as we were in this case,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Adam S. Lee, who oversees the office in Charlottesville, in a statement.
The following week, Fields – who says he is being treated for depression and other mental illnesses – pleaded not guilty. Bro, who attended his plea hearing, says “he’s very young, very messed up.”
As for white supremacist and white nationalist leaders, Bro says she doesn’t think they actually believe much of the vitriol they espouse against Jews and people of color. “I think it’s more about mind control of their followers.”
Jason Kessler, who organized last year’s rally, is planning an anniversary rally in Washington, DC. He had initially sought a permit to hold one in Charlottesville as well, but abruptly withdrew his request.
“Even if they don’t come, there might be the Confederate flaggers, or some of the other groups, that show up,” Bro speculates. But she’s not concerned about their words having any real power.
“They’re just mouthing phrases that don’t even make sense,” she says. “They just hate blindly, they don’t even really know why.”
Coauthoring a children’s book series
Meanwhile, there are mundane problems for Bro to solve, like what to do about the leaky roof of the trailer where she and her husband live.
While being Heyer’s mom may have put Bro in the national spotlight, it hasn’t made her rich. She still lives in the same trailer park she moved into in 1995, about half an hour outside Charlottesville. She and her husband have been gradually renovating their trailer over the past eight years and were nearly done when recent heavy rains found their way through the roof.
Just the other day, she got yet another bill for Heyer’s medical expenses, which have totaled more than $200,000. “I thought we were done with those,” says Bro, who used many of the donations she received to pay those bills. But the funds are running out as the one-year anniversary approaches.
Bro, who has made it her full-time job to carry on Heyer’s legacy, spends much of her time traveling around the country giving talks. She is also coauthoring a children’s series about empathy and empowerment.
There are several fundraisers coming up soon, and Bro is working with a California-based designer who has ties to Charlottesville to design T-shirts commemorating Heyer. Bro says she is grateful for those who have come forward to help with fundraising. But she adds that it can feel “weird” sometimes.
It also strikes her as strange that so much has been made about one white woman’s death, without recognition that so many people of color die untimely deaths on a regular basis – or struggle with oppression and fear.
“If Heather’s death has served to at least wake up the white community that they need to get involved,” says Bro, “I’m pushing that agenda.”
Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed reporting.