Heather Heyer’s Encounter With America’s Deepest Disease

(The Recorder) Joseph Saveri Law Firm marketing analyst/paralegal Dan VanDeMortel and paralegal Heaven Y. Haile commented today concerning the third anniversary of the death of paralegal Heather Heyer, who was the victim of a federal hate crime committed during racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017:

Three years ago, 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer died. Not from illness or an accident. Instead, she paid the ultimate price while representing America’s best virtues, in a manner worthy of remembrance during this year’s alarming headlines, as our country struggles to reconcile its flawed racist past with its demographic future.

Heather, the great-granddaughter of coal miners, grew up in a working-class but resilient environment with her mother and brother in a trailer in rural, predominantly white Ruckersville, Virginia. After struggling to graduate from high school, she continued living at home, drifting into waitressing and bartending jobs. She and her family led, as famed journalist Joan Didion once aptly described in “Political Fictions,” “lives on that social and economic edge referred to, in Washington and among those whose preferred locus is Washington as ‘out there.”‘

By her mid-20s, Heather had developed a defined sense of right and wrong. She was compassionate, opinionated, occasionally stubborn, unafraid of challenging others, and inclined to side with the underdog. Her work prospects, however, were less defined, more uncertain, until a black supervisor at a nearby Charlottesville law firm, trusting her compassion over her legal inexperience, hired Heather as a bankruptcy paralegal. He trained her in bankruptcy rules, sent her to classes, encouraged job ownership, and watched as she eagerly responded. Engaging with bankruptcy clients also enlarged her empathy for the struggles of people of color and different socioeconomic backgrounds, including those hampered by illness and drug addiction.

Although Heather suffered from low self-esteem that sometimes inhibited her ambitions, her supervisor kept encouraging her job performance, and also coaxed her to prepare a retirement savings account, establish a college fund for her niece, and plan to purchase a condo. As 2017 arrived, possibilities were becoming accomplishments.

Charlottesville, meanwhile, struggled to move forward. In February, with Black Lives Matter gaining traction nationwide, its city council voted to remove a 1924-erected statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Opponents quickly sued to block the decision. In June, the council voted to rename Lee Park, where the statue stood, Emancipation Park. The city’s actions outraged and inspired a local and national collection of neo-Nazi white supremacists, and related groups to organize a “Unite the Right” rally for the weekend of August 12. In response, counter-demonstrations were planned, organized by church and civil rights leaders and anti-fascist activists. Heather considered supporting the counter-demonstrators but worried there would be gun violence at the rally. “I want to go so badly but I don’t want to get shot. I don’t want to die,” she told a coworker.

On Friday night, August 11, at the University of Virginia’s campus, the influx of assorted alt-right groups, many adorned with swastikas, marched with aggression, carrying flaming torches and chanting antisemitic and white supremacy slogans in an effort to ”Take Back America.” Their numbers, anger, and overt intimidation harkened back to a racist period most Americans had hoped, if not more likely assumed, had been consigned to the Jim Crow era, when segregation and violence openly ruled the South, justified and codified under the deceptively comforting language of “states’ rights.”

Heather and her co-workers watched with fear and revulsion at this atavistic display, as did the nation. Overnight, their quaint, gentrified city and UVA, home to one of the nation’s finest law schools, had become Ground Zero for a well-organized demonstration of racial superiority. Alarmed that their city had been taken over by hate, they decided to support the counter-protesters the following day.

Alt-right protestors, many heavily armed, reappeared downtown on Saturday morning, with former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Republican presidential candidate David Duke in attendance. A state of emergency was declared as authorities attempted to shut down the rally. Instead, unrest spread to nearby areas. Heather and her co-workers arrived in the afternoon, like most counter-protesters, without weapons or offensive clothing. After attempting a constructive dialogue with a helmeted female protestor and encountering a menacing alt¬∑right group, they veered into a nearby narrow street. Moments later, a 20-year-old Ohio man-once a mother’s innocent baby, now an agitated, hateful Nazi devotee-plowed his Dodge Challenger down the street, mowing down with disdain anyone in his way. As he abruptly reversed course, dragging people along, he left a trail of agonized screams, blood, and severe injuries. Twenty persons were injured; 19 survived. Heather, hospitalized after taking the brunt of the car’s impact, did not.

In the aftermath, citizens and politicians of all political stripes denounced the alt-right marches, white supremacy, and violence. President Trump, by Twitter and interviews, avoided specifically criticizing white nationalism or neo-Nazi behavior, instead condemning the hatred, bigotry, and violence “on many sides,” equivocating further that there were ”very fine people, on both sides,” including those there to “innocently protest” the statute’s removal. With those remarks, the oxygen of Heather’s story, Charlottesville’s story, indeed the story of America’s reckoning with Confederate symbols in the midst of resurgent white nationalism was absorbed into the Presidential vortex that habitually subsumes our national discourse, for supporters and detractors alike. That included Duke, who tweeted praise for the President’s “honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville.”

At the time, the blatant, mass racism of Charlottesville seemed like an aberration to some, a disturbing but perhaps one-off visit from a time when movies were in black and white, and so were racial relationships. But from a 2020 lens, Charlottesville instead was a warning buoy that America’s race relations and ability to come to terms with its past had once again, undeniably, entered violent waters.

“I think it’s a damn shame that a white girl had to die for people to have to pay attention,” Heather’s mother told The Guardian in 2017. In 2020, white names are no longer solely necessary to stimulate our national conscience. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black victims of unnecessary violence have captured our attention. Car assaults, once associated with Middle East fundamentalists, are now regularly injuring and killing protesters across the country. And the clash over Confederate statues and symbols-mostly erected long after the Civil War to promote Jim Crow sovereignty and commemorate traitors to the Constitution-go on with contested, and sometimes successful, pleas for their removal in the South and elsewhere. Even the Department of Defense has entered the fray, recently sidestepping President Trump’s “freedom of speech” defense by rejecting usage of “divisive symbols” on its bases, effectively banning the Confederate flag.

Campaign statements often drift toward hyperbole. Yet when Presidential candidate Joe Biden states that we are involved in a battle for the soul of America, in the wake of Charlottesville and this year’s perpetual disturbances it would be hard to disagree. The battle lines are clearly visible on your news feed of choice. As our inclusive future beckons with promise, our divisive, discriminatory past clings with deep roots, leaving ordinary citizens such as Heather caught in the violent crossfire. Her mother, a cancer survivor, likened our country’s racism to a “festering boil of hate [that] has been lanced to reveal its full measure of infection, full measure of bitterness, full measure of disease.” How long and whether healing of that disease takes place is unknown. But we will all contribute toward the answers in some way by the actions we take, or fail to take. And those decisions will be determined now by how much we know about and how we perceive our collective past.

Reprinted with permission from the August 12, 2020 issue of the Recorder. © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.