The Not In Our Town podcast features powerful voices from people across the country who are taking a stand against hate and working to create safe and inclusive communities for all. In this episode, Patrice O’Neill, filmmaker and founder of Not In Our Town, talks to Susan Bro, a mother and teacher who became a passionate social activist after her 32-year-old daughter Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist in the Charlottesville protest on Aug. 12, 2017.
In the years since Susan’s daughter was killed, hate violence has escalated and her own activism has grown. Susan, and her husband Kim, joined us for a reception with friends of Not In Our Town on Lake Merritt in Oakland. Please listen to what Susan had to say or read the highlights below. This interview took place in the summer of 2019.
"I get really frustrated when I hear people go — oh, thoughts and prayers. That's wonderful. Now what?"
— Susan Bro
I always knew Heather had a very strong sense of right and wrong too. And once we got through those difficult teen years — and my God, they were difficult — she was passionate about people being treated fairly. She was passionate about people being treated equally. I did not know a lot of what Heather did. She didn't talk about it. But I learned after Heather's death that many times in school, she was defending a kid who was picked on by other kids. She was defending a kid who was picked on by teachers. She was always defending people and she she was frequently in suspension because she would back talk and she wouldn't back down if she thought she was right.
The Myth That Drew Attention to Heather's Death
America still operates off the myth of the sanctity of white womanhood. This same myth that the KKK rely on, the same myth that the white supremacists rely on. That's the myth that has driven the attention on my daughter's murder. So I've been given a great platform. I've been given a lot of attention. I've been given a lot of leeway. I know that's not fair, and I know that's not right.
How many of you know other mothers and fathers who have lost children and they don't get this? In fact, a lot of them have to spend a great deal of time proving, not just saying, but proving that their child was not a thug. It was not a drug deal gone bad. It was not a murder. It was not a self defense, but their child was murdered in cold blood and they can't get people to believe them because they don't want to believe them and I didn't have to do any of that.
The Responsibility to Speak Up & Act
If I'm handed this platform than I have a personal responsibility to speak up, I have a personal responsibility to act. I have a personal responsibility that has been handed to me and I cannot in good conscience walk away from that. I do not believe that these opportunities are given to people to be wasted. I never wanted the attention, I never wanted the fame. I never wanted any of it...
The Heather Heyer Foundation was formed nine days after Heather was murdered by one of the kids that Heather [and her brother] had defended growing up who lived in our neighborhood were mixed children from a black and white couple. Other kids on the bus were picking on these kids and my kids defended them. I didn't remember. I didn't really know about it.
"I Can't Live in Hate"
When James Alex Fields drove his car into the crowd, he had just turned 20. He had moved into an apartment on his own not too long before his mother had moved him out of her place because he had been so violent to her a number of times. He had a long history of mental health issues. It's a very tragic case. ... He really needed to be in a place where he can get some help because he will not stay on his medications. He has seemed to do better when he is institutionalized, unfortunately. Her father and I were asked, how did we feel about the death penalty? And I said, honestly, it's not going to accomplish anything.
I can't live in hate. I don't hate the young man, but he needed to be put away for his own sake. But even more importantly, a strong message had to be sent to those who do hate. This will not be tolerated in our country. This will not be tolerated in the state of Virginia and in the federal case, he received 29 life sentences. He has to serve the first one for Heather. He pled guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. So he served the first life sentence for Heather. Then he serves the other 28 after he serves the life sentence for Heather. Someone said to me, how does he do that? I said, I don't know, not my problem. State sentencing. He received life plus 419 years plus a $280,000 in restitution to the state. Again, nothing brought Heather back. Nothing can take away the injuries of the other people who were severely injured. Many of them still facing surgery, and marriages that are broken, homes that are wrecked, people who are permanently scarred in many ways, nothing's gonna fix that. But a very strong message had to be sent because he made the choice that he made that we just can't tolerate this anywhere. I feel badly about it, but it had to be done.
Step Up, Step Out
"I have a great affinity for what Muhammad Ali said, which is that the service we do for others is the rent that we pay for living on this earth."
— Susan Bro
I come from a long line of people who are service minded. What can I do? How can I help? I get really frustrated when I hear people go — oh, thoughts and prayers. That's wonderful. Now what? What are you going to do? What can I do? How do I help this? What can I do and that's the mind frame that I operate from. I'm very practical minded. What can we do to make this happen? What do you need?
Each of us has a path laid out in front of us that is unique to our lives. Each of us has a range of experiences. Each of us has a range of talents and abilities. Each of us has opportunities that come into our lives in order to the world a better place. I have opportunities and pathways laid out for me, my ability for being able to think on my feet and to talk, to read a crowd, to read people. Those are my my skills.
I just need to know that you guys are with me, that you're stepping forward with your intentions and we call it step up, step out. A lot of people will step up to the plate and go, yeah, let's make this happen and then they never do anything. Other people go, man, that situation is awful. Somebody ought to do something about it. Well, if you see it, maybe you're the one that needs to do something.
Heather was not an activist on the local scene. She showed up just to walk with her friends for a while. ...She had no idea that that one act of walking and being on Fourth Street where she was would cause such an explosion in the world. It's not right. And it's not fair that her death caused that big of a commotion, but it happened. She was not responsible for the outcome, but she was responsible to act. And I'm proud of her for that action.
And I commend you for the work that you do and I encourage you in the work that you do. You're making use of your talents, you're making use of your abilities, you're making use of the platforms as they are given to you and your unique experience and your unique talents. You are joining me. You are continuing my daughter for me because we are all working together.
Virtual Conversation — Watch the Video
NIOT Virtual Conversation Series: Family Members Harmed by Hate Crimes Share Stories of Loss, Hope and a Call to Action — Watch NIOT founder Patrice O'Neill in conversation with family members Pardeep Kaleka, son of Satwant Kaleka the President of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin; Victoria and Rami Jabara, siblings of Khalid Jabara, who was killed in a hate crime attack by a neighbor in Tulsa; Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer of Charlottesville; and Rick and Dawn Collins, whose son was killed in a hate attack in Maryland in 2017. These leaders share stories of their activism, the challenges of hate crimes prosecution, and the value of rapid community action in support of families and individuals targeted by hate. The event also presents information about the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act and what you can do to prevent hate crimes in your community.