Obituary: Heather Heyer died on August 12th

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TO HER friends, it seemed as if Heather Heyer was always sounding off about something. Why was the world so unfair? Why did one particular kid get bullied on the school bus? Why could her gay friends not get married? Why did Alfred Wilson, her lovely division manager at Miller Law, who was college-educated and hipster-elegant, get followed when he went to the store, just because he was black? Why did some friends have such bad luck that they had to crash with her for months because they had nowhere to go? She was happy to let them. But she wondered, and she complained. If you’re not outraged, she posted, you’re not paying attention.

She shed tears about it, too. A Facebook post or a news item would set her off at the computer, even at work. She cried about cruelty and unfairness and racist insults, and posted a link to a video entitled: “If You’re Scared of Islam, Meet a Muslim”. She was so upset about a policeman in Fort Worth, Texas, dragging a black woman along the ground, that she called for him to be fired. The election of Donald Trump was the worst; it made her desperate about her country. She had posted Bernie Sanders’s picture on her Facebook page, hoping.

It wasn’t that she was sad by nature. She was bubbly, funny, strong-minded and, at 32, happy with herself, even if she put on weight too easily (cigarettes helped with that), and even if her hair had too much natural curl (she’d found products that really worked to sort the hair out, until some of her profile pix drew “Wow!” and “Saaaaaamokin!”). Purple was her colour, a nice strong statement: purple clothes whenever possible, and Violet as the obvious name for her sweet little chocolate chihuahua, all big ears and big dark eyes looking wistfully into hers. Rather than sad, she was tender-hearted. She shed tears for happiness too, so that when she had been five years at Miller Law, and Larry Miller himself took her to lunch, gave her a bonus and told her she was very important to them, like family, she could only manage to sob how good it was, and give him a hug.

Hers was a tough job in the bankruptcy division: entering all the data about each case, taking in the documents and especially liaising with the clients, so they didn’t feel daunted by the process. She knew nothing about law when she left high school, but Mr Wilson told her she was exactly what they needed, a “people person” to be on the front line with a reassuring smile. Her other job, which she kept going, was waitressing at Caturra on The Corner, right by the main grounds of the University of Virginia: a chic place if you had the quinoa-salmon combo, less so if you ordered the Caturra Mess, which was a pile of potatoes, ham and cheese with two eggs over easy and hollandaise. Online comments praised the friendly service; she was outraged that nobody tipped any restaurant staff enough.

At Miller Law (“We help you live your life”) she had to deal with clients who just couldn’t make ends meet, were being evicted, or were ill: like Steve, who had Parkinson’s and felt swamped with bills for his medication; or Felicia, with six children, MS and nothing to pay the bills. She would hold their hand if they got emotional, tell them it was going to be OK. Then she would take them through the paperwork and remind them to send in their documents on time. Everything had to be done exactly right. She went to night classes, on top of everything else, to try to get a better understanding of it all. It made her sleep late some mornings, but Mr Wilson kindly adjusted his schedule to fit in with hers.

If only the world could be put so straight. Like the racism in Charlottesville, which broke out whenever people talked about moving the statue of Robert E. Lee out of Emancipation Park, as they called it now, and putting it somewhere else. (Someone had painted “Black Lives Matter” on the base of it, and you could still read it two years later, though the city had tried hard to scrub it off.) She had been born and raised in Ruckersville, north of town in the hills, which was 85% white and had more rural attitudes. But Charlottesville was 19% black, and still one of her boyfriends had told her he didn’t like her being so friendly with Mr Wilson (she dropped that one fast); and still some folk gasped in horror at the mere thought of moving the statue. And then the white racists came storming in from all over to defend it.

How could they think that?

She was not an activist herself; there wasn’t much time to be. She wouldn’t have dreamed of, say, marching with Antifa behind a banner reading “The Only Good Fascist is a Dead Fascist”. She didn’t march with Black Lives Matter, either, or wave LGBTQ flags, though she supported them all. Her way was to stand up loudly for them, and to ask anyone who disagreed why they believed that? And how could they think it? But the sheer size of the white nationalist rally planned for August 12th made her feel, for the first time ever, that she really had to get out in the street. She and her friends could try to spread a different message, that Charlottesville was a place of love. Suddenly, she had to do more than just argue. More than just cry.