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May 16, 2019

The Washington Post: Her daughter died at Charlottesville. She wants the feds to do more to fight hate.

Susan Bro watched silently as a gut-wrenching video replayed the viciousness that killed her daughter. When the video stopped, Bro took a tissue and wiped tears from her face.

It was a disturbing start to a congressional hearing. But she gave her permission to run footage showing the moment Heather Heyer, 32 years old, was killed by neo-Nazi James Alex Fields, who was convicted of murder. He smashed a 2010 Dodge Challenger into a Charlottesville crowd of anti-racist protesters in August 2017, flinging Heyer into the air like a rag doll.

“My daughter was probably dead by the time she hit the ground,” Bro told a rapt House Oversight and Reform subcommittee hearing this week. Subcommittee Chairman Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said he called the hearing to focus on the government’s response to “the rise of a particular form of domestic terrorism — violent white supremacy.”

That includes Heyer’s murder.

“Bodies flew into the air or were smashed into the ground,” Bro told the panel. “My daughter spun through the air, smashing his front windshield, leaving behind blood and skin. Her body then fell to the ground. . . . Between 30 to 40 people were injured that day.”

She went to Congress to fight white-supremacist violence and for more aggressive federal action against it. During a break in the hearing, she admitted in an interview that her first congressional testimony left her “a little frazzled.” She and her husband drove to and from Charlottesville on Wednesday, a round trip of several hours, to save money.

“I still live in a single-wide trailer,” she said.

Bro was treated with sympathy and deference by the committee, including the few Republicans who attended — a poor turnout she said saddened her. Democrats and most of the other witnesses were not as gentle with the Trump administration.

George Selim, an Anti-Defamation League senior vice president and former Department of Homeland Security official, said that “the insufficient actions of our government to confront the pervasive and growing threat of white supremacy are a very clear dereliction of its duty to protect our communities.”

Selim, who served in the current and past two administrations, criticized President Trump’s cuts in domestic terrorism resources. He said the DHS Office for Community Partnerships, which works to prevent extremism, had $10 million in grant funding available for local organizations, 16 full-time employees, 25 contractors and a $21 million budget under the Obama administration.

“Now on its second renaming exercise, the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention currently consists of eight staff (with four other positions left unfilled) and a budget of $2.6 million,” his statement said. The office once reported to the secretary, he added, but now must go through “at least four layers of bureaucracy” to get there.

DHS did not respond to a request for comment. It will get another chance at a Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee hearing next month on the department’s and the FBI’s responses to domestic terrorism.

ADL, formed to protect Jewish people but with a mission that includes “fair treatment for all,” is a major collector of data on hate crimes. Citing its latest report on extremist-related murders, Selim said 78 percent of the 50 murders committed by extremists in 2018 were tied to white supremacy. Of the 313 people killed by right-wing extremists from 2009 to 2018, he said, 76 percent were killed by white supremacists.

That makes “white supremacists the deadliest extremist movement in the United States over the past decade,” Selim said.

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, the top Republican on the panel, was cautious, saying that “casting blame and large nets of accusation beyond the locus of the hate only causes more people to retreat to entrenched corners.”

He acknowledged the “forces of evil . . . spewing racist venom” in Charlottesville, but also placed white supremacists’ violence in a context that made the venom seem less toxic. “Perspective is important when there were 17,000 murders in the U.S. last year,” he said.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) was forceful and blunt with a different perspective about blame, saying the increasing number of hate crimes “are a byproduct of the hateful rhetoric being spewed regularly by the occupant of our White House. This administration has emboldened white nationalism, white supremacy and far-right extremism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, all while suggesting these groups do not present a growing threat to our communities and national security.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Pressley added that “since 1995, black Americans have been victims of 66 percent of all racially-motivated hate crimes,” a point Bro didn’t let pass.

“Heather was killed primarily because Mr. Fields was aiming to kill someone who he thought was black,” she said. “. . . Because we have this myth of the sacredness of the white female I’ve been given a platform.

“So, I’m going to use that platform.”

That she did.