Charlottesville protesters grieve and advocate on one-year anniversary of deadly white supremacist riot

Photo by Erin Edgerton.
Photo by Erin Edgerton.

Dozens of people marched Sunday in Charlottesville in protest of racial inequality and police brutality — the same issues that brought 32-year-old Heather Heyer to last year’s demonstration where she was killed by a white supremacist.

Attempts by protesters to break through a police barricade and access Heyer’s memorial — in the spot where a suspected neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd, killing Heyer and injuring 19 others — marked a climax in Sunday’s march.

But for Susan Bro, the event wasn’t all about her late daughter.

“Please remember not to think of Heather, but to think of why she was here,” Bro said to reporters on Sunday at a vigil following the march. “She was here to support equality.”

Many of those marching on the anniversary of Heyer’s death labeled themselves as anti-Nazi and anti-police; some equated the two groups, referencing the large number of armed officers, including those from Roanoke County, Charlottesville and state police.

A protester attempts to break through the police barricade restricting access to Heather Heyer’s memorial. Photo by Erin Edgerton.

A police barricade, consisting mostly of officers on bicycles, stopped protesters — which included students, clergy and other community members — from entering the memorial area of the eight-block Downtown Mall. Access to the mall was restricted to only two entrances, where police searched bags for prohibited items like razor blades, flammables and BB guns — but not firearms.

The lack of access for the crowd prevented closure for many present at last year’s violent clashes between white supremacist and counter-protesters, said Nicholas Da Silva, Chairman of the Young Democratic Socialists at VCU. Da Silva attended both protests and said witnessing the car run into a crowd of people last year changed him “fundamentally.”

“I was here last year, I was up right there. That’s something I’ll never forget,” Da Silva said when police denied entry. “They won’t let us get the closure. I haven’t been back here since, and now I’m being blocked by the people that’s supposed to be protecting me.”

Those who attended the vigil did so after the protest disbanded at IX Art Park.  

Bro thanked the city for “what they’ve done to make us safe,” though she described the steps as “a little bit like overkill.” She also made a point to remember the Virginia State Police officers who died when their helicopter crashed following surveillance of last year’s protests.

“A lot of people came out here because they were here last year. They’re dealing with that moment,” Bro said. “Some of it’s for Heather and some of it’s not, and that’s okay.”

Bro’s message has held fast over the last 12 months — she believes her daughter would want supporters to “focus on the issues,” like racial justice and affordable housing. 

Photo by Erin Edgerton.

Long-time Charlottesville resident and medical student Shefali Hegde has begun to see these issues firsthand working in a hospital. Like others in the city who have become more active in social justice circles since Heyer’s death, she said she’s realized she needs to “stand up” for her principles.

“(The local political climate) has changed a lot, definitely, and it seems like a lot more people got radicalized from last year because of what happened,” Hegde said. “The fact that people are organizing makes me really proud.”

Perhaps the most notable organizing effort to come of Heyer’s death is the Heather Heyer Foundation, co-founded by Bro and Alfred Wilson, a Division Manager for Miller Law Group, where Heyer worked as a paralegal.

Wilson said the foundation is starting a national and international initiative to fund social justice efforts run by youth. Dubbed “Heyer Voices,” the project will begin in the spring of 2019.

“The past year has been really hard,” Wilson said. “I’m glad that people are still being active, people are still trying to make a difference.”

Though she didn’t march in the protest, Charlottesville-area resident Jennifer Wainwright said she understood the positions of the participants as she observed from the sidewalk. She reflected on Heyer’s death and the beating of a Black man in a parking garage by a white supremacist on the same day.

“I think a lot of people have seen things that they’ve never seen before and that we cannot unsee,” Wainwright said. “I would never have chosen this path in a million years, but I think that some good will come of it.”

Georgia Geen Managing Editor 

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