It has been nearly a year since anti-racist activist Heather Heyer died in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacist James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators. As white supremacists plan to mark the first anniversary of Charlottesville by holding another “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., we speak with Heyer’s mother Susan Bro about Heather Heyer’s legacy and what activists can do to combat racism.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue to look back at last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the rally, a neo-Nazi named James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing 32-year-old anti-racist activist Heather Heyer. Nineteen other people were injured. Fields has since been charged with first-degree murder, as well as federal hate crimes.
We’re now joined by Heather’s mother, Susan Bro. She joins us from Charlottesville and joins A.C. Thompson, as well, who did the documentary premiering tonight on PBS Frontline.
Susan, it’s a year later, but it’s my first time to offer you my condolences, the whole family at Democracy Now!’s condolences, on the death of your daughter Heather.
SUSAN BRO: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: So it has been a year since August 12th, when you lost your daughter. Talk about why Heather was out there on August 12th last year, one of those who were protesting the white supremacist rally.
SUSAN BRO: Heather always believed, and acted on her beliefs, that equality was for all people, that if anybody is marginalized in the human race, then we all are. So, when her friends, who were African-American, were going to be at the rally, they said, “Come with us.” And at first she was like, “No, I think I’ll stay away.” And then she saw where her friend Courtney had live-streamed the events of Friday night. And she said, “I have to go.” And her friend tried to talk her out of it. And she said, “I know it’s dangerous. I could die. But I have to be there.” And, of course, when we say things like that, we don’t really think we’re going to die, but she was there to support her friends.
And the group that she was with deliberately stayed away from the fighting all day. Wherever they saw fights, they turned away. And she was with a very large group of counterprotesters. She personally didn’t even carry any signs. She just had her cigarettes, her lighter, her keys and her phone with her. She had parked her car nearby. And she was dressed to go to work as a waitress later. She had her hair back in a long braid, and she had on her black shirt and black top that she would wear to waitress. And she thought it was going to be just a day of walking the streets, you know, shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” And they had done that all day long.
From what I understand from Marcus and Marissa, her friends, they thought the Nazis were all leaving. Everybody was kind of relaxed and happy as they are coming back onto the barricaded mall. And they were going to get some food and some water. It was a really hot day. And that’s when Mr. Fields chose to drive his car into the crowd.
AMY GOODMAN: And he hit your daughter.
SUSAN BRO: Yes, he did. Hit a lot of other people.
AMY GOODMAN: Injured her friends.
SUSAN BRO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I just recently saw pictures of the wedding you were at of her dear friends, made famous because her friend, his feet up in the air as he was just upended by this car.
SUSAN BRO: His leg was shattered.
AMY GOODMAN: As he was pushing his partner away from the car, trying to save her life.
SUSAN BRO: Right. He told me he reached for Heather. He couldn’t get to her, but he at least knocked Marissa out of the way. And I said, “Honey, it’s OK.” And he still cries about that to this day. He’s so frustrated and angry about that. It is what it is, and we move forward. You know, I can’t be consumed by grief to where I can’t function. I have to move forward.
So, my life now revolves around not only have I picked up Heather’s baton and I’m running with it, but I’m also passing it off to as many people as I possibly can. They tried to silence my daughter, one voice. You don’t get to do that. I said at her funeral, you just magnified her, because not only am I going to speak up and speak louder, but I’m going to make sure lots of other people speak up, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan, did you think of Heather as an activist?
SUSAN BRO: She was a quiet activist. She was very passionate about her beliefs, but she was only passionate in small groups, in one-on-one conversations and in small family groups or on Facebook. That was her method of changing people’s hearts and minds. And what she would do was what she was actually taped doing that day. She walked up to one of the girls as the neo-Nazis were leaving, a girl in a black helmet, and she said, “Talk to me about why you’re here. Why do you feel this way? What made you want to come? Why do you hate people? Can you talk to me about it? Can you explain to me?” and, you know, tried to be gently pulling the girl out of her belief system to talk to her. All the girl would say to her was “No comment. No comment,” because that’s what they’re trained to do. But that was Heather’s method of converting people, was talking one on one.
AMY GOODMAN: Heather’s last message on Facebook, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Heather also worked to help people going into bankruptcy. Is that right, Susan?
SUSAN BRO: Yes. One press article mistakenly put that she did that to help the poor, and somebody told me they got that from the website. We’ll get that changed. Not only poor people file for bankruptcy. Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy many times. I don’t think he actually came to Heather for help. But a lot of people file for bankruptcy. But she was the bankruptcy intake person. She handled every single file that came through the office.
And after she died, thousands of people, over the course of the last year, have come to me and said, “Well, I knew Heather.” And I say, “How did you know her?” And sometimes they’ll say they knew her as a bartender or a waitress, but sometimes, more often than not, they’ll say they met her at Miller Law Group and that she was a person who made them feel comfortable, at ease. Many times she would help people figure out how they didn’t have to even file for bankruptcy, so they never actually became a client, because Heather could help them figure out what they needed to do to save their car or save their house and get themselves back on track. So I was very proud of that as a mother, but I never knew any of that until after she was gone.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to an interview that A.C. Thompson did with Democrat Mike Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, for the documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.
MICHAEL SIGNER: Groups that previously had been stuck in the shadows and at the margins and at the extremes were brought into the mainstream, and that’s why they felt welcome to try and “unite the right” in Charlottesville. At the end of the day, it’s a city of, you know, just under 50,000 people, and we were – we were in this – we were this target for forces much bigger than us.
A.C. THOMPSON: I saw you that night over at the county government headquarters, and you looked stricken.
MICHAEL SIGNER: “Stricken” is not a bad word for it. I wish that we had known more. I wish that we had been given more information by the state intelligence apparatus.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did they say anything like, “Hey, these guys are going to come with clubs. They’re going to come with pepper spray. They’re going to come with, you know, implements of violence”?
MICHAEL SIGNER: No. We had one briefing with three members of the Virginia State Police who came and talked to us on City Council. They did not present us with any evidence of a credible threat.
A.C. THOMPSON: As I understand it, about 10 people altogether have been prosecuted from those days. Does that sound accurate to you?
MICHAEL SIGNER: It sounds like it should be a lot higher.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Mike Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville. Since then, Nikuyah Walker has been elected, the first African-American woman mayor of Charlottesville. The “Unite the Right” rally certainly might have helped her in her bid, as she challenged the establishment. Her theme was “unmasking the illusion.” But I wanted to bring this into the conversation with you, Susan and A.C. – A.C., starting with you, do you think the response of Donald Trump, before and after, how the Trump administration is dealing with white supremacy, left the Charlottesville establishment flat-footed before?
A.C. THOMPSON: What do you mean?
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning that they weren’t prepared and that they didn’t feel they were properly briefed, that they didn’t understand who these people were.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, it’s a really interesting thing, because our understanding is this, is that the federal intelligence agencies and the federal law enforcement agencies compiled research on these groups and that they had intelligence on these groups. And now, our sort of question is: Why did that not reach the local authorities? Why did that not reach the City Council? And what happened between the federal government compiling research, the state police fusion center and the state police compiling research and intelligence, and the local police compiling intelligence, that leads to somehow folks thinking that nothing bad is going to happen that day?
AMY GOODMAN: Susan Bro, who do you hold responsible, in addition to James Alex Fields, who has been charged with first-degree murder, for the death of Heather?
SUSAN BRO: Oh, well, it’s a very complex issue, a lot of mistrust in all the wrong places. My understanding is that local efforts of investigation were focused on the local activists, the local anti-racist activists, and not on outside forces coming in or even the inside forces who were already here in place. Jason Kessler is one of Charlottesville’s own. He also graduated from UVA. So, my understanding –
AMY GOODMAN: One of the organizers of the rally, and Richard Spencer.
SUSAN BRO: Right. And my understanding is that Southern Poverty Law Center had issued warnings, but they were not being heeded. I think that many people thought, as I did, that basically the “alt-not-right” and the not-so-new Nazis are basically buffoons and idiots, and didn’t really take them seriously. From what I have seen and observed since then is that they generally will try to present themselves as so outrageous that nobody will take them seriously. They will come with a serious intent, but they generally will attack, if they’re going to most likely try a lethal attack, as people are relaxing, when people are letting down their guard, saying, “Oh, they’re leaving. Oh, they’re going now.” I know in Florida they actually had members get into an altercation where they were firing a gun at people at a bus stop, as rally participants from both sides were leaving. It seems to be a pattern. This is what they did in Charlottesville, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it a question, A.C., of poor policing or perhaps protecting white supremacists? For example, what happened last weekend in Berkeley, California. The police arrested the anti-fascist protesters, not the white supremacists, posted their names, their photos online. They haven’t even been convicted.
A.C. THOMPSON: No, I don’t think it was – I don’t think it was that sort of thing, where the police were protecting one side or the other. I think the police essentially –
AMY GOODMAN: In Charlottesville.
A.C. THOMPSON: In Charlottesville. I think the police in Charlottesville essentially abdicated their responsibility almost entirely, on both –
AMY GOODMAN: You were going up to them, saying, “What are you doing?”
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right, because, look, we have had 50 years of, I would say, violent resistance against the Klan, against Nazis, against all these white supremacist groups. They come to the streets, and they will meet heavy resistance. You know that. And so, if you’re law enforcement, you know the thing that I need to do is keep these two groups separated and make sure that people don’t bring clubs, weapons, other sort of things that they’re going to attack each other with. It’s not that hard.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. Susan Bro, what do you want us to remember about Heather as we move into this next weekend, the anniversary of her death, another “Unite the Right” rally, this time in Washington, D.C.?
SUSAN BRO: What I want you to remember is that everyone needs to stand up against hate. Everyone needs to pick up that baton. If you need information on how to do that, contact me at the Heather Heyer Foundation, and I will help you find ways to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, she now runs the Heather Heyer Foundation. And A.C. Thompson, correspondant for Frontline PBS, reporter for ProPublica, his investigation, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, the documentary, premieres tonight on PBS stations around the country.
And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! has a job opening for a broadcast engineer. Check the website, democracynow.org.