Treatment of Heather Heyer's mother illustrates our culture's lack of empathy for the families of Black victims. We can do better.
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When Heather Heyer woke up and got dressed the morning of August 12, there was no way she could have known she would not make it back home. The 32-year-old, who died after being allegedly struck by a car driven by a neo-Nazi, probably didn’t imagine that she’d be heralded as a hero and martyr for peacefully protesting against hundreds of white supremacists. That’s not what she’d sought to be.
But now Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, has become the newest member of the Mothers’ Club—a club no one wants to join because it comprises a group of mothers (and other family members) whose loved ones have been killed by white supremacists. Members of this club include Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown; Esaw Garner, Eric Garner’s widow; and many others. Its members have become a staple in political discourse: Pundits and elected officials often politicize the bereaved family’s grief and thrust the family members into the national spotlight. Recall the Mothers of the Movement’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, stumping for Hillary Clinton.
When Black people are killed at the hands of racists, grieving family members are often asked to make make everyone else feel okay about it, to make sure everyone knows they don’t hold an entire group of people accountable for their loved one’s death, to warn other Black people against retributive violence. They’re often asked to fast forward their grieving process straight to acceptance without being allowed the time and space of being rightfully angry. Susan Bro has spoken to the press, and has been asked for her take on her daughter’s message, but she has not been asked to display the saintly level of forgiveness and peace expected of the Black members of the Mothers’ Club. Bro’s treatment during this difficult time reveals both the persistent difference in treatment of Black people in this country and a blueprint for how future new additions to the Mothers’ Club (because sadly there will be more) should be treated by the media, politicians, and the general public.
Shortly after their son was killed, the Martin family called for a “peaceful resolution,” emphasizing that they were “promoting peace” and “non-violence.” Michael Brown’s parents put out a similar call through their lawyer when they joined the governor of Missouri’s “call for civility” in response to a grand jury decision on whether to charge the officer who fatally shot the 18-year-old. The two families joined together for a peace rally in 2014 where Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, told the crowd “We don’t want to give them no reason to assassinate our children.” These sentiments serve to honor their late sons and warn other Black people: “You could be next.”
Susan Bro has not received this standard new member initiation. She has not been paraded in front of a press conference where she calls for peace and nonviolence, where she emphasizes that “not all cops” or “not all white people” are responsible for her daughter’s death.
No one expects Bro to proclaim “not all Nazis” because it is easier for whites to condemn Nazis without implicating themselves. While Black mothers fear for the lives of their own children after learning about Trayvon or Michael or Sandra, it’s doubtful that white mothers fear that their children will meet Heyer’s fate. Heyer’s death was unusual — she was a white woman peacefully protesting against the KKK and neo-Nazis in 2017 when she got ran over by a weaponized Dodge Challenger. The untimely and unjust deaths of Black people, however, have become commonplace; so much so that the mostly white press asks the families of these victims to console and pacify the public.
Bro, on the other hand, has stressed that any fights between marching racists and counter-protesters were “irrelevant” to her daughter’s death. Shortly after her daughter’s death, Bro announced that she will not speak to President Trump because he equated counter protesters like her late daughter with “the KKK and the white supremacists.” Her announcement did not spur headlines of “lashing out” and “fury” as Esaw Garner’s statements about refusing to accept an apology from her husband’s killer did, nor should it. Several protests and anti-protests were scheduled the weekend after the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, and politicians did not ask Bro to implore her fellow white people to practice peace and civility.
Time and again, America denies Black family members of victims of racism and white supremacy their grieving process. The country rejects their anger. It refuses their pain. Rather, America dictates Black people gracefully accept blatant injustice. This denial both strips Black people of their humanity while demanding we be super-human.
Although Donald Trump condoned the behavior of the white nationalists who ultimately caused Heyer’s death, the governor of Virginia condemned their actions, telling them to “go home.” But Heyer’s death has inspired more than just speeches. Nancy Pelosi and Cory Booker are pushing for the removal of Confederate statues in the halls of Congress. Additionally, a bill in North Carolina that would protect drivers who hit protesters is no longer being moved forward after the events in Charlottesville. When Black people die at the hands of white supremacists or are the victims of police brutality, we may or may not make the news, but things quickly return to business as usual. Elected officials from across the nation do not spring into action in our defense.
Since Heyer’s death, 22 Confederate monuments have been removed, and 21 are proposed to be removed. A crowdsourced Google Doc created after her death aims to identify Confederate monuments throughout the country in the hopes of eliminating them all. At Heyer’s memorial service, Bro acknowledged that her daughter’s death has been and will continue to be a catalyst for action. “Make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I gotta give her up, we’re going to make it count!” Bro is confident that her daughter’s life mattered. She never had to urge the country to #sayhername. The nation extended Bro the empathy and space to grieve as a mother, and comforted her with the knowledge that her daughter’s death would not be in vain. When legislatures urgently removed Confederate monuments and pundits offered condolences to Bro, they were expressing a profound sense of empathy and consideration. That is as it should be. If the nation is to ever work toward equality, it must show the same capacity for empathy for Black victims and their families.
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