Those who loved Heather Heyer, along with strangers who have already elevated her into a symbol of defiance in the face of hate, gathered Wednesday at her memorial service to remember her as a born defender of justice who died for showing up when her beliefs demanded it.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her,” said Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, sparking an ovation from a packed theater in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, that lasted nearly a minute and a half.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., were among those in the crowd. Two Virginia gubernatorial candidates also attended: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.
Heyer, 32, was killed when a white nationalist allegedly plowed his car into a crowd. The ramming followed hours of unrest Saturday between white supremacists and counterprotesters. Heyer was there to oppose the white nationalist rally.
On Wednesday night, hundreds of students and residents marched with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus as they gathered at the Rotunda for a vigil. They sang “God Bless America” and the “Star-Spangled Banner” before invoking in unison the civil rights era anthem, “We shall overcome.”
Charlottesville resident Ben Brinkop said he learned of the vigil through an email that cautioned him not to place it on social media to avoid attempts to disrupt the event.
“I thought it was just about coming out and not being afraid,” the 41-year-old said.
As the political and emotional shock waves from the violence continued to roil the nation, Heyer’s family and friends filled the front rows, rising by turns to grieve and to galvanize. Her mother beseeched those who mourned for Heyer to take up her commitment to social justice.
“I have aged 10 years in the last week,” Bro said as she struggled up the stairs to the stage. But once from the podium, she delivered a fierce call to those who knew her daughter – and those around the world coming to know her now – to make her death worthwhile by fighting “as Heather would do.”
“I’d rather have my child, but by golly if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count,” she said.
Moments later, as the service ended, Bro implored a protester in the audience to stop her critical comments about President Donald Trump by asking the woman to be respectful of her daughter. The woman, who called Heyer a hero, complied and there were no other outbursts.
Outside the Paramount Theater, just two blocks from where Heyer was killed, a handful of people with purple shields, pink bats and pink helmets with a heart drawn on each said they had come to monitor the memorial because they lacked faith that police would stop any “fascist groups” that might disrupt the event.
There were no reports of problems around the theater. A woman played “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful” on the saxophone.
Inside, it was a time for shared memories, and intense pain.
“No father should ever have to do this,” said Mark Heyer, his voice breaking as he spoke from the stage filled with flowers and smiling images of his daughter flashing on the screen above.
Mark Heyer recalled raising a defiant, strong-willed and compassionate daughter who always argued for what she thought was right. He said they didn’t always agree, but he always heard her perspective.
“She loved people, she wanted equality,” he said. “On the day of her passing, she wanted to put down hate.”
Bro said Heyer would have appreciated the unusually public, occasionally boisterous service that attracted more than 1,000 mourners, many of them wearing purple sashes and purple ribbons, Heyer’s favorite color. The paralegal lived boldly, her friends and family said, seldom hesitating to call out injustices she perceived in society. And sometimes, as on Saturday, she put her body on the line.
That’s what Heyer was doing, her mother said, when a speeding muscle car rammed a group of counterprotesters during a white supremacist rally. James Alex Fields Jr., who had come from Ohio for the rally, is charged withsecond-degree murder in her death.
It was no surprise, Bro said at the service that Heyer went out “big and large.”
“I want this to spread,” said Bro, describing the hundreds of messages from people telling her that Heyer had inspired them and asking for advice. “This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.”
Those who knew Heyer eulogized her as a lively and vivacious companion, a born defender of her ideals who wasn’t always an easy child or a flawless employee. Her grandfather remembered little Heather as a pint-size fighter for “fairness.” Her boss remembered a time when the paralegal ended a romance after her boyfriend made a disparaging comment about her African-American supervisor’s race.
Co-worker Feda Khateeb-Wilson said Heyer – who was known to “curse like a sailor” at balky office printers – paid the ultimate price for her social commitments.
“Maybe if you didn’t speak so loudly they wouldn’t have heard you and you would still be here,” she said. “But thank you for making the word ‘hate’ real. . . . Thank you for making the word ‘love’ even stronger.”
Politics played out on the periphery of the service, with protesters challenging officials as they came and went. One man repeatedly asked McAuliffe whether he would push for the removal of Confederate statues in the state. The governor replied that Virginia law left that decision up to local communities.
But later, McAuliffe issued a statement urging the state legislature and municipalities to relocate such statues from public spaces to museums.
Another resident asked Kaine why Charlottesville police had failed to head off the weekend’s violent clashes. He said city officials had promised an independent review of the police response.
In an interview after the service, Kaine condemned the lack of “moral leadership” from the White House and pledged that Virginia would not become a haven for avowed racists.
“We’re not going backward,” Kaine said. “I don’t care how much a president’s rhetoric might embolden them, this is one place that I can say with confidence, we’re not going backward.”
Trump took note of the memorial Wednesday morning by Twitter: “Memorial service today for beautiful and incredible Heather Heyer, a truly special young woman. She will be long remembered by all!”
Trump had previously praised Heyer as “an incredible young woman” and noted that Bro had released a statement Monday thanking him for his remarks on the tragedy. After days of criticism of his initial response, which put blame “on many sides,” Trump on Monday explicitly condemned “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”
But in a combative news conference Tuesday, Trump again pointed to “blame on both sides,” and argued that many of those gathered in Charlottesville, who marched with torches in a dramatic scene Friday night, were not white supremacists but rather were there to voice concern over the fate of a Robert E. Lee statue. Neither Trump nor any administration officials were visible at the service.
The service capped an intense several days for Heyer’s family. In text exchanges with the Post, Bro declined to respond to Trump on Tuesday. She said she had barely slept in days, was trying to keep things together and didn’t comment on the president’s latest remarks.
She said she was going to identify her daughter’s body, was picking up her daughter’s last paycheck and was concerned about her daughter’s sick chihuahua.
“Huge public farewell to my child tomorrow,” she wrote on Tuesday.
In her remarks at the service, Bro described a determined, argumentative and passionate child who made an impact on her community despite never going to college.
She implored those who wished to honor Heyer to pay attention to social events in the way that her daughter had taught her and others to do.
Citing a Facebook post of Heyer’s, Bro said: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Ellie Silverman, Arelis R. HernáNdez, Steve Hendrix ·