On August 12, 2017, Susan Bro’s daughter was killed. Heather Heyer, 32, was part of a group of activists peacefully protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a young neo-Nazi intentionally drove into the crowd, killing her and injuring dozens of others. The event reverberated across the country, alerting many to the extent of white nationalism’s presence and the state-sanctioned violence in its name. President Trump was widely condemned for failing to denounce the rally’s organizers.
In the days after, Bro, 62, a former government secretary and schoolteacher, became the subject of intense press attention, which she faced head-on. Bro has since taken up her daughter’s activism work, giving interviews and making public appearances. She is careful to redirect focus from Heyer’s death to what she considers to be the more important matter at hand: the nation’s continuing legacy of racial violence and injustice.
In televised interviews, Bro appears tireless and clear-eyed, her voice resolute. When I spoke to her, in early January, I found her true to form. She was on her first day back to work after a month-long break to attend the homicide trial of James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car. (He was convicted of first-degree murder, along with nine other charges, and a jury recommended a sentence of life plus 419 years in prison.) Bro spoke to me via video chat from the office of her nonprofit, the Heather Heyer Foundation, which aims to provide $10,000 in scholarships this year to students dedicated to progressive social change. The walls of the room, which were painted in soft shades of rose and robin’s-egg blue, displayed painted portraits of Heyer alongside awards for Bro and the foundation.
CJR What was it like for you being the subject of intense news coverage on the day of Heather’s death, in a traumatic moment? What was your experience of being approached by the press?
Susan Bro It started at seven o’clock the next morning. They knocked on my door at home. I live in a single-wide trailer in the middle of nowhere and they descended en masse on that little trailer park. The neighbors tolerated it, thankfully, but it was quite overwhelming. We had friends who had to stand at the door. We always have a curtain hanging on our back door because we’ve had problems with the electricity bill being high, and that actually acted well as a stage curtain to keep people separated until it was their turn.
CJR How many journalists were approaching you at once?
SB It was constant, between press and politicians, and family and friends calling. But mostly press and politicians. More press than politicians. They were calling my family, my friends. My phone was engulfed. Someone was always on door duty to handle the press. It would end at nine o’clock at night. Even when my best friend, Cathy and I had to go to Fredericksburg to find clothing for me to wear to the funeral, and for Heather’s stepdad to wear, the phone rang constantly.
CJR What kinds of things were journalists saying?
SB Everybody was asking the same thing. What happened. Who was your daughter. What can you tell us about what happened. What happened. What happened. How did she die. How did I find out. Yadda yadda. I must have told that story five million times by now. But I tried to be cooperative because I really felt like this was the only time that people would be coming at me. So I would tell it, tell it truthfully, and make sure that the story didn’t spin off into some wild thing. I thought I would grit my teeth, get through it, and after the funeral everybody would go away. It was a lot of just putting one foot in front of the other.
CJR Did you view talking to reporters as exhausting but necessary or was it unpleasant?
SB I’ve been a teacher for a lot of years so I’m used to repeating stuff. It felt like I was in rote mode. You ask a question, here’s my standard answer. It was to be endured knowing it was short term. I felt like people were just trying to do their job. The main thing for me was to keep the message accurate. Heather was not Antifa, she was not being violent. The police assured me she was with a peaceful group.
CJR Which journalists earned your trust most completely or most quickly?
SB Ellie Silverman from The Washington Post.
CJR And what did she do?
SB Honestly, she reminded me of one of my bridesmaids. Which is ironic, because I haven’t seen that woman in probably forty years. She was very respectful in her questions. A man from NBC came and talked to me very respectfully for a long time. Some people are kind of impatient, tell me this tell me that, but if they took the time to get to know me that was a little better. Someone from ABC spent a bit of time getting to know me—took me and a friend out to dinner, had breakfast with us while we watched the morning interview on TV. We talked over hair tips and things. I still stay in touch with the journalist from NBC. He’ll ask me about news questions. The ABC journalist, I text her from time to time to say, “How’s it going? How’s your mom?” The journalist from CNN and I talk occasionally happy birthday, how’s it going. Some people I would consider at least a little bit of a friend, knowing that they also would gladly get a news story if they could.
CJR What about the content of the news stories?
SB I think people did a decent job. I don’t think anyone did a hack job on the story. This is the problem that I have: I will love what the journalists do, and we will talk in depth about politics, life, love, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the editor immediately chops it down to her daughter died, she’s doing this foundation, and, gee, she misses her daughter. No shit, Sherlock. Let’s get on with it. Why am I doing this? The focus has been on Heather to the exclusion of the issues. Nationally and internationally that still seems to happen. August 12, 2017, as I told reporters, is but a part of a whole picture, actually a pretty small part. While it was a wake-up call for a lot of Americans, the racial issues that Heather was there to support have gone on for centuries, and are still largely unchanged. In some ways they’re worse than they were a year and a half ago.
CJR Who else should journalists be talking to?
SB Other activists. Other victims. The huge focus was on Heather. Now, admittedly, some of the other victims didn’t want to come forward—refused even to testify in court—because they don’t want the attention. But, go, give them a chance. The world acted like Heather was the only victim. And she was—by far—not. There were over 40 people who were physically injured that day, and there were far more who I think had PTSD from having been there.
CJR Yes, the press has a tendency to make martyrs of victims because it’s a story with an easy hero.
SB Right, and at first I didn’t catch that so I wasn’t pushing that aside as much as I needed to. I was still reeling, honestly, for the first six months. I’ve tried to change that narrative somewhat since then. It’s not that Heather wasn’t a martyr, but that’s not the real point. There’s no value in just having a martyr. You’ve got to look at why they were there and what they were doing. What happened with the Guardian and the Daily Beast is that the reporter and I spent a great deal of time talking over the fuller picture, the rounded picture, but the editor was really not interested in that. They’re looking for what they think the public wants to hear, trying to find that quick and easy story, the easily digested story, and that doesn’t serve anyone well.
CJR In the year and a half since Heather’s death—up through the end of 2018, which brought the trial of James Fields—has press coverage evolved? Have reporters heard you? Have they responded to what you are telling them?
SB Not entirely. It depends on where they’re from. I did one interview for Swedish media that was trying to inform readers of the dangers of white nationalism and white supremacy. It didn’t work. The white supremacists were still elected. Japan has visited me on three separate occasions. They tried to give a well-rounded picture in the sense of also talking to white supremacists. Some activists say that they will refuse to talk to anyone who also gives airtime to white supremacists. I thought it was a good thing [to hear from them].
I did want to share with you the experience of another person besides myself. A woman I met at the Anti-Defamation League’s Kay Family Awards this past November was the founder of the Trail of Dreams March [one of four undocumented students who walked from Miami to Washington, DC, advocating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program]. She was the only woman. Everywhere the marchers went reporters would ask the guys the tough questions, the political questions, the statistical questions, and the only thing they ever asked her was, “How does it feel to be the only woman on the march?” These were always male reporters. When they got to Atlanta, a female reporter asked her that question, and she told me that she just blew up. The guys from that point on made sure that she was with them when they were being interviewed, and they would redirect questions to her. We’re still battling stereotypes here.
CJR Do you feel like you’re perceived more as a mother than as an activist?
SB Yes, definitely. I’m an activist because I’m a mother. Journalists somewhat incredulously ask, “Were you an activist before?” The answer is yes and no. I was a government employee, so my activism was subterfuge. Before I was a government secretary I was a schoolteacher. So again, you’re not allowed to be political. But I was very much an activist. I’ve been a feminist since first grade. So, yes, I have always been an activist, I will continue to be an activist. I have just now been given a platform because my daughter was killed.
CJR Has the press helped your activism work, or does it hinder it?
SB It actually has helped. That’s another reason I continue to allow interviews. It’s given me a larger platform.
CJR What do you think the press can do better?
SB It’s the editors I have issues with. The press asks the right questions, the press gives me the opportunity to say what I want. What comes out is not always the same thing.
CJR Do you think the problem is that editors are coming in with a preconceived idea of what the story is?
SB Very much. It’s almost, like, why bother having them ask the question because you already know what you want to say. People also make assumptions about me based on look. They assume, as reporters did that day, that because I live in a trailer, because I’m short, fat, white-haired, I’m probably uneducated, I’m probably vindictive. Honestly I think one reason they kept coming back was that I was not at all what they expected.
CJR During the James Fields trial, some of the headlines about you were to the effect of, “Susan Bro has a message for Donald Trump.” I wonder if that’s something where, when you see it, you think that that’s deliberately provocative, or if you actually did want to get that message out there.
SB No, that’s deliberately provocative. I would have gone off on them had I seen it. The local press did not do that. I’m not allowed to go off on Donald Trump. My son is in the military reserves, and that’s his commander-in-chief. I have gone off on the press before about doing that.
CJR Are you aware that there’s some footage of the Charlottesville riot and a tribute to Heather at the end of the recent Spike Lee movie,
BlacKkKlansman? Did you give your permission for that?
SB Yes and no. They approached us about getting some childhood pictures of Heather. In exchange for a donation to the foundation we allowed them access to three or four pictures. Spike called me at home and asked if he could use footage of the car. I asked, “For what purpose?” He said, “To show that the Klan is still active.” I said, “I guess.” I assumed he would also ask everyone else involved. He did not. He did go buy rights to the footage from the photographer, but local activists took it as I sold that footage without their permission, and I had nothing to do with that.
CJR Do you think the story that is out there about Heather and yourself has done right by you?
SB I have no idea what’s out there.
CJR Why don’t you read it?
SB I’m too busy. People say, I saw you on CNN. Oh really? When was it? It was such and such time. Well I was at work. Or I was at dinner. I have become a public commodity and less of a person to a lot of the press. At first everyone would send a link. Then that went by the wayside. People don’t send me links anymore. Word probably got out too that I will get pretty pissed if you get it wrong. So they’re probably, like, we don’t want to tell her.
CJR Is there anything else you want to tell me?
SB They really overplay the stories so much that everyone’s eyerolling, particularly on the local level. When I’m out in public I don’t catch it so much. People stop and hug me and say, “We’ve been keeping up.” I live in a small, small town, not in Charlottesville, and even the pizza delivery guy said that newspaper sales really picked up during the trial. Because he’s also the newspaper guy. But you can play a story so often that people become deaf to it. That’s a concern to me. Heather would be absolutely livid that people were still focusing on her. She was not attention-seeking. I am not attention-seeking, despite what some people would insist. They think, because I allow the press access, I am seeking it. But there is a difference. I will allow my name to be associated with projects that I believe in. I haven’t made a dime off of any of the projects that I’ve done. I’m not allowing it to be used for every real estate event. (“Like my crafts page!”; “Buy my Avon!”; “Don’t you want to sell jewelry for me?”) No, I’m not doing all that crap. My name has some clout, but only for activism. That door is now open and I’m going to keep a toe in that door. I don’t want the attention. But I don’t want the platform to go away, either.
TOP IMAGE: Photograph by Jason Lappa