I spent Monday morning in Charlottesville with Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville on August 12th. Susan taught elementary school for eighteen years and I envy the students who were in her class. She is a woman who truly believes in justice for all. We talked about the school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia and she chalked some of it up to cultural misunderstandings. “I remember when I was teaching in Buckingham and I had never lived in a place before where children didn’t have water. No running water. A little girl came into class one day looking like a mess. I said something about coming to class clean and I felt so badly when I found out later she had no water because they lived in poverty.”
I told her about touring the dilapidated housing around Charlottesville and Albemarle with AHIP and how people marked their floors with Xs so the children didn’t fall through. She said she understood that. “I live in a single wide trailer. We’ve lived there since 1995. My husband is disabled. For the past five years we haven’t had a floor in the living room, only a sub-floor, and we live better than most. We’re too proud to ask for help.” She paused for a moment. “There’s no middle class here.”
Things were tough when she was raising Heather and her brother. “We fell between the cracks. My kids never saw a dentist but twice in their lives.” Heather had five ear surgeries costing $300,000. Susan was paying it off in the 1990s and had managed to pay down $3,000 of the debt. A charitable foundation paid the rest. “I remember when I was too poor to take the bus. I walked three miles to work while I was pregnant with Heather. I had her five-year-old brother in tow. And it was hot.”
“Ten years later, I remember when the air conditioning broke and I was very sick with a rash head to toe, it was the last straw. I walked over and look at the knives and then I thought of my parents and my children and turned around.” She suffered from depression and was flat on her back for six months in 2010 from complications of cancer surgery. Diabetes and severe allergies also plagued her adult years. “Much of my adult life, I was one paycheck away from becoming homeless.” But through it all, she raised a family who cared deeply about social justice.
“My children were not brought up to be prejudiced. I’ve known White Supremacists in our county. They have their Confederate flags. Some said I shouldn’t have brought Heather up the way I did, to be involved. She should have kept her head down. But I would always take a quiet stand, wherever I’ve lived, for racial equality, gender equality, gay rights. I was never happy with the status quo. I became a women’s rights activist in the first grade when they said I couldn’t wear pants.”
“Heather believed in equal treatment for all.” She understood prejudice. “Heather was sometimes called ‘poor white trailer trash’ She was a gay rights activist. Her best friend was gay. She believed in gender equality. And she cared about Black Lives Matter and police violence. Heather thought the police should be demilitarized. They were trained for combat.”
Susan understands that the harsh conditions she has lived in sometimes turn people into extremists. She thinks “Hard times, with no financial fallback” is responsible for some of the Nazi followers. But she wants their leaders to be held accountable for what happened to Heather. “She was with a peaceful, non-violent group. She had nothing but keys and her phone in her back pocket. The coroner has yet to rule her death a homicide. Why? According to her death certificate, she had blunt trauma from the car. It’s homicide.”
Susan has started a foundation which will award scholarships to applicants who want to pursue careers in social justice. That is how she will honor Heather.
After leaving Susan, I went on to the Women’s Initiative in Charlottesville, where therapists treated dozens of patients for trauma after August 12th. They also have an ongoing program to treat traumatized women in the Latino community as well as refugees. There are some three thousand refugees in Charlottesville from 33 countries. 95% of the Women’s Initiative clients are victims of violence.