CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Susan Bro wants you to take her murdered daughter off a pedestal. Bro doesn’t want to be lionized or elevated to that spot, either.
Three years after the Unite the Right rally unleashed an infamous invasion of far-right fervor upon Charlottesville, Bro wants her daughter, Heather Heyer, to fade from the wraith of memory defining that day.
“I'm well aware that talking about Heather, a lot, actually puts a white savior complex on Charlottesville,” Bro said, standing on a street renamed for her daughter. “Charlottesville was not about Heather. She was here that day for the issues of racial justice.”
Bro is one of the revered survivors of the trauma still shrouding the city. It’s where restaurateurs on the downtown mall still remember human teeth on the pavement, blood, lost children and the crush of people after a car careened down 4th Street on Aug. 12, 2017 killing 32-year-old Heyer.
Yet Bro fears the outrage from that moment, and more urgently, the horror from George Floyd’s death, are in danger of fading into dim recession. She dreads an unabated murderous cycle deeply rooted in racism, if activism confronting it doesn’t continue apace.
“If we had done what we needed to three years ago, we wouldn't be here again,” Bro lamented. “One problem with sustained activism is people burn out. We don't carry forward into actual action.”
The task for Bro remains a careful balance of speaking when she feels necessary, yet remaining cognizant of the voices who can, and must, speak to lifetimes of racial injustices and discrimination.
Bro describes how reporters often ask how she keeps her daughter’s memory alive. There is frustration, she says, stressing time and time again how the broader issues of racial equity are more important.
“My daughter was here that day about the issues for racial justice, she was not here promoting Heather Heyer,” Bro said. “I'm not trying to keep my daughter's legacy alive. I'm trying to carry on the work that she was doing, and trying to expand it.”
But the distinction doesn’t diminish the loss Bro still feels, with moments of deep despondency lingering after past appearances on public panels and podiums.
Bro said she continues to battle bouts of depression, emotions which drew her into seclusion last year for the second anniversary of the tragedy.
“I could drive myself crazy speculating what might have been with Heather, and I often do late at night,” Bro said. “I think she would be at the protests today, definitely angry with the country, and struggling like so many others."
Heyer worked as a paralegal and a waitress, both jobs that have since vanished as her law firm shuttered and restaurants struggle through the economic collapse of the pandemic.
Bro has remained in Charlottesville since mid-March, isolating and steering clear of high-profile demonstrations in Richmond and D.C.
The pandemic, she said, presented a parallel perspective on how parts of the country can and should change social behavior, when confronted with life or death situations.
Instituting urgent national changes to fight racism, Bro believes, should be no different.
“When you talk about things like departing from the status quo and changing a school curriculum, look how quickly the whole country switched in the spring when they had to,” Bro said. “When it’s important to people, they can make quick change. When it's life or death, they can make quick change. Well, this has always been life or death, just not for white people.”
Bro’s work continues through the Heather Heyer Foundation, awarding scholarships to students who pursue activism through positive non-violent social change. She describes the adjustments to the nation’s social fabric since 2017 as gradual and inadequate. Even if a new era begins in the White House, she said, not a single candidate can promise the changes needed to take root at the local level.
“Change of administration is not going to fix a whole lot,” Bro said. “It’s only going to be one part of a change.”
As for the toxic divide which took her daughter’s life three years ago, Bro’s outlook on the state of hate pervading the country remains bleak.
“I don't know that we will ever fully ever overcome it,” she said. “But we have to keep trying. If there’s any small example from Heather, it’s that she stood up in a small way, and the impact was big. She didn't choose that impact, she didn't choose the outcome. All she did was walk that day. And that's all I'm asking people to do, is take a stand. Put actions to your words.”