Heather Heyer: Civil rights activist killed in Charlottesville car attack standing up for the best of American values

To many who believe the US took a turn for the worse in 2017 the killing of Heather Heyer marks a dark moment in its history – it was reported last week that neo-Nazis are still on the hunt for her ashes, while the man suspected of killing her is on trial. But Heyer’s life was ‘magnified’ in death, as her mother put it. Its brightness dazzles

Christine Manby
Tuesday 26 December 2017 00:00
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Heyer was mown down by a vehicle while protesting against the ‘Unite the Right’ march in Virginia in August
Heyer was mown down by a vehicle while protesting against the ‘Unite the Right’ march in Virginia in August

In Heather Heyer’s last Facebook post, she warned her friends, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Heyer, who died aged 32 in August, always paid attention.

Her family recalls her as someone who was quick to spot injustice and call it out, even as a child. She was the only daughter of Susan Bro and Mark Heyer, a little sister to brother Nickolas. Her mother had hoped that Heyer’s birth would patch up her failing marriage, but sadly it didn’t work.

Heyer’s parents separated when she was just five months old. And there were health problems to be overcome too. Heyer was born with her left ear folded over and underwent several corrective surgeries.

She grew up in Ruckersville, Virginia, a rural town with an overwhelmingly white population. She attended the William Monroe High School where, by her mother’s admission, she wasn’t the most diligent student. She was a late sleeper, and talked of wanting to be like a “fat cat on a pillow and not have to do anything”, but the tributes that poured in after her death proved that wasn’t the whole story.

Heyer would never sit back when she could stand up to a bully, even rushing to the defence of a teacher abused for adopting an Asian child.

On leaving school, she found work in a restaurant. She was good at her job and popular, sometimes making $200 in tips on a weekend. But she wanted more. A friend encouraged her to apply for a job as a legal assistant at Miller Law. At the interview, she admitted she worried she might not be a suitable candidate.

“I only have a high-school degree, and I’ve never worked in a law office,’ she said.

“Why is that important to you? It’s not important to me,” responded interviewer Alfred A Wilson, who would become her boss and mentor. He saw at once that Heyer was a “people person” and her warmth would be a great asset to Miller Law.

Heyer’s job was to liaise with the firm’s clients, many of whom were facing eviction, and help them feel less daunted by the paperwork their cases required. Though her clients were often at their lowest ebb, Heyer made them feel valued and hopeful. A gay black client told Wilson that Heyer “treated me as if I was the richest man ... I was about to lose my home, but she just saw Mr Smith.”

Though she juggled her job at Miller Law with more waitressing shifts at local restaurant Caturra on the Corner, Heyer found time to take night classes to improve her knowledge of law and her ability to help those in need. The summer of 2017 marked Heyer’s fifth year with the company. To celebrate the occasion, Wilson took her out for lunch and presented her with a certificate recognising her outstanding service.

Though she treated everyone she met as an equal, Heyer was increasingly aware that Miller, an African American, didn’t always have the respect of his white clients. For example, she noticed and was distressed when people wouldn’t shake his hand. Such examples of prejudice would bring Heyer to tears.

She was horrified by the election of Donald Trump, and when she heard that far-right activists were planning a protest in Charlottesville over the decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, Heyer knew she should not stand by.

All the same, according to her close friend Justin Marks, Heyer was not sure she would attend the counter-protest. The public was being warned to stay away. Her mind was changed when the night before the Unite The Right rally, she saw footage of white nationalists storming the University of Virginia buildings carrying tiki torches. She knew then that she had to make a stand for everything she believed.

According to witnesses, Heyer was on her way home from the counter-protest when she was knocked down as a Nazi fanatic from Ohio ploughed into the crowd in his Dodge Challenger. 35 people were injured that day. Heyer was killed.

Her friend Felicia Correa said of Heyer, “She died doing what was right.”

Purple was Heyer’s favourite colour. Even her beloved chocolate Chihuahua was called Violet. Mourners at her funeral were invited to dress accordingly. Her mother, Susan Bro, gave a stirring speech in which she said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”

Since then, Susan Bro has set up the Heather Heyer Foundation in her daughter’s memory, funding scholarships for trainee paralegals and social workers. The city of Charlottesville has moved to rename its Fourth Street in Heyer’s honour.

But while Heyer’s family and friends wait for the outcome of her suspected murderer’s trial, Heyer’s final resting place is unmarked to avoid vandalism and the potential of violence towards the people who tend it.

“It’s a symptom of hate in society that you should have to protect your child’s grave,” said Bro.

Bro still receives abuse and death threats from white supremacists. She treads carefully around the subject of President Trump out of fear for the safety of her son, an army reservist.

When asked who he thought had killed Heather Heyer, her boss Wilson of Miller Law said, “I would say our society killed her.”

Heather Heyer, activist and legal assistant, born 29 May 1985, died 12 August 2017

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