Susan Bro has not been silent since a car driven by a neo-Nazi sympathizer plowed down her daughter one year ago.
Instead, Bro has used the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer as a call to remember not just her daughter but all the people who were injured and died during and after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12, 2017.
“Please remember not to think only of Heather, but why she was here,” Bro said Sunday, on the anniversary of her daughter’s death. “She was for equality. The Golden Rule still applies.”
Bro placed a bouquet of flowers near the spot where Heyer died. She also placed two roses for a pair of Virginia State Troopers — Berke Bates and Jay Cullen — who died when the helicopter they were using to monitor the rally crashed that afternoon.
“I can’t forget about them,” Bro said. “I’m really grateful for those troopers.”
Heyer’s death has become the very public symbol of what went wrong during “Unite the Right” a year ago today. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and their sympathizers overran downtown Charlottesville. Heyer, standing with a group of counter-protesters at the bottom of a hill on 4th Street, died after being hit by a car driven into the crowd. A 21-year-old Ohio man stands charged with murder and federal hate crimes stemming from the incident.
As a reminder of just how badly things went in 2017, police in helmets with shields and bulletproof vests encircled downtown, restricting access to two entrances all weekend where bags were searched and anything that could be used as a weapon was confiscated after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in advance of the anniversary weekend.
The spot where the car struck Heyer at 1:42 p.m. that day has become a public shrine and a place for people to express grief and sorrow and to leave a vow to never let another day like that happen again. Multicolored chalk messages such as “Gone but not forgotten,” “Love from Portland,” and "Honoring you today Heather xoxo” create a rainbow of words and thoughts about what happened.
That’s where Bro stood, surrounded by Black Lives Matter activists, television cameras and the just curious.
When a Black Lives Matter activist called for others to raise their hands to block the view of television cameras, Bro put a stop to the visual blockade.
“I’m okay,” she said. “You can put your hands down.”
What Bro had to say she wanted heard by as many as possible.
Her voice occasionally cracking, Bro talked about Heyer and her efforts to oppose the racists who last year invaded the city of 48,000, which is tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. She asked the public to help those still injured and suffering after last year’s rally. She asked people to help others — something that happened on a small scale as she spoke. Activists were handing out free bottles of water to people at the memorial dealing with temperatures in the mid-80s and humidity over 80 percent.
At times, Bro looked the part of a grieving mother who outlived her daughter, her voice fading in and out as she occasionally leaned on a friend. In other moments, she was a woman determined not to let her daughter’s death — and the sacrifices of others that day — be forgotten.
Taking a cellphone from a friend, Bro played Wiz Khalifa’s song “See You Again” — a favorite of Heyer’s — as parts of the crowd sang along, although she skipped the parts where Khalifa rapped.
“You don’t want to hear me rap,” Bro laughed to the crowd.
Bro returned to the two slain troopers, thanking them for catching Fields on video and helping capture Fields shortly after Heyer’s death.
“They got the footage that helped track him down,” Bro said. “He was going to make his way to the highway and be gone.”
When she was done talking after more than 10 minutes, Bro didn’t fade from the memorial. Instead, she chatted with well-wishers, exchanged hugs with dozens of people and thanked friends for their efforts.
Before leaving, Bro looked around and told friends she would be back next year but hoped it would be less of an occasion. She hoped the people her daughter opposed would be less significant by then.