charlottesville

What Heather Heyer Knew

Flowers surround a photo of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

On the Friday evening when hundreds of white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, a horrified Heather Heyer watched the videos that her friend Courtney Commander was broadcasting live on Facebook. Who were these legions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis openly giving heil salutes? Heather couldn’t believe their bold chants claiming possession of “Whose streets? Our streets!” or their declarations: “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”

She heard Courtney exclaim in shock into the cell phone: “This looks like the ’60s — I wasn’t even alive then.” To older folks, it looked like scenes straight out of The Birth of a Nation. Next, Courtney moved closer to the goons, shouting back, “We will replace you.” She noted to the camera that the police were standing behind the counterprotesters, immobilized.

“Are you guys going to wind up doing something about this?” she asked the cops. “I’m really not trying to criticize you, but are we allowed to have torches out here?” She received no answer.

Justin Marks, one of Heather’s best friends, said that the videos scared Heather, and that after watching them they both decided not to participate in the planned counterprotest of Saturday’s much larger Unite the Right rally. “We thought it would be even more dangerous than the first night,” he said. A soft-spoken gay man, Justin stuck to his decision. But later Friday night, Heather texted him: “I feel compelled to go, to show solidarity.”

Saturday morning, August 12, a lot of Charlottesville residents made the same decision as Justin and stayed clear of the downtown area. Those who did come out into the streets were faced with demonstrators that included heavily armed militiamen and white nationalists wearing Nazi and KKK paraphernalia. The marchers were later described by President Trump as including “very fine people” who were there “to innocently protest” the removal of a Confederate statue.

Before Heather was even on the scene, blows were exchanged, people arrested. In the late morning, a state of emergency was declared and authorities tried to shut down the rally. But no one left — instead marchers on both sides just spread out into different parts of the downtown area. The Virginia National Guard was summoned to back up local police. None of the law-enforcement people seemed to know what to do, though.

Vice later posted a documentary revealing sentiments voiced that day by some of the leading white nationalists at the rally. One of the people Vice reporter Elspeth Reeve spoke with was right-wing podcaster Christopher Cantwell, who said, “I’m trying to make myself more capable of violence!” He told her he wants a president who is “a lot more racist than Donald Trump.” He continued, “I don’t think you could feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl.”

A middle aged man with a beard, Robert “Azzmador” Ray, proudly introduced himself as a neo-Nazi who writes for the Daily Stormer website. He was here, he said, to take back Charlottesville “because this city is run by Jewish Communists and criminal niggers.”

Cantwell added: “We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to.”

Former KKK grand wizard David Duke was also there, and he was also captured on camera by Vice. He smirked as he spoke to Reeve: “We had a federal court order to have this rally … We’re telling the truth. We’re talking about the ethnic cleansing of America and the destruction of the American way of life.”

He railed that there was “no freedom of speech in this country.” With theatrical flourish, ducked into his van, he vowed: “We will be back.”

Heather arrived downtown shortly before 1 p.m. She was with her friends Courtney Commander and Marissa Blair, both of whom worked with her at a local family law firm. They joined a counterprotest making its way along Water Street. They began chanting rejoinders to the torch-bearing white supremacists who had invaded the city the night before. “Whose streets? Our streets,” the women shouted proudly.

The three women — and virtually all the counterprotesters — wore no offensive clothing, carried no weapons, had nothing in their hands other than cell phones and car keys. Heather was dressed in a plain black tee and pants, with her brown hair braided down her back. She stopped to engage a helmeted female alt-right protester in conversation, asking why she had aligned herself with a hate group of violent white men.

“She says she can’t comment,” Heather called back to her girlfriends. The persistent 32-year-old paralegal tried to draw out the alt-right woman’s arguments, calling on two of her greatest strengths — being a sympathetic listener and a strongly opinionated fighter for social justice. But in this case she wasn’t getting any traction.

“You guys should educate your own people,” Courtney shouted to the alt-right sympathizer. Courtney is a pretty woman of mixed race, who was raised in an affluent suburb of Detroit where, she says, she knew no overt racism, not until she moved to Charlottesville. Marissa is an attorney-on-the-verge, having just taken the Virginia bar exam. The three women resumed walking, now chanting, “Black Lives Matter!”

The mass of counterprotesters continued up Water Street, but when they came to the intersection with Fourth Street, Courtney recalls seeing menacing right-wing demonstrators, some holding weapons. “Oh my God, this looks like we’re in a war,” Courtney said. “We’re out here in plain clothes with no weapons.”

Perhaps it was those Unite the Right demonstrators that caused the counterprotesters to hesitate and then abruptly veer at that intersection onto the much-narrower Fourth Street. “Go left!” Courtney recalled hearing some of her fellows shout, and the group did. In retrospect, this was a fateful moment. On narrow Fourth, the group was more vulnerable to the car attack that would take place moments later.

As Heather, Courtney, and Marissa made the left turn, they heard shouts from an antifa group behind them, chanting, “We got ya back, we got ya back.” Truth be told, Heather was new to this kind of situation. The day before, she had asked her best friend what “antifa” stood for — it’s short for anti-fascist — after hearing the group would be protesting Unite the Right. But Heather’s friends said she and they felt then, for the first time since the weekend began, unified and strong.

About an hour after Heather and her friends made that left turn onto Fourth Street, Susan Bro was surprised to get a call from Justin Marks. The two had become fast friends after Bro had taken him in years earlier, when he was 18, at Heather’s pleading.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” Justin vividly recalled telling Bro. “But a nurse at the hospital wants to talk to Heather’s next of kin.”

“The hospital? Why?”

“I think Heather was struck by that car downtown.”

“What car?”

“The car that ran into a group of people.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The rally.”

“But she decided not to go …”

Heather Heyer did not fit the profile of black or Jewish radical that white supremacists tend to depict as their enemies. For one thing, Heather was a working-class, white Southerner. As a child she routinely heard storm winds rip the skirting off the single-wide trailer where she was raised by her single mom. Heat would begin escaping, pipes freezing, and wild animals could move in under their home.

Susan Bro told me she is often pigeonholed as a dumb redneck by visitors who turn up at that trailer, where she still lives to this day. “They’re wide-eyed when they hear me talk like an intelligent person!” Bro said, chuckling. Her grandparents were coal miners, but her parents and their siblings worked hard to go to college. Bro herself made it halfway through a master’s degree at the tony University of Virginia while Heather was a toddler and her son was repeating kindergarten. She supported them alone with a 20-hour-a-week work-study program, while carrying a full course load, which left her only three or four hours a night to sleep. She settled for a certificate that would license her as a teacher in Virginia’s primary schools. She desperately needed a steady job.

Heather Heyer as a child. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Bro

What kind of a daughter did she produce? A compassionate girl, Bro told me, but also one who was stubborn, opinionated, and not afraid to challenge others. Always, Heather looked out for the underdog. She would bring home castoff kids and tell her mother, “They need a place to crash.”

“I’d meet the kids and make sure they weren’t runaways,” Bro said, knowing that it was illegal to take them in if they were. (Not that she didn’t often do so anyway if she felt the child’s safety was at risk.) I spoke with Bro at the Miller Law Group office where Heather worked. It was only a week after she lost her only daughter to a white supremacist driving a weaponized car, and Bro’s words were alternately strong and brooding. She had lost ten pounds since Heather’s death. Her diabetes was severe. Due to fibromyalgia, she felt like her skin was stretched over broken glass. “But hugs don’t hurt!” she assured me, giving me one.

“You didn’t have much to share with those abandoned kids,” I remarked.

“No, but we had more than others. That’s family values where I come from.”

As much as Heather Heyer cared for other people, she seemed to have a hard time doing the same for herself. “She didn’t value her own work — she was a very good artist — or feel a sense of self-worth,” Bro said. Heather was raised a Christian, even though Bro had left the Evangelical church in which she was brought up. “The church didn’t have any use for single mothers,” she told me. Bro is as brutally honest about herself as she is about others. It always pained her to see Heather flinch whenever someone on TV made fun of “trailer trash.”

“I think when a child is from a single-parent home and when the other parent does not participate in their life much, that’s where the lack of value comes from,” she tells me. “Nothing you ever say or do really overcomes that.”

Heather fell into a state of despondency after finishing high school. It took a few years before she could bring herself to look for a job, convinced she had no skills. Bro told her that service jobs were a decent backup. Eventually, Heather began waitressing at a small local pub and moved on to be the bartender. Being Heather, she doubted she could handle the new responsibility — she didn’t know how to mix drinks.

How did she respond when you tried to encourage her to go to college? I asked. “She always said the same thing: ‘I’m not smart enough.’ It didn’t matter that she aced her tests. She was overweight. She grew up in a trailer. Daddy was not part of her life.”

After much cajoling and encouraging by her mother, Heather did try a few classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College and seemed actually to enjoy them. But her efforts petered out. I asked Bro what guidance she gave Heather over and over again as she was growing up. “Treat everyone as equal,” Bro said. “To me, whether you have God, or no religion, or whatever, you still have an obligation to be ethically and morally strict.”
That seems to have laid a base for Heather becoming a fighter for social justice. She developed into a progressive Democrat. By 2015, she became an avid supporter of Bernie Sanders. She, along with the majority of Charlottesville, voted for Sanders in Virginia’s Democratic primary. “When Bernie wasn’t the Democratic nominee, Heather didn’t even vote in the general election,” Bro told me.

But Bro remembers how “horrified” Heather was by candidate Trump’s “racist attitudes and policies.” A former co-worker heard her decry Steve Bannon as a white supremacist, and Bro recalls her daughter wondering aloud: “How does anyone like that get to be in power in modern times?”

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Heather’s close friend Carl Thomas told me, speaking about Election Night in November 2016, when he and his girlfriend, Lindsey Reisser — also part of Heather’s inner circle — watched the results at a townie bar in Charlottesville. As they watched, they texted back and forth with Heather. Until it was clear that Trump had won, the three kept trying to reassure one another that he could never be elected.

Heather had trained Lindsey as a waitress at Lord Hardwicke’s, a small local restaurant. They also worked a second shift together at the European-style Cafe Caturra. Sitting outside together at one in the morning after closing the café, Lindsey and Heather would talk incessantly while smoking cigarettes. Those were the good times.

“We were both kind of hardheaded,” Lindsey said. “We don’t really listen. We’re emotionally driven. Heather, being eight years older than me, was unapologetically herself 100 percent of the time. She really helped me grow into myself as an adult.”

In 2012, not long after meeting Lindsey, Heather was suggested by a friend for a paralegal job at the Miller Law Group. The local firm is dedicated to helping struggling people fight foreclosure on their homes, deal with indebtedness after catastrophic illness, and utilize bankruptcy law to put their lives back together. Heather, convinced she wasn’t qualified, only went reluctantly to the interview with Alfred Wilson, manager of Miller’s bankruptcy division.

“I only have a high-school degree, and I’ve never worked in a law office,” Heather protested straightaway.

“Why is that important to you? It’s not important to me,” Wilson replied. He was more interested in an employee’s way with people than their credentials. A black man married to a Palestinian woman, he told me he looks for workers who know how to communicate with, and appreciate, all different kinds of people.

“I know you work as a bartender — how much do you make in tips?” he asked.

“Oh, I can make about $200 a night.”

Wilson suspected this bartender was exceptionally good with people.

Heather downplayed her strength: “I talk to a lot of drunk people.”

“My thinking was she could be compassionate with our clients and understand life itself,” Wilson said. He also knew she was juggling two jobs, evidence of a good work ethic. She had her own place and was taking care of herself. She possessed a good vocabulary and was on top of social and political issues. “I believed I could mold her into a good paralegal,” Wilson said. And he did so.

Heather’s mother appreciated Wilson’s ability to see beyond her daughter’s immediate qualifications and trust that she could be capable of more. “He encouraged her and developed her talents and expertise in ways even she couldn’t believe,” Bro told me.

At the time Heather started working as a paralegal, she had a boyfriend. One night, she stayed late at work to help Wilson prepare for a court appearance. “That was Heather being Heather,” said Wilson. She postponed a date with her boyfriend until ten o’clock. “Then the two of us walked out together and I gave her a hug and said good-bye.”

It took her days before Heather would tell Wilson why she broke up with her boyfriend, who was white, later that night. Wilson recounted the conversation Heather had described to him:

“Why were you hugging that black guy?” her then-boyfriend had demanded.

“That’s my boss.”

“Your boss is a black guy?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You never told me that”

“What difference does it make?”

The boyfriend’s response prompted Heather to cut him off immediately.

After Wilson heard the story, he told Heather: “You shouldn’t break up with him because of me.”

“No, you gave me a chance,” Heather responded. “You’re fair with me. You don’t look at people that way, and if he looks at people that way, how am I supposed to be with him?”

Heather took full advantage of the chance Wilson gave her to prove herself. But in her personal life, she was lonely. She spent a lot of time with her mother, often going to dinner at Bro’s trailer. During the meals, Heather would challenge Bro on many fronts — her hair, her clothes, her political opinions. “I was her best earpiece,” Bro says. “She had to be right and point out with precision where you were wrong.”

By that time, Susan Bro was remarried, to a retired mechanic with a bad back. Kim Bro couldn’t sit through Heather’s tirades, so he’d go outside and work on her car.

Toward the end of her 20s, Heather took another chance on love, connecting with a married man in an open relationship. She told her friend Lindsey that she liked this arrangement, “because he’d always go home.” But when the love affair flamed out very suddenly, it left Heather shaken. To cheer her up, her mother took her shopping for a dog. Heather picked out a chocolate-brown female Chihuahua, Violet.

When she turned 30, Heather seemed to make a big decision. “You know what?” she told her mother. “I’m okay on my own. I don’t want kids. I’m okay not having kids. I like my independence.” When people asked if she still wanted to get married someday, she’d quip, “I don’t need a husband. I have Justin.”

Justin Marks had worked at dead-end jobs since high school. He was just one of the friends Heather helped to get in the door at Miller Law Group. She would argue tenaciously with Wilson in support of her friends, until he gave them a chance, as he’d given Heather a chance before them. “But they all turned out to be serious people,” Wilson said.

Even more important to Heather, they became like a family. Wilson put in a mini-bar so they could relax together at the end of a tense day, and even invite in some of their friends. “They are upstanding citizens today, and fully independent,” Bro said of the friends Heather had helped. All that kind of talk also carries a caveat from Bro, however: “I get very frustrated when people make her out to be a saint. She was a normal 32-year-old person who loved family and friends. But she took the extra step to do the right thing.”

1:42 p.m., Saturday: The soulful sound of a bass drum and chanting was suddenly shattered by the scream of an accelerating Dodge Challenger. The unsuspecting counterprotesters had just turned onto Fourth Street, with Heather, Courtney, and Marissa directly in front of the car driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields, seemingly intent on killing and maiming innocent people.

Pandemonium erupted as Fields’s car mowed down unarmed human beings on Fourth Street and crashed into the back of another vehicle. The tinted-out Challenger grazed Courtney and Marissa, but drove straight into Heather.

Here is the perspective from Courtney’s cell phone:

After the impact, protesters smashed the back window during the brief moment the car was stationary. Then Fields slammed the Challenger into reverse and dragged more bodies with him as he sped backwards up Fourth Street.

Courtney ran for her life back down Water Street, dodging seriously injured people, and stopped to throw up. Marissa’s fiancé had been hit, and she frantically dialed for an ambulance, which arrived moments later. She called and called Heather’s cell until an unknown man answered and said he had just found the phone in the street. Courtney staggered back to the scene. “I saw a heavyset white person on a stretcher,” she told me. “The onlookers kept saying, ‘That person’s face was blue!’ — but I never thought it could be Heather. I just went looking for her car.”

Justin is still heartsick that he didn’t go with Heather that day. “I heard a guy say he saw the life leave her eyes before the ambulance came,” he said.
Raw video from a local news team shows red-shirted firefighters and police in neon bent over Heather, one of them pounding her chest while another keeps coaxing, “C’mon, lady, you got it, c’mon.” Resigned, they lift her onto a stretcher and run to an ambulance.

Police would later identify 19 victims injured by Fields — in addition to the one death.

In a tweet just days after the attack, Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who organized the Unite the Right rally, paid his disrespects:

Photo: Jason Kessler/Twitter

On August 24, Kessler offered a poisonous follow-up:

Photo: Jason Kessler/Twitter

But Heather Heyer’s murder by an extremist has created a massive wave of support from around the the world. In the first ten days after her death, Susan Bro and Alfred Wilson launched the Heather Heyer Foundation to raise money to provide financial assistance to individuals committed to social-justice projects. (Donations can be made online or sent to: Heather Heyer Foundation, c/o Stifel,  1759 Worth Park, Charlottesville,VA 22911.)

“I’ve had my eyes on a goal like this for years, and now I may have the means to do something about it — in Heather’s name,” Bro told me. Asked by her “rainbow board”-in-the-making if she wants to take an active role in the effort, she chimed, “I insist!” Scholarships will be awarded to those seeking a degree or certification in law, paralegal studies, social work, and education. But she is clear that it is not meant only to help empower women. “Ever since I was old enough to be told that I had to wear a dress to school, and couldn’t wear pants, I’ve been fighting for gender equality — my whole life.”

Lindsey Reisser, the friend and confidante Heather had taken under her wing at the Charlottesville pub, and her boyfriend, Carl Thomas, were the last of Heather’s close friends to learn about the tragedy. The two had tickets to a concert in Baltimore that weekend. Heather at various points had been a mediator between the mixed-race couple. Carl, who is black, described himself in the early days of the relationship as “a dumb-assed party boy who spent every nickel I made.” Now in their mid-20s, he and Lindsey were seriously beginning to think about a plan for their future.

During a rain delay at the concert, Carl felt a sense of foreboding. “What am I doing here when my city’s on fire?” Lindsey’s phone kept vibrating with messages to call friends who work with her. When the crowd was finally lined up to exit, Lindsey returned a call from a co-worker. On hearing the news about Heather, she collapsed on the cement floor.

When Lindsey and Carl finally stepped off the bus back from Baltimore, they headed straight to a local bar. Lindsey ordered a double bourbon with Diet Coke, Heather’s favorite drink. Carl left to go to work, but shortly thereafter he returned and dissolved into sobs. “I, I sort of broke down when I got back to work. I was supposed to take up room service and …” he trailed off. “It’s not like the people of …” he paused again, struggling to talk “… Charlottesville rallied. It’s people coming to Charlottesville to rally about a statue that has been irrelevant for years.”

When Trump says “We’re going to make America great again,” Carl told me he hears We’re going to make America white again. “In that America, my grandfather was beaten in the streets. They hijacked our city!” Carl said. “This is my town. I was born here. You can’t take it back — because it belongs to us!”

What Heather Heyer Knew