Does it make it worse that Zachariah Hallback, 18, who was recently robbed and murdered at a bus stop, was a "good kid" who fought for justice with Baltimore's Algebra Project and sang with the choir in Israel Baptist Church? Does it make it worse that he was an innocent victim and not a drug dealer?
He was no angel. Like all of us, Zack was human. Sometimes he did well, sometimes not; he helped and harmed. None of us is different. Why do some victims merit an outpouring of civic sympathy and others not?
What about Collin Mazyck, 24, who was shot a few blocks farther south a few days later, and about whom the public knows even less than it knows about Zack? Or Edward Smith, 14, shot last week, too, but in Cherry Hill? They were also mixtures of good and bad, weren't they? Are their deaths less troubling or more troubling than the average? Do we need to know their precise balance of moral qualities to know how sad we should be?
One of Zack's friends from church and an Algebra Project colleague, Maryland Shaw - one of those rare ones who comes close to being an angel - considered Zack's killer. She told us that though she didn't know how, she wanted to be able to love the killer, too - and that if he were a friend or brother or cousin, she could imagine counseling him to get a lawyer and hoping for not too long a sentence. With more intellectual honesty than most of us manage, Maryland wondered how it could be right to acknowledge the humanity of someone we know, but deny the humanity of a stranger.
Wasn't that, in fact, exactly the killer's crime: that he denied another person's humanity?
"The presumption of innocence is not only a legal concept," Algebra Project founder Bob Moses teaches. "In common law and in common sense, it requires a generosity of spirit toward the stranger, the expectation of what is best, rather than what is worst, in the other."
In their work with the Algebra Project, Maryland and Zach make the point that there are no "good kids" and "bad kids," no one who deserves a chance at a healthy life more or less than anyone else. You cannot in any morally legitimate way write off whole groups of young people because they seem lazy to you, or stubborn, or ignorant, or even criminal. You will almost certainly stereotype and judge much too quickly.
Zack's story resonated in the media because young people such as those in the Algebra Project impress the public as something of an anomaly: They are engaged and active in a way many people doubt is common in the inner city. But this view presumes a kind of guilt as the normal condition, not innocence. It is a misrepresentation of the students' views, an easy way out for a morally lazy public.
Algebra Project students are not special, as another young leader, Chris Goodman, has said. They are ordinary: ordinarily good and ordinarily bad. If they look more engaged and less apathetic than many of their peers, it is because they have had access to a certain financial and human investment that mobilizes their better attributes and compensates somewhat for their weaknesses.
They earn money teaching math after school, which allows them a bit of breathing room in an otherwise hostile economic environment. And they are hooked into our nation's historic freedom struggle in a fundamental way through a network of literally thousands of supportive, conscious veterans of that struggle.
If more young people could be respected in good schools and funded to earn wages legitimately, and if more young people could be embraced purposefully in the society of people struggling for real freedom, more young people would show their good sides to the world more often.
The last time I saw Zack unharmed, he was rehearsing a "die-in" for the students' next demonstration in Annapolis. They will collapse on the sidewalk as if dead to show the public that the murder rate derives in large part from inadequate schools and that "no education means no life."
Investing in quality education for all - and equality of education for all - will save lives, innocent and otherwise. This is what Zack tried to tell us while he lived.
Will we listen, now that he is dead?
Jay Gillen is a Baltimore public school teacher with the Algebra Project, which employs 150 students after school teaching mathematics. His e-mail is email@example.com.