What Heather Taught Us

By Rebecca Amadi

As we approach the end of August, we remember Charlottesville activist Heather Heyer and reflect on the past three years since her death. The Unite the Right Rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th and August 12th, 2017. The rally, organized by white nationalist Richard Spencer, empowered neo Nazis, far right militia groups, and white supremacists to take to the streets in an open display of hostility. The rally proved that the alt-right is not simply a collection of fringe individuals, but an organized movement seeking to spread their message of hate and bigotry.

The invasion of white supremacists did not go unchallenged; anti-racism demonstrators came together to take a stance against the alt-right. Heather was a part of the diverse group of counter protesters that spanned different religions, genders, ages, and sexual orientations. Susan Bro, Heather’s mother, describes her daughter as full of love with a strong sense of justice. Heather did not go to the rally to be a martyr for the cause or to be in the limelight. She joined with the counter protesters because it was the right thing to do. As an ally, Heather decided her love for those different than her was more important than the safety that comes with staying quiet. This active and engaged form of love is a powerful tool for revolutionary change.

Since our inception, the James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate has understood that “Love is Stronger than Hate.” To some, this seems like an empty platitude, spoken from a position of naiveté. Love has fallen out of fashion in activist spaces. Many want to focus on the very real anger of oppression and discrimination. Love seems to be a privilege that obscures the reality of white supremacy. Yet, while there is tangible pain caused by oppression, and while this pain cannot be ignored, it also cannot be healed without love. Race scholar and essayist bell hooks describes the importance of love to overcoming racism, sexism, and classism. Hooks notes that building awareness of the pain caused by white supremacy is central to building freedom. Love for the self, and for others, comes with acknowledging the truth of oppression and is necessary for both personal and political growth.

Hooks also posits that the culture of domination, as exemplified in the angry shouts of the white nationalists and neo Nazis at the Unite the Right Rally, is anti-love and requires violence to sustain itself. White supremacist violence has been on the rise across the country since the rally in 2017. Recent examples include the El Paso shooting where Latinos were targeted, the Charleston Church shooting where Black Americans were attacked, and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting which was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. White supremacist violence is an important tool in sustaining systematic oppression.  Choosing to respond with love is not simply opening your arms to people who seek to destroy you. It is a radical statement that says you will not replicate the systems of violence that oppress you. Deciding to act on love and allow it to guide your activism is a form of radical resistance against the tools of white supremacy.

Heather’s choice to love did not result in her death; white supremacist violence killed her.  Her decision to fight hate with love was a courageous declaration of her values. Heather took a stand, not out of hate directed at the white supremacists marching in her city, but out of love for her neighbors. Susan Bro has continued to honor her daughter by establishing the Heather Heyer Foundation, a non-profit aimed at helping the next generation of social justice advocates. Her legacy teaches us that love is not only powerful, it is the only way we can move forward together.