From wary observer to justice warrior: How Heather Heyer's death gave her mom a voice
Susan Bro stepped onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards thinking of the final promise she had made to her daughter.
She told the millions watching that her daughter died protesting racism and that she wanted others to be inspired by her courage. The audience cheered upon hearing Heather Heyer's name.
Later, a producer asked Bro who had designed the black-and-white striped shirt she wore for the show.
"Walmart," Bro, 61, answered honestly.
The man seemed "slightly horrified," Bro recalled. "I just laughed. I thought, 'Yeah, you don't live in my world.' "
Bro didn't ask for the attention she's getting, and she certainly never thought her voice would carry weight in the national conversation about race, violence and hatred. But reporters came knocking at the door of her trailer home in rural Virginia after a car plowed into Heyer, 32, as she was protesting a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Bro, a onetime elementary school teacher, decided that August day that she would speak to anyone who would listen about Heyer's passion for social justice. She didn't expect what came next.
More than a thousand people came to Heyer's memorial service. MTV and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" called. Bro found herself enlisting the help of a public relations firm.
The racist hate displayed in Charlottesville revealed how emboldened white supremacists have become, and Bro's daughter had come to represent the tragedy of that day.
"It became apparent to me that the world wanted some part of Heather's message," Bro said. "Life was a mix of horror and grief and realizing that Heather's death meant something to a lot of people."
Bro's trailer home in Ruckersville, Virginia, is tucked away amid farmland. Before her daughter's death she spent her spare time knitting, crocheting and designing patterns. She called herself a homebody and enjoyed batch cooking and making cheeses.
Heyer, who lived nearby in Charlottesville and worked at a local law firm, had tried to engage her mother in conversations surrounding race and fairness, explaining that white privilege means there are certain advantages given to their family simply because of the color of their skin.
At first, Bro said, she resented that idea.
She remembered when she was too poor to take the bus and walked three miles to work while pregnant with Heyer. Her two children saw the dentist maybe twice growing up, and Bro thinks Heyer had been called "poor white trailer trash."
For most of her career, Bro worked as an elementary schoolteacher in public schools, earning less than $30,000 a year. The family relied on each paycheck. Heyer had been a waitress and bartender, and though she graduated high school, she never earned a college degree.
"We didn't have a lot of special privileges, as I understood it, for my family," Bro said.
Over time, though. Bro said her views changed. At one point Heather dated a black man, and Bro noticed the looks from strangers and the poor service in restaurants.
Still, Bro wasn't publicly outspoken. Whenever she heard friends were participating in a Civil War reenactment, she simply thought: "You know, the South lost; get over it."
While Bro tuned out the news the night of Aug. 11, Heyer was watching a live stream from Charlottesville with her longtime friend Justin Marks. A group, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, marched through the University of Virginia campus with torchlights chanting: "White lives matter!" "You will not replace us!" and "Jews will not replace us!"
Heyer and Marks had decided to skip a counterprotest scheduled the next day because they thought it could be dangerous, but what Heyer saw made her change her mind, Marks said.
So on Aug. 12, Heyer joined the group confronting hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists attending a rally sparked by the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The counterprotesters were chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" shortly before authorities say James Alex Fields Jr. sped his Dodge Challenger into the crowd where Heyer stood.
As firefighters performed CPR on Heyer, Bro was at her friend Cathy Brinkley's house. Though the violence was broadcast on national news outlets, Bro doesn't remember knowing there was a rally.
Marks called her, sobbing, with the news. Bro and Brinkley rushed to Charlottesville, with Bro frantically calling hospitals to locate Heyer.
When Bro arrived, Charlottesville Police Detective Declan Hickey told her Heyer was dead. Bro put her head down and wailed.
With Heyer's death in the news, Bro's phone rang nonstop, and she received mail addressed to "Heather Heyer's mom." President Donald Trump weighed in, coming under criticism when he said there were "very fine people on both sides" that day.
Bro realized that people were looking to her as they tried to make sense of things. At the funeral home, she said, she held her daughter's hand and told her: "I'm going to make this count for something."
Bro barely slept in the days that followed. But when more than one thousand people came to the memorial service, she stood to address them.
"They tried to kill my child to shut her up," Bro said. "Well, guess what? You just magnified her." The applause in the Charlottesville theater lasted nearly a minute and a half. Donations flowed into a GoFundMe account created in Heyer's name, with the money climbing to $220,000, she said.
"I didn't even really have time to wrap my head around it," Bro said. "I just felt like if people that much wanted to participate in Heather's message, then we needed to establish some sort of procedure for handling that."
After spending some of the funds on the funeral and other costs, the rest went toward starting the Heather Heyer Foundation, a nonprofit that will provide scholarships for students interested in pursuing social justice. Bro now works full time running the foundation, which also is focused on getting her message to youth, with co-founder Alfred A. Wilson, who was Heyer's friend and co-worker.
Miller Law Group, where Heyer worked, gave Bro an office where she keeps the state flag that was flown over the Virginia capital for her daughter and a banner honoring Heyer from a Women's March in Amsterdam.
When Bro went to the MTV awards show about two weeks after Heyer's death, it was her first trip to California. She has participated in the Rose Bowl Parade and accepted a Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award in Kentucky on Heyer's behalf. She's spoken to high school students in Greensburg, Indiana, and Girl Scouts in Virginia.
"I do not view myself as a bigwig," Bro said. "I'm just a mom who's got something to say right now, and I'm just spreading . . . the same kind of lessons I taught in school with kids: Play fair. Be respectful."
While Bro is promoting this kind of dialogue, Charlottesville residents are still reeling from the feeling of being abandoned by officials that day. In addition to Heyer, 35 other people were hurt.
Activists continued to pile into City Council meetings to express anger and frustration. Although people invoke Heyer's name as an example of the city's failure to protect them, Bro isn't among them.
She doesn't see her role as political. To her, it is a "heart movement."
Brinkley said she's awed by her friend's perspective.
"Given the political situation, and given the way things are in this country right now, there would be an awful lot of parents who would be pointing fingers and finding fault and blaming and blaming and blaming," she said, "and Susan hasn't done that."
A few days after Thanksgiving, Bro had a dream that the family was waiting around the table for Heyer to join them. Finally, Bro yelled, "She's dead! She's not coming!" She woke up crying.
Other mothers whose children have died in a horrific and public way have reached out to Bro, and that has helped. There was a mother who lost her child in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Gil Harrington, whose daughter was abducted and killed in Virginia. Others, too, but Bro can't remember all the names.
"There's a sadness and an understanding," she said. "The mothers who have gone on to make things from their child's death, we kind of get each other."
Heyer's father has spoken publicly about his daughter's death and her brother has chosen to grieve privately with his wife and daughter. Bro, who has remarried, also has two stepdaughters, who have seven children between them.
When Charlottesville recently named a street Heather Heyer Way, Bro spoke to the group that gathered. Afterward, Hickey, the detective who had delivered news of Heyer's death, approached her.
"Every time I've seen you since then talking to people, you're the epitome of strength," he said.
In quieter moments, Bro said, that composure is often lost.
Staring at a baby picture of Heyer one December night, she recalled, she cried in a hotel lobby. She thought about holding the urn with her daughter's ashes, about how it was about the same weight and size in her arms as Heyer had been as a newborn.
Author information: Ellie Silverman is a metro reporter covering crime and courts. She has previously contributed to the Seattle Times, McClatchy and the Capital Gazette.