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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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In December 2007, when Jessamy's office accepted guilty pleas from Ramos and three accomplices involved in Zach's beating, Sowers complained bitterly that the sentences were too light, and that Jessamy's office was cowed by the prospects of jury nullification--that is, when juries refuse to convict despite evidence the defendant is guilty. Former police commissioner Ed Norris, who has a radio show on WHFS-FM, took pleasure in criticizing Baltimore's top prosecutor.

Alienated from Dixon and Jessamy and with no experience as an activist, Sowers remained encouraged by what seemed like support from other influential leaders. Cheatham sat with her in court for the reading of the guilty pleas of Zach's attackers--40 years for Ramos and eight years each for his three accomplices, who fingered Ramos as the attacker. Cheatham had also invited her on his weekly TV show in December 2007.

A key issue in the criminal prosecution had been lack of solid witnesses and fear among potential ones. So in early 2008, Sowers began to focus on the cultural virus Stop Snitching. But she needed more than condolences and handholding. As a means to developing a multi-racial coalition, she set her sights on convincing two dozen black leaders to publicly condemn senseless violence in general and the Stop Fucking Snitching DVDs. The name of the proposed group was the Black 25.

"I wish her luck in her efforts," wrote Gregory Kane, a former columnist for The Baltimore Sun, now writing for The Examiner. "But the outlook is dim."

Nevertheless, she sought help where she thought she could find it. Despite efforts to engage Reid in a discussion, she never heard from him again. She consulted with Cheatham about ideas for helping her gain traction with the black community. "He wanted me to meet with a woman who was fighting for criminals' voting rights," Sowers says. "I was like, 'I don't believe in that.'"

Like several others, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski encouraged her on the Black 25 yet wouldn't commit to it, she says. Instead, Hrabowski urged her to reach out to the "mamas and the ministers." She felt "passed around," she says.

In January, Sowers met with U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-7th District), who she says suggested he might be able to get Baltimore Ravens' star Ray Lewis and NBA star Carmelo Anthony to consider the Black 25. "He was sympathetic," she says of Cummings, "but he told me he couldn't support what I did unless I formed an organization. I was like, why can't you just help me, as a resident of Maryland and Baltimore, and as a victim?"

In February, former congressman Kweisi Mfume, current head of the NAACP, pledged support for Sowers' agenda. But he told her before committing to doing anything, he wanted her to win Cummings over. (Cummings, in turn, steered Sowers to the NAACP and the Urban League.) "At least he didn't say 'no' to anything," Sowers says of Mfume. Asked if she gathered any definitive backers for the Black 25, Sowers concedes that City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young was the only person to agree to it. "That might have been because he's my friend's father-in-law," she says, laughing.

Other potential allies offered complicated advice. The Rev. Heber Brown III, vice president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, tried to "shed light on why you have only received tepid support to this point from the Black Community," according to an e-mail he wrote in February. Brown suggested that Sowers "traffic in Black Baltimore a bit," and that she support a cry for justice on behalf of a young man named Isaiah Simmons III, who died while being restrained in a juvenile detention facility in Carroll County. When Sowers looked into Simmons' case, she found he had been convicted of armed robbery. She was incensed. "Armed robbery? You have to be F-ing kidding me," she wrote to a friend. Of the idea to spend time on the streets to see how violence affects people in poor, black neighborhoods she says, "I don't really want to do that. It's dangerous, and I see no point in doing that. I'm not going to."

Another idea Brown had was that Sowers should reach out to the family of 18-year-old Zechariah Hallback, a volunteer with the Algebra Project and a City College High student who was gunned down in front of his school in January. According to Sowers, she contacted Hallback's mother in April, but no real discussion ever materialized. Callers to The Ron Smith Show on WBAL-FM, where Sowers was a guest in July, took her to task for the attention she had received, whereas Hallback's death had received so little. "People were mad that no one reached out to that family," she says. "I was like, 'I did. You don't know that I did, but I did.'"

With the Black 25 foundering, in March Sowers came up with a proposal known as Zach's Law that would allow for murder charges if a beating victim lapsed into a coma. Draft tenets of Zach's Law included numerous ideas to reform the criminal justice system such as eliminating jury bias, creating an accelerated punishment system for children prone to violence, and enacting stricter bail laws. She says Baltimore City Del. Peter Hammen (D-46th District) is the most likely sponsor, but he has cautioned her that it could meet with resistance. Hammen did not return calls for this article.

Zach died in March. But rather than begin moving on with her life, Anna was traumatized two days after his death when the local legal publication Exhibit A published an interview with the chief spokesperson for the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, Margaret Burns. In the interview, Burns defended the office's decision to plea bargain with Zach's attackers, and then, in a statement that she later disputed, described Zach's condition when he arrived at the hospital as that of "a sleeping baby."

Suddenly Sowers' cause shifted from Zach's Law and the Black 25 to calls for State's Attorney Jessamy to fire Burns. Talk-radio hosts were stoked, and anyone who ever had a beef with Jessamy took to the internet or the airwaves to rant. By July, the controversy was still raging when one of Zach's doctors issued a stern public rebuke of Burns' additional statement that Zach could have died from injuries other than what he suffered at the hands of Trayvon Ramos. City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District) leaped into the fray with a public call to fire Burns. No such action was ever taken.

Meanwhile, Sowers re-approached Mayor Dixon for support in getting rid of Burns. Despite her frosty first meeting with Dixon back in August 2007, Sowers had continued talking to the mayor's office about policy goals, such as parental accountability for the crimes of their children, she says. But the mayor's office was preoccupied with Project Exile, a program designed to get guns off the street. "The kids who attacked Zach didn't even have guns," Sowers says. "I felt [the mayor's office was] just stringing me along."

The final insult, Sowers says, was when former Dixon spokesman Sterling Clifford (who doubled at the time as Baltimore Police spokesman) met her for coffee and indicated that the mayor disapproved of Burns' statements and Jessamy's handling of the controversy, yet insisted that Sowers "leave the mayor out of it." Grasping for something positive, Sowers says she asked Clifford if Dixon would get behind Zach's Law, but was met with rejection. "That's my story with Baltimore politics," she says.

Anna Sowers admits to being out of touch with Baltimore and that even before Zach was beaten she never thought hard about the poverty, blight, and crime, other than to avoid it. Since moving out months ago she returns mostly to socialize with friends. Asked of her overall impression of Baltimore, Sowers says, "If a friend were to ask me should they go to Johns Hopkins or Harvard University for medical school I'd be like, Harvard. Don't ever live in Baltimore. I would never recommend anyone move here, ever."

In December 2007, two months after speaking at the Keiffer Mitchell campaign rally, and a week after Sheila Dixon was sworn in as mayor, Anna Sowers went on the NAACP's weekly TV show hosted by Doc Cheatham. Cheatham introduced her as a "very strong sister" and noted the importance of "God's help to those who help themselves."

To Anna's left sat Examiner crime reporter Luke Broadwater, the first to cover Zach's story. Broadwater called the beating "one of the worst" he'd ever seen, and, noting the sentences for Zach's assailants, called it a "terrible situation" that Zach could be in a coma for life while three of the four defendants could be out of prison in four years.

To her right was a veteran local magazine editor named Ramsey Flynn, her "strategic adviser." Flynn, who works in communications for Johns Hopkins, framed the issue of jury nullification and described it as the mistrust of the criminal justice system by the black community. "The more that mistrust continues, the more unabated a rising crime problem will injure innocent people," Flynn said, adding that Sowers and her supporters were interested in working with the black community to address violence and flaws in the system.

Flynn has played an important role in Sowers' foray into activism. He refers to himself as "the gray wolf" who bestows his wisdom and media savvy, or simply as Sowers' "aide-de-camp." According to Sowers, the Black 25 was Flynn's idea. Also, when reaching out to political, civic, and church leaders, Flynn often accompanied Sowers, or handled the communications personally. Like Sowers, he kept notes of his interactions and shared them with City Paper.

Flynn's efforts have produced mixed results. Despite a willingness to tap contacts he made as the former editor of Baltimore magazine, for instance, his attempts "to secure a lunch meeting [with Frank Reid] failed." The rejection in the upper echelons of the black community of his and Sowers' efforts to build "a rainbow coalition" left him befuddled. "If they agreed that the Stop Snitching thing ruled the black underclass, but not the white one," he writes in an e-mail to City Paper, "why didn't they think it was a good idea to publicly condemn the pro-violence fashion trend that had taken root in their poorest communities?"

Those local leaders who talked to City Paper seemed confused about Flynn's role. While most praised Sowers for her efforts, with many offering words of admiration, few were willing to speak bluntly about perceived shortcomings in the agenda of what Flynn refers to as "Team Sowers."

Almost any agenda coming from Sowers was likely to meet resistance in some quarters. A City Hall insider with close ties to Dixon says that the minute Sowers emerged as an outspoken, highly visible victim in the summer of 2007, she raised political problems for the mayor.

"The [mayor's] office knew it was a problem, the critical remarks about the city and the support of Keiffer Mitchell," says the veteran political operative, who asked not to be named. "There is an election going on, crime is on the front burner, Ed Norris and [fellow talk-radio host] Dan Rodricks are critical of the mayor and you have a husband in a coma and a visible widow--it created an uncomfortable situation."

The source explains that Baltimore is accustomed to such graphic violence as occurs in the black community, but that Zach and Anna Sowers represented white fear in a city known for black crime. The police union was already critical of Dixon, the source says, and she was advised by trusted staff members to keep a distance from Sowers. The mayor's people also felt the press was being baited into covering the story as closely as it did. "You wish there wasn't a racial component, but it just is what it is in Baltimore," the City Hall source says.

Black leaders tread lightly, but convey a similar discomfort. Some direct their criticism at Sowers, some look inward to the black community, and some find fault in both directions. "People should not wait for violence to knock on their door before speaking out," Doc Cheatham says. Once it knocks, Cheatham adds, "I encourage them not to have anger and bitterness to cloud what they are trying to do."

Cheatham approves of Sowers reaching out to politicians and ministers--a variation on UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski's "mamas and ministers" theme--but stresses the importance of convincing the community you are an activist for them as well as yourself. "Hopefully she will bring people like me back in," Cheatham says, emphasizing communication in homes, organizations, and communities. "It's better to be an insider than an outsider."

Of the Black 25, Cheatham says, "I want to support, not criticize, but this is not the most constructive approach. How do you know who those people should be? If we had that many great leaders, we wouldn't be in this position. You need faith-based input, but we wouldn't have such a plight if the ministers were doing their work."

No minister took action in support of Sowers' goals. City Paper called several local ministers for comment and got almost no response. Bishop Walter Scott Thomas of the New Psalmist Baptist Church says he has never heard of Anna Sowers. The Rev. Reid, the powerful pastor of the Bethel AME Church, where Mayor Dixon is a member, did not return calls.

The Rev. Heber Brown III was not at a loss for words. "I got a sense that Anna was not meaningfully engaged with the black community," Brown says. "I told her to attend black events and meet everyday people, not just congressmen and leaders of the NAACP. If those guys could go to a microphone and say stop it, the violence would've ended decades ago." Sowers and her supporters were "too white," Brown continues. "I tried to get them to see a larger picture." In particular, he felt Sowers employed tactics and language that "were not helpful." He points to statements by Sowers that tended to demonize her husband's attackers, words like "these thugs." He concludes: "I know what works, and what doesn't work, especially in terms of inter-racial conflict. People might not want to admit it, but there are at least two Baltimores. If we stay in our corner and lob accusations, we'll never have honest discussion about the issues that divide us."

A particularly blunt critique of Sowers comes from the office of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. Cummings has spoken out in the past against violence, Stop Snitching, and jury nullification, and he has taken heat from the black community for being vocal on these subjects, according to his special assistant Mike Christianson, but that has not stopped him from sponsoring witness-intimidation legislation. Yet Christianson, a white Quaker from Iowa, says Sowers' desire to spearhead a multi-racial coalition was misguided: "You don't get that by saying 'I want to do these things, will you support me?' The black community is not hierarchical. That's not how it works. You can't just say, 'I want to lead the parade, will you follow?'"

Of Zach's Law, Christianson says, "There are predators out there and legislation in this area has merit. But you don't bring people together with a manifesto or preconditions such as, 'Here's what I want you to do.' We commend her for her courage and her passion, but we can't simply use the resources of this office to bend justice."

Above all, the flap with Jessamy's office ended up damaging Sowers' credibility, Christianson suggests. "It's the province of the State's Attorney to prosecute crime," Christianson says. "We typically don't lead the procession down to petition Pat Jessamy's office to tell her what to do."

In the end, the best advice Sowers seems to have gotten from Cummings was to contact the Urban League and the NAACP--which had urged Sowers to win Cummings over. "If you come to us with their support, you come with some collective wisdom," Christianson says. "But we're not going to form the group for you."

Sowers did receive support at the state level. Kristen Mahoney, executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, has spent a fair amount of time with Sowers and recognizes her potential as an advocate. She initially invited Sowers to a victim's rights conference in early January and was impressed. "Anna spoke briefly with the governor and then gave a charming, eloquent speech," Mahoney says. "She stayed for the whole conference and met with professionals in law enforcement. She's worked hard to gain perspective."

Mahoney has steered Sowers toward solutions that are less sweeping than Zach's Law, such as establishing a hotline for jurors or witnesses who are intimidated, and posting signs in courthouses for people to report actions that impede justice. In Mahoney's estimation, Sowers will be a formidable resource in Annapolis this upcoming session, as Gov. O'Malley and state law enforcement agencies set their agendas.

"I've known Anna for a year now," Mahoney says. "She's very reasonable and open to ideas. She doesn't want to be The Anna Sowers Show. She's received a lot of media attention and I know some have perceived her that way, but this has nothing to do with her. People need to know that."

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