By Teri Saylor
(Note: This article first appeared in Carolina Paralegal News and Virginia Lawyers’ Weekly in November 2017. It is republished here at the anniversary of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.)
Charlottesville, VA – Four months after Heather Heyer was killed at a protest spawned by a white nationalists rally in Charlottesville, her mother still weeps.
In the offices of the Miller Law Group where Heyer worked as a paralegal, Susan Bro wipes away tears when she speaks of Violet, her daughter’s tiny Chihuahua, which has gone to live with Heyer’s best friend. Her voice cracks when she realizes she can’t remember some details of Heyer’s growing up years, including her fourth birthday. And when she recalls the events of that terrible day in August when she learned that Heyer had been struck and killed by a car driven into a crowd gathered near Charlotteville’s popular downtown pedestrian mall, she breaks down.
On August 12, Heyer, 32, had gone to downtown Charlottesville with a group of co-workers and close friends. As the rally and counter protest appeared to be winding down, a Dodge Charger, driven by James Alex Fields, Jr. accelerated as it approached the group of counter protesters and plowed into them. Heyer, who was hit at full force, died.
“Heather was just starting to believe in herself,” Bro said. “She was born with social justice in her soul, and she was just starting to learn that her voice was important.”
Heather Heyer was born May 28, 1985 into a marriage that was on the rocks.
“My husband and I had been separated twice already before Heather was conceived, and it was honestly, probably a last ditch effort to save the marriage,” Bro said. She and Mark Heyer separated for a third and final time when their baby daughter was five months old. Bro raised her and her older brother as a single mother, while attended classes at UVA and working to make ends meet.
Heyer was in a hurry to enter the world, coming in a rush, two weeks before her due date. Her left ear was malformed. The ear canal was present, but her skull covered it over, and when she was in the fifth grade, she started a series of operations to correct the deformity, which included skin grafts and bone grafts.
“It was a pretty big deal, and she always had that to overcome,” Bro said. “My dad had to help take care of her because I had just started my teaching job, and I couldn’t take off that much work.”
Heyer was raised in a modest trailer park in Ruckersville, a small rural crossroads about 20 miles north of Charlottesville, her mother said. “And she was considered white trash, but she was always feisty. Always a go-getter. She always stood up for other kids,” she added.
Mother inspired to take action
At 61, Bro is short in stature and wears wire-rimmed glasses. After she was thrust into the limelight when her daughter was killed, she adapted and quickly became comfortable in front of news cameras. During the MTV Awards, where she was invited to present the award for “best fight against the system” she wore her shoulder-length, wavy silver hair in a ponytail and spoke fiercely of her daughter’s commitment to fighting for her beliefs.
“I’m deeply moved to see people from all over the world be inspired by her courage,” Bro said at the awards show. Two weeks before, Bro had stood before a podium at her daughter’s memorial service and told the world “they tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You just magnified her.”
Later she said she wasn’t kidding when she proclaimed that Heyer’s death had magnified her voice, because news media from around the world descended on her single wide trailer.
“I mean they were knocking on my door constantly until we hired a PR firm,” she said. “I didn’t get but two or three hours a day when there wasn’t press either calling me, texting me, knocking on my door, calling my friends, calling my family. How they found everybody, I have no idea because we live out in the middle of nowhere. By then, I already had begun to see the huge impact her death made.”
Charlottesville is a college town and is known as a gateway to the Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Avoiding the interstate in favor of the state roads around the area makes for a scenic journey. Known for lush wineries, Charlottesville is a thriving tourist destination, and its gorgeous landscape provides a backdrop to a storied history, including a prominent Civil War legacy. The ongoing controversy over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee was the catalyst that brought a large group of white nationalists to Charlottesville from Ohio, Michigan and South Carolina last August. Fields, the man who drove the car that killed Heyer, is from Maumee, Ohio.
Protest gathers steam and turns deadly
The night before the deadly protest, the nationalists held a torch rally at the statue. Courtney Commander was there.
Commander, a friend and fellow paralegal with Heyer at the Miller Law Group, had shot videos at the torch rally and knew she had to stand with the counter protesters the next day, but before the protest even started, the city had proclaimed a state of emergency, because fights had already broken out. The rally was halted, but both the nationalists and counter protesters had converged on the pedestrian mall.
She dropped her son off at the home of Victoria Jackson, another Miller Law Group paralegal, rode downtown with co-worker Marissa Blair and Blair’s fiancée, Marcus Brown, and joined Heyer, who had driven by herself. Jackson, at home, watched the scene unfold across three different live feeds.
“It was like a war zone,” Commander said. “It was only 8 o’clock in the morning, and the nationalists were already out there with their flags and their guns. The rally wasn’t even supposed to start until around 12 or 1.”
Throughout the morning, the foursome avoided the ugly confrontations they witnessed, moving through the crowd and taking it all in from a safe distance. Then they rounded a corner.
“Me and Heather and Marissa and Marcus were all together. Heather was to the right of me when it happened,” Commander said. “Marcus got hit and Heather got hit. I was grazed on my knee and ankle when I got knocked down, and Marcus pushed Marissa out of the way. He was thrown over the car and tore ligaments in his ankle, and his tibia was shattered.”
Commander saw the car back up, and she started running. She ducked around a corner away from the hysteria and vomited. When she recovered she went in search of her friends and located Blair and Brown who were in an ambulance heading to a hospital. But she couldn’t find Heyer.
At home, Jackson feared Heyer was dead. Watching live footage on two phones and a tablet, she saw the car ram her co-worker. She saw the paramedics cut Heyer’s clothes off, and she watched them administer CPR.
One by one, Heyer’s friends and family realized that she would not be going home that day.
“Heather and I had a conversation about the rally that Friday,” Jackson said, wiping away tears. “I wanted to go, but I couldn’t because I don’t have a support system if something happened to me. I’m the only one that’s going to take care of my kids, so nothing can happen to me.”
Heyer discovers her passion as a paralegal
When it came to forging a career as a talented paralegal, Heyer was a late bloomer. She lacked ambition and could not think of anything she wanted to do for a living, her mother said.
“I said ‘Heather, you have to pick something,’ and she would say ‘I want to be a cat on a pillow. I don’t want to do anything,’” Bro said. “And then to see her pour her heart and soul into her paralegal job, I was really proud of her. This was the first time I saw her motivated to improve herself.”
Heyer was passionate, and that passion made her seem domineering and challenging, Bro said.
“She was constantly doing things to defy me and I constantly had to fight her over trying to make changes to me,” she said. “At one point, she decided I was the reason for the marriage break-up.”
Over time, mother and daughter grew close and Bro swelled with pride when Heyer fell in love with her career as a paralegal and got certified as a notary public.
Commander still refers to Heyer in the present tense and misses her co-worker’s friendly disposition and caring nature.
“She is amazing to work with,” Commander said. “She’s knowledgeable, personable, and treats every case uniquely as far as what a client may need. And she’s fun. She brings life to the place.”
Alfred Wilson, who manages the firm’s bankruptcy practice, didn’t notice Heyer’s challenges when he hired her. Instead, he saw her personality and dedication to customer service.
“Customer service was an important piece of her job,” he said. “A lot of our referrals come from our clients. One client sent me an email saying Heather ran the front of our office like a queen.”
He describes her as punctual and loyal, and admired how she stood for righteousness and equality.
“For two entire years, she never missed a day of work. I had to force her to take a vacation,” he said. “Heather took ownership of her job. She took every CLE class I recommended. She and Victoria (Jackson) were ready to go to school to get their paralegal certificates, and they wanted to do it together.”
A paralegal is the first line of contact with clients; the first communication, the first and last to touch a life. Sometimes paralegals can get the information attorneys can’t get because clients often feel more comfortable talking with paralegals.
“Heather was diligent about helping others. Some might say she was just doing her job,” Wilson said. “The lessons that have come out of this are that you never know whose life you are impacting or who is watching.”
In the aftermath of Heyer’s death, the law firm started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money to help pay her funeral and medical expenses and to help with other bills. In 48 hours, the campaign had raised $200,000 and was still growing, but Bro asked that it be shut down because it had raised more money than she needed. The extra funds have been used to start the Heather Heyer Foundation, which currently has $120,000. The foundation’s mission is to provide scholarships to high school students, paralegals seeking their certificates, and to support social justice initiatives.
Bro cautions people not to make Heyer into a saint.
“Heather had feet of clay,” she said. “She smoked. She drank. She loved unwisely at times, as I have loved unwisely at times. We both have feet of clay, and I have to remind people that the point here is you can be a normal person and still make an impact.”
She says Heyer had the effect of taking a match to kindling to light the fires that were already in place. Her everywoman persona made her relatable to others.
“People call her a hero. Well, she was a hero for going to the protest,” she said. “But the heroes in my mind are the people who went and witnessed that car plowing into the crowd. Many of them were injured, and yet they have not backed down. To me, that is a hero too.”