Susan Bro doesn’t always walk with a cane, but the marble floors of Capitol Hill are unforgiving. The walk from her parking spot was long, and her fibromyalgia acts up when she’s stressed out.
“Who wouldn’t be, the first time talking to Congress?” she said after appearing before a House Oversight subcommittee Wednesday to discuss the consequences of white supremacy.
Earlier in the day, Bro grabbed her cane, her late-daughter’s charm bracelets, and a pocketful of GMO-free CBD lozenges — to calm her anxiety and her throat — and drove to Capitol Hill from Charlottesville, Virginia. Almost two years ago her daughter, Heather Heyer, was murdered there by a neo-Nazi.
Bro is still mystified that anybody considers her an expert just because a man plowed his car into a crowd where Heyer was protesting the “Unite the Right” rally. Since then, Bro said she’s spent many sleepless nights agonizing over her daughter’s death and researching its cause: the online radicalization of young white men.
But an expert?
“I'm not an expert on civil rights because Heather died,” said Bro, who showed up with a three-ring binder full of information. “I just go in and tell what I know.”
Bro is right that she isn’t the typical messenger, but she is effective. Her self-effacing Appalachian charm disarms, and then she blindsides listeners — in this case, Congress — with the fact that Heyer’s aorta was severed in three places. She says that her daughter’s murder only got as much attention as it did because she’s white, and that Bro’s celebrity is owed to her white privilege, while victims of color suffer alone.
Bro now carries on Heyer’s life’s mission to be not just non-racist but anti-racist — to stand up against racism, actively, vocally, always. The murder may keep her awake at night, but it’s also awoken something new inside her.
“How many other mothers have things to say, but they [people] don’t listen because they look like me: short, little, fat people from the mountains who live in a single-wide trailer?” Bro said. “I'm often full of self doubt going, 'Why am I doing what I do? Does it matter? Does anybody really care?’
“And then I'll do something like this, And I go, ‘Okay, I'm making a difference. As long as I'm making a difference, I'll keep speaking up,’” she continued.
“I'm not an expert on civil rights because Heather died."
Bro is part of a sadly burgeoning genre of activism: the bereaved parent-turned-advocate. She’s joined contemporaries such as Fred Guttenberg and Manuel Oliver, who became national figures in the gun control movement after their children were murdered in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Guttenberg and Oliver gave the same advice in separate interviews with VICE News: Activism keeps the memory of their children alive and gives purpose to a life defined by what it’s missing. But the expectations for real change on Capitol Hill should remain low.
And Bro knows that. She came to advocate for federal legislation that would incentivize local police to keep better records of hate crimes, which increased 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to FBI data.
“We have to do a better job of reporting hate crime,” Bro told the committee Wednesday. “But we also have to do a better job of preventing hate crime. We have to find a way to reach these young people before they become radicalized.”
But she said she’s clear-eyed about the pace of change. The roadblocks are apparent. Her own daughter and the other victims in Charlottesville were not included in the FBI’s 2017 roundup of hate crimes, even though the attacker pled guilty to a federal hate crime.
Some Republicans in the hearing questioned whether these crimes were really increasing, and even pointed to the lack of data to cast doubt. But more reporting would also mean more work for local law enforcement, said Texas Rep. Chip Roy, the top Republican on the subcommittee. Even so, he encouraged Bro to keep pushing.
“Keep working the system. Every one of these things take a year, two, three, five, because you’ve got to weigh all those things,” Roy told VICE News. “We shouldn’t ask local law enforcement to fill out mountains of paperwork rather than going out into the streets and doing their job. But we can find ways to better collect data.”
From the vantage point of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bro is doing the exact work that can transform the country.
“Effective activism doesn’t just change law, it changes culture,” she told VICE News after the hearing. “To be able to have her voice and authority elevated to the esteem of a congressional hearing, I hope at least in the short term increases the credibility that she has when she speaks.”
Ocasio-Cortez said the hearing was the first one of substance she has chaired in her young career, after subbing in for Chairman Jamie Raskin, also a Democrat. When the Bronx lawmaker approached the witness table after the hearing, Bro let out a high-pitched squeal of excitement. (Bro later described herself as a “fan-girl.”)
A moment later, the mood became somber when a different young woman approached in tears thanking Bro for speaking up. Bro later said the woman had friends who were injured in the attack.
“I asked how they're doing, and she started crying, as often happens,” Bro explained. “There's a lot of trauma still around this. I know people who are just now starting therapy. People are still having surgeries. This is far from over in Charlottesville, as often happens when a community has a violent hate crime.”
Just like that, the highs and the lows come all at once. Bro’s on a first-name basis with Martin Luther King III, Angela Davis and Melissa Etheridge. But she also doesn’t acknowledge her grandchildren on social media for fear they’ll be doxxed by white supremacist trolls. The FBI has advised her to always seat one person facing the entrance when they’re out to eat, so they can keep an eye on who comes in the door.
Bro described a rollercoaster few weeks. Things were just starting to quiet down when she was scheduled to appear at a Holocaust rememberance ceremony in Skokie, Illinois. She was waylaid by a snowstorm at a Cracker Barrel in Staunton, Virginia —”which used to be a really big bastion for the KKK,” she said. That’s when she got a call that Heyer’s memorial in Charlottesville had been vandalized.
Then, Bro said, “the Joe Biden thing happened.” The former Vice President started a video announcing his 2020 presidential bid with the words, “Charlottesville, Virginia,” to remind the public of President Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the chaos that day in 2017 when Heyer was killed. Bro found out about the video when reporters began reaching out, before Biden called Bro hours later.
“So suddenly, I'm thrown back into the spotlight when I least expect it, and I don't mind that. I'm kind of learning to bounce with that,” she said. This is her life now: being tossed into the public eye by events beyond her control.
“The world has kind of morphed into this alternate reality that bears so little resemblance to my past life,” she said over pizza from a restaurant in a House office building. “Key players are still there — except for Heather — but nothing else is.”
At first, Bro was wary of the opportunists, and it’s clear the “Biden thing” gets on her nerves a bit, though not as much as Trump’s moral equivalence. After Heyer’s murder, she declined requests from politician after politician who wanted to attend the funeral. That was her only time to mourn. But even then, she realized something about the death: “It was a major political event. It was a major public event,” she said.
So Bro has dedicated the rest of her life to making Heyer’s death, somehow, “not about Heather.” She’s leaning into her newfound attention to draw support to the cause. A forthcoming documentary, part of which was being filmed at the hearing, will highlight her activism.
Leaving the televised congressional hearing with a documentary film camera and print journalist in tow, a random man asked if she’s someone he should know.
“I’m Heather Heyer’s mother. Do you know who that is?” Bro asked.
The man repeated the name slowly, searchingly. “She was killed in Charlottesville,” Bro prodded.
“Oh, I do know,” stammered the man, clearly embarrassed.
“I’m Susan Bro,” she responded. “Alright. So now you know.”
Cover image: Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer reacts as she watches footage from the 2017 Unite The Right rally in a House Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on May 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)