- Structurelessness 2.0
When presented with the opportunity to revisit Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” I realized that I had never read the original article. I had encountered Freeman’s argument about the danger of informal, seemingly structureless groups in other writings and even sometimes saw it referred to without explicit citations, implying that her assertions are now considered de facto. This, of course, underscores the ubiquity of Freeman’s classic piece, but it also suggests the continued relevance of her argument. In essence, Freeman contends that “any group of people of whatever nature coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion…. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group; only whether or not to have a formally structured one” (1972, 20–21; emphasis added). The power relations Freeman demystifies are salient today, and I would argue even more so in an environment where feminist and queer social movements increasingly organize online. The Internet has been touted as an empowering space for groups because of the purported structurelessness nature that allows for individuals, who ordinarily would not interact, to form alliances with limited resources (Castells 2012; Shirky 2009). However, it is precisely that structurelessness that enables informal power relations to solidify online where they are similar to, yet less transparent than, those that form offline.
Feminist and queer undocumented activists provide a point of entry in exploring Freeman’s concerns with structureless groups in a contemporary U.S. context. Since at least 2006, immigrant rights activists have engaged in demonstrations that are organized both on- and offline in [End Page 253] order to advocate for immigration reform. At the front line of this movement are undocumented mothers in sanctuary and college students pushing for the passing of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act at both the state and federal levels. Many of the DREAM activists identify as queer and seek not only immigrant rights but also social justice at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. The immigration reform movement’s sustained use of social media to organize provides an apt case study for understanding why Freeman’s analysis of structureless groups is relevant today. Moreover, this case study urges us to account for the online activity that is increasingly employed by feminist and queer activists. The presumed structureless nature of the Internet encourages us to view digital technologies as tools that facilitate democracy. However, that same structureless nature, in which anyone can apparently participate equally, is also problematic. For example, one way that the structure remains opaque online is that it is unclear who does what labor and how much labor. In the case of the immigrant rights movement, a few individuals are iconic in both mainstream news and social media, in contrast to the multifaceted segments of the movement. In essence, a few select spokespeople erase the long-standing advocacy of immigrant-serving community organizations that regularly support spokespeople and less visible immigrants. Additionally, only mainstream stories are told: heteronormative and class-based narratives. In the former, the organizing of LGBTQ activists and families is marginalized. In the latter, the majority of stories told are those of college-educated, upward-bound (in class terms), English-speaking young people. The stories of older, less educated, and Spanish-dominant parents are insignificant for mainstream and social media.
When undocumented mother Elvira Arellano took sanctuary in a church in Chicago from 2006 to 2007 she received a considerable amount of press coverage in local media (the Chicago Tribune) and national media (CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post). The coverage focused on the story of Arellano, but reporters rarely mentioned that she became politicized through Centro Sin Fronteras, a community organization that has long advocated for immigrants in Chicago. Centro Sin Fronteras provided legal aid for Arellano and prepared her for press conferences and interviews prior to and during her stay in sanctuary. More recently, in January 2013, recent college graduate Erika Andiola, who was [End Page 254] undocumented prior to the recent passage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, created a YouTube video (Andiola 2013) in...