‘A white girl had to die for people to pay attention’: Heather Heyer’s mother on hate in the US

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

“I think what has happened with this administration, and with our country, is that finally this festering boil of hate has been lanced to reveal its full measure of infection, full measure of bitterness, full measure of disease,” she said. “Now we see how deep that disease runs, we have the chance to start working to heal it.”


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘A white girl had to die for people to pay attention’: Heather Heyer’s mother on hate in the US” was written by Lois Beckett in Charlottesville, Virginia, for The Observer on Sunday 1st October 2017 12.53 UTC

Recently, someone sent Susan Bro a T-shirt and a stack of bumper stickers that read “Just be nice”. She gave the shirt to her mother, who had always told her that: be nice. Bro has no interest in being nice, and she has no interest, just now, in forgiveness. Her 32-year-old daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed seven weeks ago when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nineteen other people were injured. The man charged with Heather’s murder was a 20-year-old from Ohio who had demonstrated that day alongside a white nationalist group and had, a former teacher recalled, a longstanding fascination with Hitler.

At Heather’s funeral, Bro refused to let any politicians speak. When it was her turn to address the crowd, “I could have driven it to hate and vengeance, and I could have driven it to understanding and love and forgiveness and sweetness and light. And neither of those was what I wanted to say.”

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” she said at the funeral. “Well, guess what: you just magnified her.”

After Donald Trump repeatedly blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, Bro announced on Good Morning America, “I’m not talking to the president. You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying I’m sorry.”

“Think before you speak,” she told the president of the United States.

‘I’m just a waitress’

Heather had been the kind of American who showed up often in articles about Trump’s political rise: the great-granddaughter of coalminers, she had grown up living in a trailer in rural Virginia, in a family that has “always, our entire lives, been on the bottom end of the middle class, with not much hope of rising above that”, Bro said. “To us, middle class is working class.”

Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, holds a photo of Bro’s mother and her daughter.
Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, holds a photo of Bro’s mother and her daughter. Photograph: Joshua Replogle/AP

The school Heather attended, where her mother also worked, was overwhelmingly white, only 4% black, 1% Hispanic and less than 1% other races, Bro recalls. Heather had struggled to graduate from high school and had never gone to college. She had lived at home with her mother, clashing with her frequently, into her early 20s, and then worked as a waitress and bartender, before getting a job in 2012 working with bankruptcy clients as a paralegal. Five years into this job, she had not yet fully accepted that she might have career success. When she made a typo, or when a law firm colleague’s college fraternity brother asked her out, she would say, reflexively, “I’m just a waitress.”

Heather had been afraid of what Trump’s political rise meant for America, and she had paid attention to him, long before her supervisor, a man who had studied political science, had taken him seriously. She was passionate about injustice, bristling when clients acted surprised or skeptical that the highly credentialed man running her bankruptcy division was black, and breaking down into tears of fury when a local sheriff’s office posted on Facebook about its public seminar on the “Muslim religion” called “Understanding the Threat.”

Bro’s idealistic daughter had been anxious about being out on the streets protesting the hundreds of racists assembled at the 12 August rally, but she had gone anyway. Before she was killed, Heather was walking with a group of friends from her office through the streets of gentrified Charlottesville as the crowd chanted, “Black lives matter.”

Earlier in the day, the town had descended into chaos, with white supremacists wearing helmets and shields fighting with anti-fascists in the streets, including spraying them with Mace. Counter-protesters hurled bottles of urine. A 20-year-old black Charlottesville resident was beaten with poles inside a parking garage. Officials declared a state of emergency and cleared the park that had been the center of the protest. But in the early afternoon, as a crowd of people protesting against the white supremacists walked down a narrow street, a gray Dodge Charger plowed into them, sending bodies flying into the air, and then reversed, dragging more people with it. People who witnessed the attack described screams of terror, the sound of bones breaking, and the instant conviction that this was a purposeful attack.

Charlottesville is a quaint, glossy, prosperous college town. The street where Heather was killed is around the corner from an Urban Outfitters, and just blocks away from the Let it Be yoga studio. Today, some white Charlottesville residents talk about the violent rally as something that opened their eyes and finally pushed them to have uncomfortable conversations about race. These kinds of discussions , they say, are important but difficult to begin. Heather’s mother, blunt and opinionated like her daughter, does not talk about racism this way, as if it were some kind of social faux pas.

An undated photo from the Facebook account of Heather Heyer.
An undated photo from the Facebook account of Heather Heyer. Photograph: Handout/Reuters

“I think it’s a damn shame that a white girl had to die for people to have to pay attention,” Bro said during a wide-ranging, three-hour interview in Charlottesville this week. “I think if a black girl had died, or a black man, [the reaction would have been] ‘Oh well, another person lost to violent protest.’”

Some white people have asked her why she let Heather go to the protest. This is a ridiculous question, Bro says: her daughter was 32 years old. “I’m glad she was there,” she added. “I’m very proud of her.”

Recently, Bro said, she had seen young black residents commenting on Facebook that they were worried that last Sunday’s benefit Concert for Charlottesville, which raised money for victims’ families and positive charities, would convince local residents that the response to the white supremacist attacks was done, that everyone could move on. She shares that fear.

“I think what has happened with this administration, and with our country, is that finally this festering boil of hate has been lanced to reveal its full measure of infection, full measure of bitterness, full measure of disease,” she said. “Now we see how deep that disease runs, we have the chance to start working to heal it.”

Bro is a cancer survivor, and when she talks about healing, she does not talk in pretty ways. “What I learned from my own surgery is that wounds cannot heal on the surface. You seal it over and it festers,” she said. “You have to heal from the inside out, and that requires keeping the wound open. That’s not a pleasant experience. That requires anaesthetic. That requires pain.”

‘This place is such a good place’

Charlottesville is still full of memorials to Heather. More than a month after her death, there are still fresh bouquets on the sidewalk where the attack took place, and chalk messages scrawled on the brick walls on both sides of the street: “Heyer Purpose.” “You magnified her.” “Love will prevail.” Restaurants and cafes in the posh downtown pedestrian mall display signs with Heather’s name in cursive inside a purple heart, along with placards warning patrons that if they don’t value diversity, they’re not welcome.

All of this – the word “diversity”, the pretty fonts – is sanitizing. It avoids much reckoning with the actual ideology of the neo-Nazi groups, much less how the attack on 12 August fits into in America’s broader history of white supremacist violence.

At the free benefit concert, Dave Matthews, whose rock band got its start in Charlottesville in the early 1990s, reminded a stadium of tens of thousands of local residents, many of them white, that their home is not just “the place where those Nazis came to town with their machine guns out, talking about hate”.

“This place is such a good place, and it’s so full of love, and it’s so full of hope,” Matthews said, to cheers.

Pharrell Williams took a knee at the concert, in a contribution to Trump’s culture war over athletes’ protests over police brutality. But other pop stars did not even make that much of a political statement. Justin Timberlake, who opened his set singing, “A Change is Gonna Come,” quickly segued into his top hits.

Pharrell performs with The Roots at A Concert for Charlottesville on 24 September 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Pharrell performs with the Roots at A Concert for Charlottesville on 24 September in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Alfred Wilson, Heather’s supervisor and friend at the Miller Law Group in Charlottesville, had brought his children and their friends to the concert. During the concert, a white couple behind them made a point of complimenting Wilson on how well-mannered and courteous his black children and their friends were –particularly his son and his friends, black teenagers who all went to private school.

Wilson told this story to Heather’s mother the next day in the conference room of the firm where he worked.

“I’m sorry – to me that’s a little irritating, that that even has to be commented on. Of course they are,” Bro broke in.

“It was,” Wilson agreed, wryly, although he had started the story in a positive vein. “It was a weird experience.”

“I guess it’s better for him to say that than to make assumptions otherwise. But the fact that the guy is surprised – that’s what irritating,” Bro sighed. “We’ve so far to go yet.”

When Bro first herself heard about “white privilege”, she had rejected the concept. “I was like, ‘I’m not privileged. I’m poor. I’ve struggled.’”

Over time, through conversations with black friends and with her daughter, it began to make sense to her – that for some people, racial profiling and harassment were not extraordinary events, but the norm, that “I have basic assumptions of safety, basic assumptions of trust that other people are not given.”

A memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlotesville, Virginia on 25 September 2017.
A memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlotesville, Virginia on 25 September. Photograph: Lois Beckett for the Guardian

Neo-Nazis and white nationalists often refer to the demographic shifts in America and elsewhere as “white genocide”. A much broader segment of Americans believe that whites, especially white males, now face significant discrimination, and that as they fall behind, women and other racial groups are being given unfair advantages. At the core of today’s far-right ideologies is the fear that white people are being “demographically displaced” in their own countries, and that when whites become a racial minority, they will suffer the same discrimination and disadvantage that has been visited on other racial minorities for centuries.

Heather’s experience had been precisely the opposite: her African American boss’s own experiences had made him uncommonly willing to lift other people up. Wilson had hired Heather and mentored her at the law firm despite her lack of on-paper qualifications. The reason he had made an effort to hire so many single mothers and women without traditional résumés, he explained, was because of his own mother’s example. She had gotten both of her children into top-tier universities on her salary as a cook. Only after he took a sociology class in college had he realized that he had actually grown up below the poverty line. His mother was smart and driven, and wanted to give other women the kinds of opportunities she had never been offered.

Wilson had trained Heather in bankruptcy rules, sent her to classes, told her to take charge of her job, ask for whatever resources she needed, and watched her soak in information like a sponge.

She and her boss had clashed frequently. But she had once broken up with a man she was dating because he had commented, after seeing her walk out of the office with Wilson, “You never told me you worked for a black man.”

“She cared enough for me as a person that she stood up for me even in her own personal relationships,” Wilson said in his speech at her funeral. “That took a lot of strength.”

Working as a paralegal with clients going into bankruptcy gave Heather an unexpectedly intimate look into the struggles of other Americans. Sometimes she was frustrated when couples making three or four times her salary were forced to declare bankruptcy, wondering why they could not simply control their spending, Wilson said. But she also grew adept at reading the narratives behind the financial statements – seeing the patterns that meant that a client had breast cancer, or that someone had a drug addiction.

Alfred Wilson, Heather Heyer’s boss at Miller Law Group, at his office on Monday.
Alfred Wilson, Heather Heyer’s boss at Miller Law Group, at his office on Monday. Photograph: Julia Rendleman for the Guardian

Before her death, Wilson had coaxed Heather into beginning to plan retirement savings accounts for herself, setting up a college fund for her niece, and making a plan to purchase her condo. These were small steps forward to trusting in her financial future. “Heather, you’re in different place now,” he told her. “I have faith in you.”

Bro buried her daughter in a private location, in a grave that does not even list her name. “I just wanted her left alone,” she said. Last Monday, Bro took Heather’s grandparents, her brother and his wife, and her young niece to visit the grave site together.

For the weeks after the attack, Bro had reminded herself that her daughter had most likely died quickly. It hurt her to think that “her last few seconds were fear and terror, which no mother wants for her child,” but, she said, “I was sadly accepting of that.”

At the concert in the stadium on Sunday, many people came up to talk to Bro. Among them, she said, beginning to cry at the memory, were three young black women. One of them said she had been walking alongside Heather the day of the protest, when Heather said “watch out” and pushed her. When the car rammed into the crowd, Heather had pushed her out of the way again, saving her. “I was very reassured,” her mother said. “At the very last second of her life … she wasn’t scared. She was in charge.”

‘She hated statues of any kind’

The rise of rightwing populism, in America and in Europe, has often been blamed on “economic anxiety” of working-class white voters. But many of the white men who have funded and led white nationalist organizing for decades have not had just college degrees, but degrees from leading universities – Yale, Brown, Chicago – and some have supported their racist agenda with their family wealth. Richard Spencer, the poster boy of the white nationalist “alt-right”, earned two degrees before he failed to finish a PhD program in intellectual history at Duke. William Regnery, Spencer’s backer at the generically named National Policy Institute, has poured his money into racist organizing for years. Some of the most active new white nationalists groups are attempting to focus their recruitment efforts on college campuses.

The rally of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville was not spontaneous. It was the culmination of months of planning and networking between different far-right groups, and of years of investment by Regnery and others.

A KKK demonstrator at Emancipation Parkin Charlottesville on 8 July 2017.
A KKK demonstrator at Emancipation Parkin Charlottesville on 8 July 2017. Photograph: Pat Jarrett for the Guardian

With the Heather Heyer Foundation, Bro is trying to make a different kind of investment, in a different kind of organizing. Wilson, Heather’s supervisor, had been relieved when he saw that a crowdfunding account for Heather’s family had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the days immediately after her death. He knew Heather had had no insurance, and the fundraising would give Bro, who was working as a bookkeeper and secretary, the money to pay for Heather’s funeral.

When they talked about how to handle the money, Wilson said, he had told Bro that “What Heather would want you to do is stop struggling in life.”

Bro is adamant that her daughter not be honored by having the park where the white nationalists demonstrated renamed after her. “Everyone who knows Heather knows that she hated statues of any kind,” she added.

Instead, she seized on Wilson’s mention of starting a foundation. For the past month, she has been crisscrossing the country, talking about her daughter’s legacy and raising awareness about her foundation, which will give scholarships to future educators, paralegals, social workers and others trying to advance peaceful social change. She announced the foundation at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, and last week accepted the 2017 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Social Justice that had been given posthumously to Heather. In Greece, anti-fascist protesters have put Heather’s face on posters and signs as they have demonstrated against Golden Dawn, a violent neo-Nazi political party that now has seats in the Greek parliament.

At her public events, people come up to Bro to vow that, following Heather’s example, they are going to take action. One Charlottesville local called Bro herself a “beacon of light”.

“Sometimes, I’m still baffled by it. I’m baffled by someone saying I’m so brave and so wonderful. What would you want me to do? This is who I am. I don’t know any other way to be,” Bro told me.

She attributes some of her strength to her family background. Though she was raised in the city, Heyer’s parents both came from coalmining families. “In my experience, being from mountain people, we are resilient and self-reliant – strong people.”

She has been surprised, as she has traveled across the country, how many people reach out to her not just to offer comfort, but to be comforted themselves. All kinds of people have shared their grief with her, but she has heard in particular from queer Americans, and from mixed-race couples and mixed-race children.

“I think we’ve got to have some difficult, very difficult conversations about people’s beliefs and their anger and their hurt and what it is they need fixed to feel right again,” she said.

“We’re not going to hug it out and be happy. That’s just not reality. But we can listen to one another.”

“People are listening to me right now, so I’m talking right now,” she said. “When they stop listening, I might shut up, I might not. I’m not good at shutting up.”

 

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.