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Anti Hero

Anna Sowers Tried to Speak Out Against Violence in Baltimore But Ended Up Tuned Out

Photos by Frank Klein

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 12/17/2008

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On a sunny October day last year, Anna Sowers stood behind mayoral candidate Keiffer Mitchell and waited to speak. Thin and seemingly fragile amid a crowd of firefighters and police, she shifted from side to side as her hands fiddled nervously with a purse that hung at her waist.

Mitchell was running for mayor on a pledge to improve public safety, and Sowers made for a timely addition to his usual stump speech. He introduced her as a wife and a victim of a heinous crime: the widely publicized beating of her husband Zachary Sowers in front of their home near Patterson Park on June 2, 2007. The beating left Zach Sowers in a coma that lasted for more than nine months before he died, in late March.

"She has organized her neighborhood and this city to rally against crime and for a justice system that is fair," Mitchell said before turning the microphone over to the 28-year-old widow and daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, a project manager at Johns Hopkins Medicine Marketing and Communications who had emerged as an unlikely symbol for the dangerousness of Baltimore's streets.

With a halting voice and slight lisp and seeming still slightly traumatized, Sowers told the Mitchell supporters that after her husband was brutally beaten, "four boys basically decided to let him die on the street for his wallet, his watch, and his cell phone. This could've happened to any of us. It doesn't matter what color you are, what neighborhood you live in, or what faith you practice, crime all over the city affects every one of us."

Claiming that the city had failed her and her husband, Sowers called upon residents to hold leaders accountable for such tragedies. She urged people to stand together, take action, and demand justice. She concluded: "I'm hoping that if Keiffer Mitchell is elected he will fulfill the promises he has been making" to improve public safety in Baltimore.

The beating of Zach Sowers had already galvanized young professionals in Canton and Federal Hill, who attended neighborhood rallies as he lay in a coma at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Anna had launched a recovery fund and a loosely organized campaign to shake up City Hall with calls for tougher prosecutions and penalties for violent offenders. She met with some of the most powerful people in Maryland, most of who praised her courage and conviction. At first, it did not hurt and probably helped that she and Zach represented an educated, privileged class of new Baltimore residents. People gravitated to the brave, grieving widow who spoke her mind. A media fixation developed and Anna Sowers soon commanded attention from print reporters, pundits, and radio personalities.

But Sowers was wading into troubled waters. As newspaper stories, columns, and broadcast news reports dramatized her husband's attack, and talk-radio hosts pounced on Zach's beating as a symbol of urban failure, many started to question why such a fuss does not accompany the deaths of the hundreds of African-Americans who die every year in Baltimore.

Many local leaders evaded, obfuscated, or deflected issues Sowers raised. Some simply ignored or stopped returning her calls. Some say they did not understand what she wanted from them. Some say her approach was wrongheaded. Others concede they feared a negative reaction if they went too far in support of an Asian-American woman whose white husband had been attacked by black youths.

Not surprisingly, speaking at a rally for a mayoral candidate destined to lose had political consequences, too, even for a neophyte activist who claimed to be seeking apolitical change. But whether she knew it, her appearance with Keiffer Mitchell at that October rally allowed her story to morph from the rare person taking deliberate action in the face of tragedy into one woman's futile attempt to confront a city's most entrenched problems. Rather than find an audience receptive to change, Sowers saw violence, fear, and outrage met with opportunism, apathy, and distrust. The backlash left her frustrated, alienated, and wondering why she bothered in the first place.

As she plots a future that includes a law career and a pledge to make criminal justice reform her cause, Sowers now says she wants the people of Baltimore and anyone thinking of moving here to know what happened when she tested those troubled waters. And she's telling her story with the same nerve and incredulity she displayed while confronting what she sees as a broken justice system in a racially torn city with a leadership vacuum and endemic numbness to violence.

On a bright, chilly day in October, a year since she spoke at the Mitchell rally, Anna Sowers sits in a Thai restaurant in Mount Vernon re-living not just her husband's beating and subsequent death, but all that has happened since. Her good looks and confident demeanor suggest an intelligent girl-next-door type who knows what she wants and usually gets it. She speaks with a rapid cadence that bends upward at the end of her sentences almost in the form of a question, and though she smiles and laughs easily, she also possesses an air of impatience that commands attention. "What's this do?" she says, not quite playfully, as she dunks a piece of chicken into some spicy vinegar sauce.

Prior to this meeting, Sowers--who never legally took her husband's last name but has adopted it informally since becoming a media figure--provided documentation of her efforts to interact with public officials and civic leaders. Her file reads like a Who's Who of Baltimore. She's more than willing, practically eager, to leave no taboo subject or local heavyweight unexamined.

Anna and Zach grew up on the same block in Frederick and knew each other since they were 12. After earning her communications degree from the University of Michigan, Anna moved to Baltimore in 2002 with Zach, who had graduated from Towson University. The two got jobs and started studying for their master's degrees at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Zach enjoyed DJing in local bars and they loved hanging with friends at various Canton and Fells Point watering holes. Shortly after midnight on June 1, 2007, Zach walked home from a Canton bar to tend to the couple's pet dog, Mia, when a young man named Trayvon Ramos, who was accompanied by three others, knocked him down in front of the couple's South Robinson Street house. (Anna was out of town.) A beating by Ramos landed Zach in the hospital, where he lapsed into a coma. When Anna finally found Zach in his hospital bed, he was unrecognizable, his head swollen to the size of a basketball.

Today, Anna Sowers has lost the traumatized look she had when she first started speaking into cameras and microphones late last year. She seems resigned to anger and indignation.

"This isn't about race, but it always gets turned back into the racial issue," Sowers says. "Because Zach is white and his attackers are black, people said he only got media attention because he's white. I've been called every dirty name. I've been called a media whore. Craigslist was the worst. I never should've gone there."

She says she is applying to law school after having completed her masters in business administration. She quit her job in February. She has moved out of the city and lives with her father. Asked if she ever sought grief counseling she says no, but she has suffered anxiety attacks and sleeplessness and takes Xanax. She's not sure what if anything she has to do with Baltimore anymore. "I wonder if they'd just forget about me," she says, "like, the politicians. . . . It is so hard to pretend to live here."

For months after locating Zach in the hospital, Sowers met with politicians and city leaders, as the 2007 mayoral campaign was in full swing. Bethel AME Pastor Frank Reid III and Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, called to offer their condolences, as did many others.

However, she now questions the sincerity of many who approached her early on. And her failure to gain traction with the city's power base on reform initiatives she later developed has left her feeling cold and rejected. "The only person that cared was Keiffer [Mitchell]," she says. "Everyone else just showed up to get a photo taken with me."

An early encounter with Mayor Sheila Dixon less than two months after Zach was beaten, and the case against Zach's assailants that resulted in a plea bargain offered by Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy in late 2007, caused Sowers to focus her disdain on perhaps the two most powerful women in city government. "I do hate both of them," she says, matter-of-factly.

Sowers' only personal interaction with Dixon was at Regi's American Bistro during Neighbor's Night Out, an event she organized in August 2007 in which a couple dozen bars and restaurants donated a percentage of their receipts to the Zachary Sowers Recovery Fund. According to Sowers, the mayor ordered takeout and left after making small talk. "I didn't feel any sort of connection," Sowers adds. "She had no clue who I even was, which was kind of disgusting." Dixon declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this story.

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