Although murders of unarmed residents by police in the US affect Black people disproportionately, acts of police brutality and murder occur against people of all skin tones. It’s clear that the legacy of slavery goes a lot towards explaining police killings of Black people. However, the rationales usually provided by modern police departments when any such murders take place are usually focused on some kind of misbehavior by the victim that the cops consider reason enough to murder. Drugs and alcohol, resistance, cops fearing for their lives; we have heard these excuses for decades. Fewer and fewer people find them believable any more. Yet, the cops keep killing and getting away with it
In between Baltimore and Washington DC is a small city called Columbia. Originally designed in the late 1960s as a model city that would represent an idealized USA of racial and ethnic equality, it succumbed to the pressures of profit and greed within ten years of its opening. Naturally, this meant that the demographics would be based more on wealth than anything else. My familiarity with it comes from the mall there and, more importantly, the numerous concerts I’ve attended at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in the city. In addition, friends and I spent many Thursday evenings listening to free music at a local park there. After I moved out west in 1977, pressure from real estate developers, right wing culture warriors and the politicians representing them gave license to the county police to go after the crowds at these concerts. After one particularly violent police attack on a free concert in the mid-1980s, a friend who worked in the emergency room at the local hospital told me of the broken bones and blood inflicted by the cops.
It wasn’t that long after that particularly brutal attack on concert-goers that the incidents explored in David Parrish’s book Losing Jon: A Teen’s Tragic Death, a Police Cover-up, a Community’s Fight for Justice took place. Parrish is a long-time resident of Columbia, works as a technical writer and coached baseball on local youth teams. His book is both an examination of police misconduct and a tribute to Jon Bowie—the Jon in the book’s title. Parrish not only coached Bowie and his twin brother, he was something of a friend to the family. As anyone who has been around youth sports knows, the relationship between a coach, their players and the players’ families is often one that is more than businesslike but not quite familial. I know when I coached and umpired in a local league, boys and their guardians would often confide in me about issues at home and school.
The text begins with a group of young adults and adolescents partying in a motel room on US Route One near Columbia, MD. The date was January 5, 1990. The group was mostly white and included young men and women. After a phone call by another motel guest complaining about the noise, the partiers quieted down. Not long afterward, Howard County police showed up at the motel and went to the room where the young people were. What seemed to be a typical exchange between the police and young people took a violent turn when the one of the cops—a big man named Riemer—grabbed Jon after he verbally challenged the cops regarding their ability to arrest them. Jon’s brother Mickey jumped up to defend his twin. With Jon in a police car, Riemer began brutalizing Jon’s brother Mickey, placing him in a chokehold and hitting him. Most of the other cops laughed, egging on their fellow officer.
Most such arrests like this usually end up with a series of plea bargains, some community service and lawyer bills. This is especially true when the arrestees are white-skinned. However, this time was different. The young people who were arrested were convinced the arrests were illegal and the brutality they had experienced was criminal. Despite the efforts of higher-ups in the County police department to quiet things down, the Bowie brothers were determined to make the cop Riemer pay for his brutal behavior. After reading about Reverend John Wright, the head of the county NAACP in a local paper the week after his arrest Jon Bowie contacted him. Wright agreed to help Bowie pursue brutality charges against Riemer and the department. In the weeks that followed, the Bowies reported being harassed by Riemer at their jobs and even in their own backyard. Meanwhile, the FBI began its own investigation of the motel incident.
On May 4, 1990 Jon Bowie’s dead body was found at the top of the baseball backstop at a field at the local high school. Initially ruled a suicide, Jon’s friends and family quickly challenged that assertion and demanded an investigation. Naturally, the Howard County police and its supporters throughout the county government opposed any such thing. Nonetheless, an investigation was begun. The FBI expanded their inquiry to include the death of Jon Bowie.
The bulk of Parrish’s text tells the story of those investigations. He writes about his growing involvement in conducting what was ultimately his own investigation and his ultimate frustration with the ability of the official inquiry’s ability to control both the investigation and the narrative. By now, most of us are familiar with the second part of that process: officials leaking the victim’s psychological profile to the media, hinting of possible drug use by the victim, portraying the police as acting defensively instead of aggressively, and just plain lying about the entire investigation. Parrish writes evocatively of his growing frustration with what can only be termed a coverup by the department and his realization that the individual officers and the department were going to get away with their behavior and probable crimes.
There was never a resolution regarding the cause of Jon Bowie’s death. I recall being convinced it was murder as I followed the news and talked with friends in the area on my visits back east in the early 1990s. After finishing Parrish’s passionate, lucid and detailed exploration of these events, I am even more convinced it was. Losing Jon is a vital and important text for the current times. It explores a police culture that is a law unto itself and the injury our refusal to confront that culture can bring to everyday people. Having lived half of my early life in the region these cops worked and being quite cognizant of the racism there, it’s easy to see how much worse their behavior become when the victims are black or brown.