Theologian rouses the rabble

Sarra Sundstrom /THE REVIEW
Professor Anthony Bradley spoke to students in Trabant on March 6.

BY Staff Reporter

2.5 million people are under the control of the American criminal justice system.

King’s College professor Anthony Bradley wants to know why that number is so high. On Wednesday night, Bradley came to Trabant Theater to get real with students on the truth about mass incarceration and our nation’s prison system. Bradley, who is chair of the religious studies program at King’s College in New York City, presented a lecture, “mass incarceration: what can I do?” followed by a question and answer session.

The event, hosted by the university’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), was part of their extended #justiceweek19 campaign. For two days preceding the talk, IVCF staged informational tables at student centers on campus. The tables included an informal poll, where those walking by were challenged by two polls, “Can people change?” and “Why does mass incarceration exist?”

During his lecture, Bradley tried to answer the second question. The bottom line: it’s complicated, and contrary to some commonly heard explanations, it’s more than just ‘racial profiling’.

Bradley began the lecture by dispelling the popular belief that incarceration rates are tied to excessive nonviolent drug convictions. Those who subscribe to that narrative have often pointed to Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” as the beginning of the incarceration problem.

“The drug war is not the reason we have 2.3 million people incarcerated today.” Bradley said. “If every single drug offender in America were released tomorrow, The United States would still have the largest prison population in the world.”

Offering his alternative theory from his 2018 book “Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration,” Bradley outlined what he called a “multivariate analysis” of the many factors which contribute to ballooning incarceration rates. Largely, he offered a Marxist take on the issue. He explained the prison system in context of what he repeatedly referred to as “the rabble,” a phrase he used to reference the shifting but almost always poor demographic that experiences the highest incarceration rates.

“We use the criminal justice system to manage poor people,” Bradley said.

Bradley said that the larger issue of mass incarceration must be addressed at the individual level. Addressing the students in attendance directly, he emphasized the value of individual action in intervening in the lives of those who may be at risk of incarceration before they entered the criminal system. He called for the students in attendance to reach out to “the rabble.”

“Who are the rabble? They are the people your parents don’t want you to be with,” Bradley said, concluding the event by invoking his background as a Christian intellectual. “We have to love our neighbors and love them well.”

The lecture was followed by a live questions and answer session, where Bradley answered selected questions submitted by the audience.

Bradley was asked how to combat to the school-to-prison pipeline that he mentioned in the lecture. Someone in the crowd called out preemptively, “restorative justice!” referring to the new approach to criminal justice, which emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior over incarceration.

Not satisfied, Bradley responded, “ I have something even more radical.”

Bradley called the current school system a modern caste system. He criticized the system of zoning laws that allocate school funding via property taxes.

“We create rabble schools,” he said. “You got to bust it up completely,” he repeated, shaking his head. “Absolutely destroy the current model.”

“You change society a person at a time, not a program at a time,” he said.

Nonetheless, Bradley concluded his talk with a vision he had of the future. A vision he paints of himself, retired, playing golf, watching the news to see “incredible reforms” in the state of Delaware and “programs that change the whole state” that have been sponsored by, what he imagines to be, a member of his audience.

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