CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Heather Heyer’s loved ones, politicians and strangers who have already elevated her into a symbol of resistance to hate and discrimination gathered Wednesday to remember her as a committed activist who gave her life for the causes that made her who she was.
“Thank you for making the word ‘hate’ more real,” said her law office coworker Feda Khateeb-Wilson. “But…thank you for making the word ‘love’ even stronger.”
In a packed old theater in the center of the quiet college town that has become a racial battleground, those who knew Heyer turned her memorial into a call for both understanding and action.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her,” said her mother Susan Bro, sparking a cheering ovation from the packed auditorium, where Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Tim Kaine were among the crowd.
“No father should ever have to do this,” said Mark Heyer, his voice breaking on a stage filled with flowers and images of the 32-year-old paralegal who was killed Saturday when a car plowed into a crowd of protesters gathered to oppose a white supremacist rally.
Heyer’s family and friends, after walking into the hushed and crowded auditorium, sat in front rows. One by one they stood to remember the liveliness and social dedication of the young woman.
“At an early age she could call out something that wasn’t right to her,” said Heyer’s grandfather Elwood Schrader, who talked about the woman’s childhood. “In earlier years, she wanted fairness. She wanted justice.”
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.
“Heather’s passion extended to her ideas, her thoughts. And her grandfather is right – she could tell when somebody wasn’t being straight.”
“She loved people, she wanted equality,” Heyer said. On the day of her passing, she wanted to put down hate.”
Heyer was killed when a Dodge Challenger plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. James Alex Fields Jr., who had come from Ohio for the protest, is charged with murder in her death.
“I have aged 10 years in the last week,” Bro said as she struggled up the stairs to the stage when it was her turn to speak. But from the podium, she turned her grief into a call to those who knew her daughter – and those around the world coming to know her now – to fight do “as Heather would do.”
“We are going to have our differences but let’s channel that anger not into hate, not into violence, not in fear .. but into righteous action,” Bro said.
Bro described a determined, argumentative and passionate child who made an impact on her community in spite of never going to college. It was no surprise, Bro said, that Heyer went out “big and large.”
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.”
As the family departed at the end of the service, a woman’s outburst broke the hush as she yelled “Heather was a hero.”
She started to talk negatively about President Donald Trump but was drowned out by the audience telling her to sit down. She persisted until Bro asked her to be respectful of her daughter.
Starting on the day after Heyer was killed while demonstrating against the white supremacists, Bro, spoke out forcefully against hating the man police say is responsible.
“Our daughter did not live a life of hate, and hating this young man is not going to solve anything,” Bro said of Fields, who has been charged with in the car-ramming incident that left also injured 19. A former teacher said Fields sympathized with Nazi views.
Her daughter’s life was about “fairness and equality and caring, and that’s what we want people to take away from this,” Bro said. Heyer’s father echoed those sentiments.
President Trump on Tuesday 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.”
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 was immediately visible at the funeral.
Ahead of Heyer’s memorial, which was held at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville, Bro, who said she has barely slept in days, was trying to keep things together and wasn’t prepared to 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 in a text message Tuesday.
Those attending the funeral are asked to wear purple, Heyer’s favorite color. The theater has made plans for an overflow crowd.
The family had been concerned that a vigil for victims Sunday night might be hit with violence, though that did not occur.
The J.F. Bell Funeral Home has coordinated with Charlottesville police to ensure that there is a safe environment for Wednesday’s memorial, said Deborah Bell-Burks, the office manager.
“I don’t really have any concerns because there will be a police presence,” Bell-Burks said.
Longtime friend Justin Marks, 30, said he and Heyer were watching a friend’s live stream of the hundreds of torch-wielding marchers making their way through the University of Virginia campus Friday night.
Heyer was confused about why they were chanting, “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” Marks said.
“She was just saying how crazy it was that this was happening in our town,” Marks said. “She didn’t think what they were chanting was peaceful.”
But she didn’t hate those people, Marks said. Heyer didn’t hate anyone. She just wanted to understand them. And, on the day she died, she wanted to fight for equality.
Marks hopes that the funeral will give people the courage to speak out, and then he hopes the town can heal.
“Heather didn’t have to stand up for anybody’s rights. She was a straight white woman. She didn’t have to show up that day,” Marks said. “I hope that speaks to people in the same position.”