“Open season”: Heather Heyer’s mother slams new laws giving immunity to drivers who hit protesters

“Since when do we allow the public to become judge, jury and executioner?”

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

Many of the anti-protest laws pushed by Republicans include measures that provide civil or criminal immunity to drivers who hit demonstrators with their vehicles. A pending Oklahoma measure would offer both. “It’s declaring open season,” says Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed in 2017 when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. “Since when do we allow the public to become judge, jury and executioner? Because that’s what this amounts to: Let’s go hunt protesters.”


AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I want to bring into this conversation right now Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was tragically killed in 2017 when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the one where all those white supremacists marched chanting “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us.” Well, Susan Bro is the president and board chair of the Heather Heyer Foundation. She’s joining us from Ruckersville, Virginia.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Susan. It’s so good to have you back —

SUSAN BRO: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — unfortunately, under these circumstances, talking about granting immunity to drivers, sometimes just civil, other times civil and criminal immunity to drivers who plow into crowds or run over protesters — well, presumably, like your daughter Heather. Can you respond to this, Susan?

SUSAN BRO: Well, it’s declaring open season. It’s a hunting license, is what it basically is. And as I’ve said on other shows, what’s next? Baseball bats? Guns? You know, what kind of weapons of mass destruction are they willing to allow?

This is blatantly a violation of First Amendment rights of people to protest. I would almost go so far as to say people who get jailed for protesting peacefully, especially, are political prisoners. If you’ve got people facing felony charges, they’re mandatory overnight, without bail, held until trial, and then looking at five to 15 years for protesting, that sounds almost like political prisoners, really.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you take us back to 2017, to this time of the protest, when your daughter Heather decided to go out? She didn’t often go outside and get involved with protests, but this time she did. Can you talk about why she did? And then, what happened to her? I hate to take you through this, but it’s so important for people to —

SUSAN BRO: I go through it every single day.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s so important, now that it’s being raised again all over the country to defend the motorists who do this. Now, in this case, the killer was charged with murder, the white supremacist who plowed into the crowd. But tell us what happened, why Heather decided to go outside.

SUSAN BRO: She had seen footage of the tiki torch march the night before. Her friends were there and had live-streamed it. She saw that, and she said, “I have to go. I have to go stand in support.”

Now, she was a lover, not a fighter. She was not interested in being involved in any of the violence or the face-to-face clashes. She and a great many other people were on the opposite side of the downtown pedestrian mall and stayed away from the violence and were actually returning to the downtown mall, because the rally had been disbanded. People had left. She had actually stopped in the parking lot and tried to engage one of the young women in conversation on the way back, and the young woman just kept saying, “No comment. No comment.” And they were relaxed. They were chanting. They were singing. It was a jubilant mood, from the videos that I’ve seen.

And he sat at the top of the hill with no one around him. He obviously had a way to get back out of there, even though the way forward had been barricaded on one side, because he quickly exited once he attacked the crowd. Thirty-five people were injured. And yeah, I originally said, under the new laws, this would not have applied, but after hearing further definition, I don’t know. They maybe would have tried to apply this law to him.

AMY GOODMAN: You have that famous photograph of the moment of impact, with the protesters, some of them, hurled into the air.

SUSAN BRO: Heather’s friends were hurled into the air. The young gentleman whose shoe was seen dangling from the front bumper of the car as he retreats was Heather’s friend.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcus Martin.

SUSAN BRO: He was — Marcus Martin. He was two people behind her. He reached and moved Marissa out of the way. He said to me —

AMY GOODMAN: His fiancée.

SUSAN BRO: — he’s cried over and over that he could not get to Heather. And I’ve just said, “Marcus, you can’t help that.” I have a photograph of the split second before he hits Heather. I have seen footage of him hitting Heather, but my brain will not absorb it, even now. And to say that that is not criminal, that that is not an offense — since when do we allow the public to become judge, jury and executioner? Because that’s what this amounts to: Let’s go hunt protesters.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan, what do you think is driving this?

SUSAN BRO: Politics.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me bring Nick Robinson back into this conversation. The fact that so many dozens of bills are being introduced at once, a number in many states — and when we’re talking about these motorists, we also are talking about police officers. I mean, there have been about a hundred motorists running over protesters in the last months, but if you can talk about, in several cases, police having used their cars as weapons against protesters, like in Detroit in June, an officer driving his police SUV through a crowd, sending protesters flying? Two New York police officers did likewise at a Black Lives Matter protest, May in 2020. Nick?

NICK ROBINSON: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. And we’ve also seen police circulating on social media pictures of drivers hitting protesters, seemingly encouraging drivers to run into protesters or to hit protesters with their car. And this is — you know, it’s just criminal. And we not only see this as a problem, but we see a number of bills being introduced that would strengthen “stand your ground” laws and apply them anytime that people can show that there’s a, quote-unquote, “riot” occurring. So, this applies in the Florida bill that just passed, or in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi. So, again, the ability to use deadly force against protesters, and, you know, this part of a larger movement by politicians that are introducing these bills, that are trying to paint all protesters as rioters, and particularly all Black Lives Matter protesters as rioters.


AMY GOODMAN: And how do they make the distinction between Black Lives Matter protesters and insurrectionists, like the domestic terrorists in Washington, D.C., overrunning the Capitol, beating police officers, for example? How do they make that distinction so they don’t hold them accountable?

NICK ROBINSON: Yeah, so, I think there are — the assumption here is these are kind of “back the blue” bills often. So they’re often passed with a whole number of provisions that would do things like stop the defunding of local police departments, and so they’re seen as supporting the police. And so, I think they view them as being applied by the police in a certain type of way, right? This is incredibly subjective standards about what’s a quote-unquote, “riot.” And so, when you have that standard, the real concern is that if you have police that seems to be having certain ideological predilections, that they’ll be applied in one way against certain kinds of protesters and in a different way against other kinds of protesters.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to give Susan the last word. Susan Bro, what do you say to the mothers of this country? What do you say to people who want to go out in the streets, like Heather did as she protested fascism and white supremacy three years ago?

SUSAN BRO: Well, obviously, the protests then were not enough. I guess we need more. But we’re going have to be strategic. I think there’s going have to be a lot of legal work done. But, unfortunately, the courts are packed conservatively right now. I don’t know how this is going to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, again, our condolences. I want to thank you, Susan Bro, for joining us today, mother of Heather Heyer, president of the Heather Heyer Foundation. Her daughter was run over by a white supremacist at the white supremacist march that took place over the weekend at the University of Virginia in the streets of Charlottesville. And Nick Robinson, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

When we come back, President Biden acknowledges the Armenian genocide. Stay with us.


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.