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Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville after being struck by a vehicle during the white nationalist riots, poses for a portrait in a room in Heyer's old law office, where her charitable foundation is now headquartered. The room, small but cheerful, features paintings of Heyer, tweets from Bernie Sanders in her honor honoring her, inspirational quotes and flowers. Everything is bedecked in purple, Heyer's favorite color.
Keith C Lane, for USA TODAY

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Susan Bro is still reeling from the day that a man backed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally, killing her daughter, Heather Heyer, at age 32.

Bro, now 61, was a government secretary at a small office in nearby Greene County when Heyer, a legal assistant, was taken from her on Aug. 12, 2017. James Alex Fields Jr., a young neo-Nazi, was indicted in June on one federal count of a hate crime resulting in Heyer's death, 28 counts of hate crimes causing bodily injury and involving an attempt to kill and one count of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity.

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Before the first anniversary of the tragic "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Bro sat down with USA TODAY to discuss her life without Heyer.

She spoke from an armchair in the corner of a room in Heyer's old law office, where her charitable foundation is now headquartered. The room, small but cheerful, features paintings of Heyer, tweets from Sen. Bernie Sanders in her honor, inspirational quotes and flowers. Everything is bedecked in purple, Heyer's favorite color. 

Bro remembers vividly the day Heather died: the paralyzing phone calls from Heyer's friends, the detective at the hospital who said her daughter had been pronounced dead, laying her head down and wailing when her worst fears had been confirmed. 

"I never even got to see her until the day before the funeral," she said. “I wish I could have seen her."

Before her life was turned upside down by Heyer's death, Bro lived a quiet life about a half-hour outside Charlottesville with her husband, Heyer's stepdad. She'd spent 18 years as a teacher before turning to government work. She knitted, she crocheted, she canned. 

Now, Bro is an outspoken activist, a mother who has taken up the cause of a daughter unafraid to speak out against inequality or peacefully protest when an uninvited crowd of white nationalists marched through her city. 

"I turned my attention to carrying forth her message," she said. "You don’t get to silence my kid and get away with it. I'm going to speak even louder."

Bro now runs the Heather Heyer Foundation, which awards scholarships to students who are passionate about social justice. Bro isn't sure the stark political partisanship that divides the country will subside during her lifetime – and that's why she's "training Heather's replacement."

And, as she has become immersed in the civil rights fight that Heyer cared so deeply about, Bro has come to realize that she and her daughter can play an important role in a conversation she sees as long overdue. 

"Unfortunately, we’re still at such a racial divide that it took a white girl dying for white people to wake up and pay attention," she said. People of color, she said, "have been fighting this fight for many years – this is not news to them."

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A small memorial of flowers mark the spot where Heather Heyer smoked outside of her old law office in Charlottesville.
Keith C Lane for USA TODAY

In the whirlwind year since her daughter's death, Bro has spoken to countless politicians, reporters and well-wishers. She has made a "conscious effort" to magnify her daughter's voice. But there's one person with whom she has no interest in dialogue. 

During Heyer's funeral, Bro turned off her phone so she'd be able to focus. When she checked it that night, she had three "increasingly frantic" messages – all from the White House.

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So she turned on the news. She saw that President Donald Trump, in a public statement, had equivocated the white nationalists and the counterprotesters, claiming that there were "very fine people" on both sides. 

"I was like, 'I’m kinda done with this.' I don’t really need to talk to him, I don’t really care what he has to say," she said. "He’s a busy man, I’m a busy woman. I don’t think we need to bother each other."

Bro isn't surprised that some of the same white nationalists plan an anniversary rally Sunday in Washington after their attempt to reconvene in Charlottesville was foiled. Hundreds of far-right demonstrators are likely to march on Pennsylvania Avenue, then gather in Lafayette Square to advocate for "white civil rights."

Bro has her own plans for that day. 

She'll visit her daughter's grave and lay flowers there. She'll attend an NAACP meeting. She'll speak about what she thinks America must do to heal. 

"The country is very polarized, but I think this has been simmering below the surface for many years," she said. "It’s just now coming out, and so we need to get to the root of it: clear it out, heal our country from the roots up."

Bro still thinks of her daughter all the time: when she walks past the spot outside the law office where Heyer used to take smoke breaks, when she drives past the house Heyer used to live. 

Heyer wasn't a leader, Bro says; she wasn't at the front of the crowd when the car backed through it. She was persuasive on social media and in small groups. On Aug. 12, 2017, she "showed up simply to be supportive of her friends."

 But, Bro is sure of her daughter's message for the world today, were she alive. 

"Get your act together," she said. "Stop hating, treat people the way you want to be treated."