Critical Synthesis: Breakthroughs on the Breakdown in Chicago
If you don’t have the resources to mobilize, something is bound to break down. That said, when responding to an upsetting event or ongoing societal issue, those who have the means to organize can often do so in a peaceful, structured manner; nevertheless, those with a lack of resources and power are forced to respond to injustice and oppression in a less coordinated, more chaotic way that often involves the destruction of their own neighborhoods and all the segregation and inequality that they represent. In this reaction paper, I will explain both ends of the spectrum through Bert Useem’s presentation of theories on this matter, while highlighting the difficulty of fighting the power with limited means, especially in terms of the race riots of Chicago in 1919 that are described in Abu Lughod’s second chapter of “Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.” I will begin by presenting the major ideas of each text and then drawing connections between them.
Firstly, Useem’s article “Breakdown Theories of Collective Action” outlines two different theories on the distinctions between riots and protests: breakdown theory and resource mobilization theory. The former is characterized by people resisting social structures and becoming more powerful than the sense of social order or control in place. Therefore, they disrupt everyday life and defy the authorities and laws that seem to represent their oppression. The latter is depicted by organizing through solidarity and collective action to gain an advantage of some sort or to put up a peaceful fight for a significant cause.
To summarize the next source, chapter two of Abu-Lughod’s book “Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles” outlines a sequence of events that led to the riots of 1919 and made them especially severe. It also discusses the characteristics of Chicago that made it especially prone to the race riots that unfolded, such as the fight over space and segregated housing and several other ongoing racial tensions that sprouted from Illinois’ origins as a southern state with strict miscegenation and voting laws, segregated schools, and “black laws” that required blacks to prove their freedom (Abu Lughod, pg 47). Some of the most relevant factors that worsened the harshness of the grievances in Chicago and thus worsened the impact of the riots themselves were the labor shortage that increased competition in the workforce, overcrowding and housing issues, and especially the unjust murder of Eugene Williams.
The two pieces work in concert with each other, particularly because one of the theories that Useem identifies clearly fits with the riots of 1919: breakdown theory. Abu Lughod shows breakdown theory in this chapter with their responses to the culmination of events leading up to the riots, particularly the death of innocent teen Eugene Williams. He was a victim of racial violence during a day at a segregated beach; when the boundaries were seemingly blurred between the white and black beaches, outrage ensued and Eugene Williams was caught in the middle, struck by a white man’s rock and propelled off his raft, disorienting him so much that he drowned before anyone could save him. On top of this deeply unfortunate event being a result of racial tension, a black man was wrongfully arrested instead of the actual white perpetrator, because the police would not allow anyone to arrest a white man. From that point forward, everything broke down and a full-on racial war ensued. People swarmed to the beach with rage, and even more blacks were harmed, with seven getting stabbed as well as four wounded by gunfire (Abu Lughod, pg 61). Breakdown theory was taking hold of society as they knew it, and the only way they knew of to build themselves back up was to first become a part of the total breakdown to rock bottom in order to make their voices heard.
Useem’s article also identifies the important difference between routine and non-routine collective action. To begin, routine collective action is a product of solidarity and more privileged position in society to be able to organize in a cohesive manner that falls in line with resource mobilization theory, such as in electoral rallies and peaceful protests. Conversely, non-routine collective action is accordance with breakdown theory and includes people freeing themselves from society’s restraints on them and responding to oppression using anything they can get their hands on. Rebellion, collective violence, and rioting are solid examples of this type of collective action. The two pieces once again converge on this subject as the second chapter of Abu Lughod clearly exhibits non-routine collective action in Chicago’s riots of the time. For one, the violence that black workers faced from Irish gangs when going through the stockyards in the days following the riots was a clear indicator of non-routine collective action (pg 58). Another characteristic that makes the action able to be defined as non-routine was the violence that blacks were facing on public transportation as well as the molestation on their way to and from work.
In conclusion, these two pieces worked hand-in-hand to outline the theories and forms of collective action that surround rioting and protesting. Useem’s article presented us with the definitions of resource mobilization theory as well as breakdown theory, the second of which was extremely evident in Abu Lughod’s second chapter on the race riots of 1919 in Chicago. Additionally, we were able to apply not only breakdown theory, but also the concept of non-routine action to the riots of Chicago as well, which helped us link both theories to their respective forms of collective action. All in all, it was not exciting to discover the hardships of those rioting and experiencing oppression, but it was stimulating to get to read about the riots in Chicago and connect breakdown theory and non-routine collective action to those very events that were unfolding, seeing those intriguing concepts operating in real-life situations.
Abu-Lughod, Janet L. “The Bloody Riot of 1919 and Its Consequences.” Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 43-78. Print.
Useem, Bert. “Breakdown Theories of Collective Action.” Annual Review of Sociology 24.1 (1998): 215-38. Web.