Collective Action in Baltimore: Student’s Voices

In an article written about the responses to the upcoming Freddie Gray trial, Karen Houppert follows a group of students participating in the public discussion about police brutality. As she describes, Baltimore’s high schools and colleges have formed multiple debate teams in order to learn how to eloquently speak out against these injustices. In light of the upcoming trial and in anticipation of heavy volume of protests, rallies, and rioting that may occur, a group of students from some of these debate teams called for an agreement with local police officers. They requested that police clearly show their badges, that they do not force protestors onto the streets which could lead to arrest for blocking traffic, and that they do not display militant weapons unless absolutely necessary in the case of a riot. They planned to present these points at a City Council meeting to Police Commissioners Kevin Davis and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. However, despite Davis’ claims just hours before the meeting that engaging with peaceful demonstrators was a vital part of his mission, the students’ request was ignored.

In response, sixteen of these students chose to occupy City Hall, staging a peaceful sit-in in protest of the lack of attention granted to their cause. After a few hours of this, one hundred police officers arrived to arrest them, escorting the teenagers out of the building in handcuffs. The students expressed frustration at the Commissioners’ blatant disregard for their opinions; one student claiming that it was clear that Davis “truly does not care about the voices of youth.” Many other residents also shared similar emotions, pointing out that if Davis is unwilling to listen to the voices of college-bound, highly educated students, where does that leave the more marginalized members of the community who want to voice their opinions on the trial? In summary, it is a commonly held understanding that through these debate programs, students are empowered, instilling in them the belief that their voices matter and deserve to be heard. For community members, the students, and those who are closely following the case, the treatment of these students is a blatant disregard for their right to actively participate in public discussions about issues they are passionate about.

According to a Resource Mobilization theory, collective action is defined by groups fighting for political advantages through organization and solidarity. As is asserted by Bert Useem, this theory arose in response to Social Breakdown theory, which claims that non-routine collective action is a response to marginalization and is characterized by chaos and the rejection of social norms, laws, and expectations. However, this instance of collective action can be categorized as routine based on the fact that it was highly organized, peaceful, and goal-oriented. Contrary to social breakdown theory, while this action occurred in response to the marginalization of a people, the students involved used planning and communication skills as well as a strong knowledge of governmental structure and function. While this theory offers some degree of perspective into the motivations underlying causes of this student led sit-in, it cannot fully explains the complexities of this instance. The students participating in the protest came from inner-city Baltimore, many of them growing up in impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods. As one student’s mother states, her daughter was “…born into struggle,” and “picked up that fighting in utero.” The girl’s mother goes on to describe how most of the family has been in jail, making the circumstances for her daughter’s success difficult to overcome. Social Breakdown theory, in this case, fails to recognize the ability of marginalized people to respond to oppression in a well-organized, peaceful manner despite their positions in society.

Resource Mobilization theory provides a more comprehensive explanation for the student-led protest. As multiple students point out, the connections they formed through debate have been powerful tools in allowing them to mobilize around issues like police brutality in their city. After graduating high school and college, many of these students have gone on to become influential figures in Baltimore’s Black Lives Matter movement as well as other smaller-scale protest movements centered around racial issues and police brutality. The partnering of educated, well-trained youth with various stakeholders and members of the community has led to a powerful collective movement which, as Useem points out in his discussion of resource mobilization theory, is characterized by solidarity and cooperation. However, despite their peaceful actions, the students continued to be marginalized by authorities who exercised their power by ignoring and then arresting the protestors. The power relations at play in this situation also offer some perspective into how these tensions could eventually escalate, resulting in more rioting, or non-traditional collective action.

Houppert, Karen. “Opening Arguments: High school students take their debate skills to the streets—and occupy City Hall.” City Paper. N.p., 21 Oct. 2015. Web. <>.

Useem, Bert. “Breakdown Theories of Collective Action.” (1998).

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