Heather Heyer’s mom wants America to remember Charlottesville, and wake up to fascism
The Daily Beast
August 13, 2022
In a candid interview to mark the fifth anniversary of Heather Heyer’s death, her mom Susan Bro talks about the ascent of white supremacy, grief, and her resolve to fight bigotry.
Sometimes Susan Bro sits in her car near Heather Heyer Way, the street in Charlottesville, Virginia, named in honor of her daughter. “I blow kisses to her, have a snack. I say I am eating my lunch with her,” Bro told The Daily Beast.
On Friday—five years to the day that Heyer, 32, was murdered by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr.—Bro was planning to go to the site where her daughter was struck by Fields’ car, as near to the time it happened on Aug. 12, 2017. While she has been to the street, or driven by it, many times before, this would be the first time Bro has visited the location—on Fourth Street, between Market and Water Streets—on the actual anniversary of her daughter’s death.
Heyer was killed when Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into a group of anti-Nazi and anti-white supremacist protesters—Heyer among them—who had gathered to raise their voices against the white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, neo-Nazis and various militias who had descended on Charlottesville for a Unite the Right rally, organized by Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler.
The images of a far-right march held the night before, with anti-Semitic chanting and flaming tiki torches, and of the aftermath of the carnage Fields caused remain starkly notorious. Over 30 other people were injured by Fields’ car. In July 2019, he was sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison on state charges.
Then-president Donald Trump blamed “many sides” for the Charlottesville violence, and said there “very fine people” on both of those sides. After seeing these remarks, Bro would not take his calls, and told The Daily Beast she had “thankfully” never heard from him in the days, months, and years since. She won plaudits for speaking so powerfully at her daughter’s memorial service, delivering a fully rounded vision of Heyer’s life, where she also stated: “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what, you just magnified her.”
Five years on, Bro remains president of the Heather Heyer Foundation, dedicated to “creating positive social change,” sharing Heyer’s motto: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
For Bro, Charlottesville “was the opening act” for the advance of white supremacy and fascism she sees “in full bloom” in the America of today. “We are definitely in a position of more confrontation, it’s full-on now,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s not only blossoming outward in extremism, but it’s also trying to take root in more mainstream ways through government offices, through policy, through gerrymandering, through ‘voting un-rights’ as I call it, not ‘voting rights.’ There is a huge effort to not just take us backwards but sideways from where we need to go. It has all definitely expanded from what happened in Charlottesville. That should have made the public pay attention.”
Bro insists she tries “not to be partisan,” but that these efforts are being spearheaded by Republican state legislators and politicians. “I am never pessimistic, always optimistic. We can make a difference. But I am also sending out a clarion call to pay attention to the mid-terms, government elections, state representative elections, anything that elects people to positions of power like secretaries of state, and anyone who controls election outcomes in states, who can heavily influence how presidential elections are counted.
“There are those in the Republican party who have loudly and clearly declared they are going after those positions so they can control the outcome of elections’ certifications. That’s a threat to democracy. I’m not a fan of the two-party system. I would rather see ranked voting. But this is the system we have and we have to work in it. It’s very alarming to me.”
Bro is “hopeful” President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Democratic Party more generally can counter the far-right ascendancy. “I am sure those activists would like to push a little harder or faster for change to happen,” Bro said. “I look at the history of Nazi Germany and kind of hold my breath—well, not holding my breath, I am yelling. There are certain similarities between then and 2016 that a lot of us have been pointing out since 2016.”
As far as the 2024 presidential election goes, Bro said, “It would be nice to see someone other than an older white male to vote for.”
Biden called Bro after he had mentioned Heyer’s name in a 2019 campaign video. “That was fine by me. Her name is symbolic of a national issue. When he did call me I happened to be driving past where Heather used to live. That was symbolic as well, as if Heather was saying, ‘Talk.’ It’s OK with me as long as her name is being used for good.”
Bro welcomed the passing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act last year, which was amended to include the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act of 2019. Bro went to the White House for the act’s signing into law, and she says Biden said “something like, ‘Susan, I kept my promise and used her name for good.’” (Jabara was shot and killed by his Tulsa, Oklahoma neighbor Stanley Majors in 2016; Majors, found guilty of first-degree murder and a hate crime, was sentenced to life in jail without parole and died in jail in 2018, six months after beginning his jail term.)
Grief, as for many of those who have lost those dear to them, has not been linear for Bro. This week, she said, in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of Heyer’s death, had been “busy and positive. I was hoping to sail through it, but…”
She stopped, her voice clotting. “Grief hits, and all of a sudden I’m not fine. It happens less often, and comes in waves. I think of Heather with fondness. I think of all the funny things about her and happy memories. But every so often it slams me. I have to stop and catch my breath.” She paused again. “I used to have a little girl,” Bro said quietly. “I have stepdaughters, other family members, lots of adopted kids, but none of them are her.”
“She feels present to me constantly,” said Bro of her daughter, noting just this morning someone at the memorial site on Fourth Street had sent her a message, saying Heyer had told her to send it. “Yes, that sounds about right. When I speak to Heather now, it’s conversational. She’s not the same exact person she was when she was alive, but she is still definitely her. Heather is everywhere. I’m sure she’s there with some of them. I’m sure she’s here with me.”
Friday’s heat and sunlight may make her dizzy at the memorial site, she thought. “I won’t be there long, but you know what—neither was Heather,” Bro said. She hopes, if they are there, to connect with others who were injured that day. “We focus on Heather, but so many people are still suffering physically and emotionally. Some still have horrible nightmares of that attack.”
“I’m trying to weave a new life”
Bro and Heyer’s last actual conversation was by Messenger, Bro told this reporter when we first met in 2017.
“Hey, were you born in ’56, and what’s your social. I’m setting up an IRA with work and I have to name a beneficiary,” Heyer messaged her mom, who passed along her information as requested.
“But stay alive,” Bro added.
Heyer replied, “lolol, I’ll try thanks.”
“I’d rather have you than the money,” her mother replied.
“Then she said ‘lol,’ and we sent the love emoticon to each other,” Bro said quietly. “And that was the last conversation I had with my kid.”
In her 2017 interview, Bro recalled reaching the hospital. “I knew she was dead. I kept saying to the hospital people, ‘Thank you. I know you did your best. I’m proud of how she died.’ And that’s the only thing I could think of to get me through it. I remember shaking hands with people, and people saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I’d say again, ‘Thank you. I know you did your best. I’m proud of how she died.’ My brain was locked up, it was all I could say.”
Then she went to the funeral home. “I felt a calm come over me. When I saw her, her face and head were kind of messed up. I knew it was her but her arm, her left arm, I recognized more specifically. We had the same arm, she had longer fingers. It was bruised, it had a lot of bruises on it. But I held her hand, and I said, ‘I’m going to make this good for you. I’m going to make this count for something.’”
In our 2017 interview, Bro said the National Institutes of Health called two days after her daughter died to ask if they could have Heyer’s brain for research.
Bro gave her consent (“it’s not like she could use it”). A NIH representative called back shortly afterward to say “never mind,” Bro says. “The medical examiner said it was not usable.” She pauses. “That tells me there was brain damage. When I saw her, her long beautiful hair was not visible. I’m guessing it had been cut off. She had a shower cap on, her forehead had a huge lump across it, her teeth didn’t quite look like in the right place to me, and she had a hospital gown on, and I saw her arm and that’s all I saw of her. I don’t remember if she was in a body bag or covered in a sheet.”
Anniversaries of her daughter’s death are always tough, Bro said when we spoke today. She is friends with others who have lost a child to a hate crime, like the families of James Byrd, Mathew Shepard, and Khalid Jabara. “It’s a tough day, but we know it’s coming. I started getting knots in my stomach at the beginning of August.”
But there had been visits from family, and a friend had gifted Bro “a bunch of garden produce, so I’m suddenly making pickle relish and canning it, and canning peaches. I’m just trying to weave a new life, trying to pick up the threads of my old life before Heather was killed and weave them in with the new activist me, and find a new space for myself.”
Bro revealed she had come close to death herself, having suffered heart attacks in January. She has had a stent inserted (“It’s doing well so far, touch wood, there was a 99% blockage of the main artery”), and finished 12 weeks of cardio rehab, three times a week. She also contracted COVID a year ago, leaving her with permanent lung scarring and a gravelly voice. Now she is going to the gym regularly, and determined to live.
“I feel like I had the choice to stay or go,” Bro said of bring critically ill. “I chose to stay, but know that things have to change so I am cutting back on anything that causes me stress.” She has found an inhaler that has helped her to breathe more comfortably. “It’s been a pretty tough road. I could hardly walk 10 feet before I had to stop and catch my breath,” Bro said. “Mostly retired,” she is still working hard on her campaigning, speaking out, and using Heather’s memory to, she hopes, create awareness and change.
“My dad says, ‘Can you just stop now, can you just sit back?’ I say, ‘No.’” Bro laughed. “Like it or not, whether it was my choice or not, I was handed a platform. If I have a platform, then I have a responsibility to make use of that platform in a way to effect positive change. If I am not doing that I am answerable to my higher powers. It was kind of ironic he said that. He was the one who taught me that you take your responsibilities seriously, and that we all have a responsibility to mankind.” Bro laughed. “I was pretty pissed off when I got off the phone, but my husband Kim said, ‘He just loves you. He’s just worried.’ And he’s right.”
A sugar monitor helps monitor Bro’s diabetes. She has lost over 30 pounds in weight, though notes she may have put five pounds back on in this stressful and emotional anniversary week. “It’s back to the gym, back to reality, next week.”
“I am a born talker, and a born fighter”
In 2019, Bro launched a $12 million wrongful death lawsuit against Fields. “My lawyer contacted me recently, as he had to renew the motion,” Bro told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know anything about the court process. I am learning as I live through it. It’s one of those things that will drag out forever. It will never bring any money. I don’t know if it does any good. It’s more symbolic than anything else—one to deter others from doing similar things; and one to deter him to try and make money off the crime he committed.”
Bro said that the 2021 federal civil trial focusing on what happened in 2017 revealed that Fields “did what he did as part of a group planning situation. I could sort of wrap my head around if it was an impulsive thing. It would make me angry, but what makes me really angry is that this was planned really well, ahead of time with the intention of killing a bunch of people. In his mind, he failed because he only killed one person. It was intended as mass murder.”
Fields was justly punished for his crime, said Bro; she only wishes justice had been meted out to those who had helped him plan what he did. The civil trial found Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell, and other white supremacists and neo-Nazis liable of engaging in a conspiracy ahead of the Unite the Right rally in 2017, ordering them to pay the nine plaintiffs who brought the case $25 million.
In 2017, Bro told this reporter she had had to keep the location of Heyer’s grave, containing her ashes, a secret, because of death and other violent threats from neo-Nazis. “It’s a symptom of hate in society that you should have to protect your child’s grave, for Pete’s sake,” Bro said in 2017. “So, I’m protecting my child now.”
“It’s still hidden. I don’t go very often,” Bro said today. “I tend to go down to the memorial. I always thought maybe I was being paranoid, maybe I was over-reacting. But having talked to Mathew Shepard’s family and James Byrd’s family, and so many others—those grave sites had been frequently desecrated.
In the months after Heyer’s death, Bro told this reporter in 2017, hate-mongers had not just targeted Heyer herself, but Bro. They told Bro that her daughter deserved to die, that she was fat, that the blunt-force injury to the chest recorded as her cause of death was a CPR machine, not Fields’ car. Bro’s life has been threatened, too. “It’s kind of stupid,” Bro said at the time. “You threaten the mother of someone you already killed because she dares to speak up.”
Today, Bro receives threats “not too often,” she told The Daily Beast. “There was a credible ‘something’ brought to my attention by local source a year or two ago about someone who apparently had me on a hitlist. The irony is when I looked him up on Facebook, I said, ‘Oh my god. I saw him in the grocery store a few weeks ago,’ because the FBI has taught us to scan the crowd when in public. I noticed when I looked at this guy he flinched. That caught my attention, and I had no further interaction with him. But at the time, I thought, ‘Oh I know he knows who I am.’”
Bro is not cowed by threats, or other hateful rhetoric. Advocacy and activism remains central to her life. “I have never been quiet. I always talk, always have done ever since I was at nursery. ‘Susan, go sit down and be quiet,’ I would be told. I was relieved when I got to middle and high schools, so my report cards no longer said, ‘Talks too much.’ I am a born talker, and a born fighter. I have a stubborn streak a mile wide. This is who I am. I am not going to go quietly into that dark night. I’m going to speak up and say ‘I don’t like this and here’s why.’”
Bro emphasizes that she doesn’t live or work in Charlottesville, and doesn’t have anything to say about how the city has changed or not since 2017, though its local government seems to have “huge personnel issues, and is a tremendous hot mess.”
She also does not criticize local law enforcement, though said, “I’m sure there was always fear of a lawsuit, even though I said I was not going to sue. The Heaphy report (of December 2017, led by former US attorney Tim Heaphy into police actions that weekend) laid out pretty clearly who did and didn’t do what they should have done. Some resigned, others moved to other positions, some were replaced. It’s a work in progress. Everything takes time unfortunately.”
Heyer’s death brought a huge amount of public attention, and Bro’s life changed—especially after the public response to her powerful funeral oration. “I come from a part of America where a sermon is part of the funeral. I am not religious. Neither was Heather. I wasn’t interested in having a religious service. But I did feel it was appropriate at Heather’s funeral to remind others, ‘You too can do the right thing.’ We don’t all need to die, but we do need to stand up and make a difference.
“I thought that speech would be the last time I would address a big audience.” Bro laughed. “Little did I know. I have been a fighter for women’s rights and human rights. I was going to be a fighter for disability rights, but then my daughter was killed. I used to be a schoolteacher so talking comes naturally to me, as does taking in information, processing and explaining it.”
Heyer’s motto, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” still applies, said Bro. “That attention needs to be focused on whatever you see that needs attention—whether it’s people who are starving, homeless, or who have no medical care, environmental issues. And vote. Research the candidates and issues. Everyone has talent and ability, and a responsibility to make the world a better place. As Muhammad Ali said, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ So, look around, pick something, and get busy.”
Bro thinks about her daughter every day. “Oh my god, yeah. When you love someone and they die you don’t stop loving them, or thinking about them: ‘Oh, she would have liked this, or laughed about that, oh, remember when she did this.’ I see a little girl wearing a sunsuit and remember when she was 3 and loved wearing sunsuits. Sometimes this can become a little obsessive, like when I drive through Charlottesville and say, ‘Oh, we went shopping there,’ ‘Oh, she danced there.’ I have to cut that off, and remind myself that I have other kids. Heather wouldn’t necessarily approach things the same way as me. We wouldn’t have identical beliefs on things, but I think she would appreciate the use I have made use of the opportunities given to me.”
Her recent illnesses have made Bro aware of her own mortality and legacy. “That conveyor belt, the end of it, is a little closer than it was. I know I am going to drop off it at some point. That’s all the more reason to do this as much as I can. One of my grandmothers had dementia, one had Alzheimer’s, so I acknowledge my mind might leave before my body, but as long as I can I will work. It’s extremely important to me, because that’s who I am. That’s what we do. We’re called for purpose. We have a reason for being.”