Breakdown and Resource Mobilization Theories: Baltimore Riots (Ashley Jackson, Section 2)

In this past section there has been a large focus placed on riots and the reactions they get from city officials, police, and the community. Throughout US history there have been countless riots, but what is defined to be a riot? Riots brings violence to the street and is seen to have no end goal, whereas protests are seen as organized and purposeful to bring change to an ongoing issue. Non-routine events or actions, such as rioting, are seen to be acts of anger and spurred by strong emotions. What pushes people to rioting and is it seen to be an effective way to bring change?

In Breakdown Theories of Collective Action, Useem begin by explaining Breakdown Theory as being the classical sociological explanation of contentious forms of collective action. He claims that rebellions and riots only occur when the system has failed and begins to loose confining power. As time went on Breakdown Theory soon became replaced by a more modern theory, Resource Mobilization. It was replaced because the theory failed to see that the riots were more than just pent up anger and reacting to emotions.  The Resource Mobilization theory accepts that riots will occur when ties are weakened between social structures. These “outbursts” are seen as developing from preexisting societal problems and are deemed as having an achievable goal in mind.

After the death of Freddie Gray, who died on police custody, the city of Baltimore began rioting. But it was not just the anger and grief of Freddie Gray’s death that started the riots, although the Breakdown theory would portray it as that. There had been many preexisting problem that led up to the anger in the Baltimore society. Police brutality has been an ongoing issue for minorities across the country. This is what the Resource Mobilization theory would that the rioters were making efforts to raise awareness for the “Black Lives Matter” campaign and the truth behind police violence.

In From Peaceful Protests To Violent Uprisings, Here’s What History Can Teach Us About The Baltimore Riots by Kristina Marusic the question of whether violence does bring about social change is addressed. Almost all of the successful movements in American History have involved some level of rioting that, at that time, seemed damaging to the community (Marusic, 2015). It also brings attention to the issues that are causing individuals to protest. Without the media coverage of these riots, many of these issues would be ignored—and many still are. These disruptions in communities can either be protests or riots. When all white crowds began to “take to the streets” that is all it is, yet when blacks and other minorities try to show years of anger and oppression the media portrays them as thugs, who are mindlessly creating chaos. The media’s portrayal of the Baltimore riots showed “thugs” burning buildings and cars but nothing of what started this outburst other than one event, Freddie Gray’s death.

This section on rioting and on the two theories definitely show how diverse interpretations of social movements can be. The issues are often ignored in riots and do not focus on why people felt the need to be disruptive in the first place. Although violence isn’t seen as an effective way to bring equality and peace, it can be seen as a normal reaction through the Resource Mobilization theory.


Useem, Bert. “Breakdown Theories of Collective Action.” Annu. Rev. Sociol. Annual Review of Sociology 24.1 (1998): 215-38.

Marusic, Kristina. “From Peaceful Protests To Violent Uprisings, Here’s What History Can Teach Us About The Baltimore Riots”

Leave a Reply