“Is that our Valerie Smith?” a perplexed student asked her professor, a friend of mine who teaches at Swarthmore. She was shocked to find the name of someone she knew – someone she despised – in an article she was assigned.

The class was reading Hortense Spillers’s “Papa’s Baby, Mama’s Maybe,” one of the foundational works of Black feminism, an article cited more than four thousand times by other scholars and treated with reverence by young activists, similar to the status accorded to the writings of Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon by 1960s radicals. Like those earlier texts, it is more often referenced than read.

My friend thought his students, many aspiring radicals, ought to read the text they revered – and the students were surprised by what they found. Right there on the page, not even relegated to a footnote, was a reference to the Swarthmore College president. Indeed, in the climactic section of the article, Spillers describes how Valerie Smith’s scholarship enables her own project of theorizing Black women’s experience.

This student knew that Valerie Smith was the first Black president of Swarthmore (the sort of phrase that permanently attaches to such a leader’s name). In her leadership role, Smith had been the target of energetic student protests on a range of issues, from sexual violence on campus to Israeli apartheid to climate change to white supremacy. In the culture of student protest, in meetings and social media posts and group chats, Smith was marked as the enemy. In students’ minds, it was up to her whether sexual violence on campus would end, whether white supremacy would be broken, whether climate catastrophe would come to pass. And Smith failed to act.

Photograph by Immo Wegmann.

Swarthmore students knew that they were walking a fine line in demonizing Smith. Ever-present in today’s activist culture is a nod toward the burdens faced by Black women. Another feature of that culture: a deep suspicion of “respectability,” of women and racial minorities who assume positions of leadership and through doing so, align their interests with what are often wealthy, white, male benefactors, abandoning the interests of their own communities. The Swarthmore student protests tried, with more or less success, to both target Smith and recognize that she was part of a larger system, and it was really that system they were after.

Now my friend’s student was discovering that Smith was also a pioneering scholar whose writings provided the intellectual foundations for the activist culture that has swept into many US colleges and universities. In that culture, there are heroes and there are enemies, and theorists like Spillers and Smith are unequivocally classed as heroes. The easy division of the world that student had imagined was suddenly fraught.

The first major round of protests that Smith faced, three years into her presidency, was aimed at addressing sexual violence on Swarthmore’s campus. A nine-day sit-in ended when Smith agreed to meet with the protesters and open a dialogue. The next year, newspapers obtained and printed internal emails from a Swarthmore fraternity joking about rape and dripping in misogyny and homophobia. Student protesters occupied the fraternity house for five days until it agreed to dissolve, then they moved to Smith’s office. There they sat, demanding that she permanently ban Greek life and that the fraternity houses be transformed into resource centers for female and racial minority students.

Students unfurled a giant banner querying, “President Smith, Where Are You?” The student occupiers (none of whom appeared to be Black) declared that they were sitting in “so that you, President Valerie Smith, will remember us and the harm that was done to us.” Campus security officers locked the bathroom in the occupied building and threatened the students with arrest; after a few hours, the occupation ended. The students were incensed, declaring, “We find it in bad faith that President Smith would say that she respects and affirms the rights of students to demonstrate peacefully while forcing us to choose between exercising these rights and our basic human dignity.”

Another fact about Smith that many students did not know: exactly thirty years earlier, she resigned from her tenured job at Princeton in protest of the institution’s mishandling of sexual harassment complaints. The protesters’ enemy had once been a protester herself.

A half-century ago, the moral drama of student protest was more clear-cut. There were old white men wearing conservative suits in positions of power; there were youthful women and men of all races wearing colorful clothes, demanding transformation. A narrative about the enemy was easier to sustain. Today, when the person cast as enemy often looks like their heroes, sounds like their heroes, and is intellectually aligned with their heroes, the time might be ripe for student protesters, and justice-seekers more generally, to interrogate the received wisdom that says every activist cause needs an enemy to demonize.

Casting an institution’s leader in the role of enemy may seem like a natural product of youthful exuberance. It is, but it is also a longstanding tactic in political organizing. Indeed, it was codified as Rule Number Thirteen in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

The child of Orthodox Jewish immigrants, Alinsky spent the 1950s and 1960s carving out a new way of doing politics. While most people expected to find politics in elections and government and national pressure groups, Alinsky suggested that the place for effective politics is at the very local level, in neighborhoods. Specifically, politics happens when neighbors talk together, realize they have common problems (say, a playground in disrepair, factory pollution, or inconsistent trash collection), and join together to force the powers that be to address those problems. Alinsky realized that, since people are busy and often feel politically impotent, it is necessary to catalyze this sort of neighborhood-level politics. The community organizer serves as such a catalyst, entering a neighborhood, listening to problems, identifying people who already have leadership abilities, connecting them, suggesting tactics that have worked elsewhere, and cheerleading.

Alinsky set out to create a school for organizers, and Rules for Radicals served as their textbook. Mixing organizing anecdotes and biblical wisdom, Alinsky casts the project of community organizing as resourcing what he calls the Have-Nots. They are the people without power, the little people, the people who do not set the agenda and whose voices are rarely heard. Starting from the position of disadvantage, if the Have-Nots want to win, if they want to solve the problems that plague their communities, they must get creative. They must plot actions that will turn the tables on those in power – by shaming them out of their indifference. Alinsky’s politics is radically democratic: it depends on figures in power accepting that they are ultimately accountable to the people, and on leaders needing to appear responsive to the people.

For the Have-Nots to win, they need to construct a drama in which there is a villain. They themselves are the heroes: the little people, stepped on by the powerful. It needs to be David against Goliath: that is a story that will motivate the people, that will appetize the media, and that will strip the powerful of the moral authority they are accustomed to enjoying. This is why we need enemies, according to Alinsky: they are not enemies because of some essential defect in their character (although some may have that) or necessarily because of horrific actions they have taken. They are constructed as enemies, to advance the interests of the marginalized.

Consider the sorts of entities that the Have-Nots are up against: giant corporations, government bureaucracies, wealthy institutions. One way these entities hold on to power is by taking advantage of their expansiveness and interconnections to shift responsibility. After meeting with one official, you are directed to another official, and then another, each telling you that they are sympathetic to your concerns but don’t have the power to act. Sometimes you are told about a policy that constrains the organization’s ability to meet your demands, but that policy cannot be changed because it was set by some other entity, and you really should go talk to them. For the Have-Nots, already short on time and money and unfamiliar with the workings of complex organizations, dealing with this sort of shell game can be bewildering, exhausting, and dispiriting. Soon it starts to seem as if nothing will ever change, so why bother trying?

This is the reason Alinsky says we need to make enemies. Instead of running up against an impersonal bureaucracy, a community must choose the human being at the top of that bureaucracy, name them, and shame them. He points out that the most effective unions do not mobilize workers by talking about “the corporation.” They name the CEO and demand concessions from that individual human being. If a neighborhood is concerned about the quality of its school, Alinsky advises, it should name the superintendent as the person ultimately responsible. The organization facing popular protest may try to send the protesters to a lower-level bureaucrat or to a committee, but the protesters need to keep one individual, the human being on top, at the center of their narrative and demands.

The time might be ripe for justice-seekers to interrogate the wisdom that says every activist cause needs an enemy to demonize.

Alinsky calls for more than just naming a campaign’s antagonist. He also urges organizers to “polarize” the situation: to demonize the antagonist. According to Rules for Radicals, “the classic statement on polarization” does not come from a union leader, it comes from Christ: “He that is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). (Alinsky, a secular Jew, draws freely on both Testaments.) The Bible, he points out, does not portray money-changers in the temple as morally ambivalent; they do not need an invitation to dialogue. Jesus forcibly casts them out. This is the sort of narrative structure Alinsky recommends for all protest: choose an individual, present a yes-or-no choice to them, and portray that choice as one between good and evil. Until they make the right choice, they are aligned with evil.

In addition to its rhetorical power, Alinsky argues that demonizing enemies throws the powerful off-guard. CEOs, superintendents, and elected officials are used to being ensconced in plush offices and surrounded by sycophants. How could anyone talk about them, personally, as evil? Once they are thrown off by this maneuver, leaders will start making mistakes. They will overreact, refuse to negotiate, make statements that reveal their hubris, or call the police. Each overreaction furthers the drama. It galvanizes the Have-Nots, affirming the righteousness of their cause and pulling public opinion to their side.

“No permanent enemies, no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” This is one of Alinsky’s mottos that quickly entered the bloodstream of the myriad community organizations that he and he followers, and his follower’s followers, founded. As much as Alinsky advocated demonizing one’s enemies, he was ultimately a pragmatist. Demonization does not respond to some evil essence, it serves a purpose for us, here and now. In a month or year we may still be trying to get this school fixed, but now it may be the business association that is our focus because it is pressuring politicians to hold down the property taxes that fund the school; our new enemy will be that association’s director. Now, the superintendent may be on our side, an ally in our struggle against the business association.

This sort of pragmatism and political agility makes a lot of sense at an intellectual level. It is easy to see how it should lead to more wins, and how it empowers the Have-Nots. In practice, the tactics Alinsky commends are less easy than the theory would have it seem. In a community made up of real human beings, oriented not only by reason but also by emotion, will it actually be possible to set aside all animus toward that superintendent and redirect it to a new target? Will it really be possible to work together with that superintendent after he has been cast as a demon? The biblical language to which Alinsky appeals, in describing how to demonize, packs quite a punch: “I will render vengeance unto my enemies and those that hate me will I requite. I will make my arrow drunken with blood, and my sword devour flesh; from the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the crushed head of the enemy” (Deut. 32:42).

In the decades after Alinsky’s 1972 death, the groups and networks taking inspiration from him increasingly turned to religious communities for support. In churches, synagogues, and mosques, they found a built-in stable of leaders and financial resources that could sustain an organizing campaign. But those religious communities were squeamish about making enemies. It is unseemly for the local minister to be casting the school superintended in a narrative that involves crushing heads and swords devouring flesh, even on behalf of the Have-Nots.

As the radicalism of the sixties and seventies gave way to the more staid forms of protest of the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s, the activist impulse to demonize waned. Activists and their sympathizers became wary of Alinsky’s talk about demonization. Some shifted the emphasis. The theologian Luke Bretherton suggests that we ought to associate Alinsky with Augustine, as both “refuse to make absolutist judgments on present political arrangements” and believe “change and redemption are always possible, and good and bad are present in all political systems.” Just as for Augustine politics is important but penultimate, for Alinsky what matters is siding with the Have-Nots, with political tactics always subordinate to that goal.

Ai-jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, suggests that demonization is a risky and sometimes counterproductive tactic. If the Have-Nots are struggling for better wages and working conditions in an intimate employment setting, where they live with their employer and care for their employer’s children, demonizing the boss feels quite different than demonizing a distant CEO of a giant corporation. In a 2013 interview with the writer Sally Kohn, Poo suggests instead “organizing with love” as a framework where the focus is on inviting “people to see their interconnections … as a source for change” rather than targeting an individual. Poo’s view seems more in line with Christian expectations. While Christ polarized his situation, he also called on his followers to love their enemies: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28).

Granted, Poo’s turn from demonization to interconnection may have fit the ethos of a particular cultural moment. We were starting to attend to the many lines of difference that constitute our communities: ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, and much else. In the context of such complexity, naming enemies always goes wrong. Even on merely pragmatic grounds, to build winning coalitions, it makes more sense to follow Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice: “The command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.… Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

But has that era of multiculturalism, in which loving enemies was more effective than dramatizing evil, passed? The long 2010s brought existential concern back into politics: from the 2008 financial crisis and the activism that it precipitated, Occupy Wall Street and various socialist formations, to the Black Lives Matter and Idle No More movements, to #MeToo, to the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, activists opened to the metaphor (at least) of crushing heads and drinking blood. It was easy to paint Harvey Weinstein as a demon, or Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Mike Brown in Ferguson.

Social justice movements over the past decade or so have increasingly turned their attention from bad actors and actions to entire systems: white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism. But systems are abstract. At a human level, it is hard to direct anger at a system. The renewed turn to demonizing particular enemies prevents attacks on those systems from collapsing into dull dogma by giving them a human face. Harvey Weinstein is patriarchy. Darren Wilson is systemic racism. As we pull down statues and change building names, we freeze, personalize, and polarize the enemy. Moreover, today systems are imagined to orient, and so contaminate, individuals. The focus of demonization shifts from the individual racist to the system of white supremacy to the exemplar of that system to each individual white person, understood to be oriented by white supremacy.

There is something about these forms of contemporary demonization that is quite different from the tactics Alinsky commended. They do not feel provisional, penultimate. They do not feel like the product of a world muddy with tragedy and confusion. Perhaps this is because of the scale of the problems to which they point: in the accounts put forward by activists, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism infect every corner of the world, even shaping how we reason, how we perceive, and how we imagine. If you can find a representative of such a system, whether or not they are the CEO, eternal damnation seems warranted. And personalizing has the added advantage of taking the focus away from us, from how we ourselves are implicated in those systems we so vehemently oppose.

Or perhaps the difference between what Alinsky recommended and what we see today has to do with the shifting forums for demonization. Twitter is a land of friends and enemies. The tendencies of the platform complement the political tactic. Social media not only makes demonization happen faster and spread more widely, it also exposes us to a pantheon of enemies every time we look at our phones.

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my classmates took a year off to work for an Alinsky-inspired community organizing group. He came back ready to implement each of Alinsky’s rules on our genteel, grassy campus. We found some Have-Nots: campus dining hall workers and janitors who were not being paid a living wage – in fact, they were being paid less than students who worked alongside them. We built relationships with workers, found allies in the community, crafted demands, and put up posters. The university sent us from one office to another, from one committee to another, each cycling through a list of excuses. There was not enough money. They could only negotiate with unions. Salaries might be low, but benefits were excellent. Different jobs required different skills and so warranted different salaries, which the human resources department carefully pegged to market rates.

At the end of the school year, the university president retired. When the new president arrived in the fall, we were ready. Instead of putting up posters explaining why a cost-of-living adjustment was important, we personalized and polarized. President Tilghman was pushing workers onto food stamps, making them take second and third jobs, forcing them to live in decrepit housing with long commutes. We framed a decision for her: Would she side with the campus Have-Nots and provide a living wage, or would she be the enemy of the Have-Nots? We demanded to meet with her. Within a couple weeks, we were in the new president’s office, this time invited guests rather than protesters. She agreed to our principle demands and welcomed ongoing discussion about the rest of our demands.

That was twenty years ago, a different political moment and a different cultural moment. Media, for us, consisted of the student newspaper and, when we were lucky, a reporter from a neighboring town. We did not feel an existential threat, though our motivations were not simply charitable. We wanted to reimagine our university community in a way that was more just, where faculty, students, alumni, and staff could all stand shoulder to shoulder as full, dignified members. We were concerned with the deeper issues of economic inequality, racism, and misogyny entangled with the university’s ill-treatment of its workers, but we did not have a sense that we were confronting those issues head-on, or that those deep issues could in any way be addressed head-on.

Many of today’s students are more sophisticated in their analysis and more motivated for struggle than I was at their age. They understand that interlocking systems of domination suffuse the world. They feel called to urgently respond. Now, they need to confront a vexing set of questions: How can they denounce deep structures of injustice while at the same time treating all people justly? How can they take the best tactics from previous generations of organizers and deploy them in ways fitting to today’s quite different landscape? How can they distinguish themselves from the hysterical demonization that fuels cable news, and that seeps into campus activist culture on both the right and the left? And how can they resist the illusion of moral purity that strengthens every time we name our enemy?

We must answer these questions anew, for our moment, when the existential stakes of politics are all too clear. The theory of enemy-making offered by Alinsky does not fully meet the moment, nor does Poo’s turn toward friend-making. But in a deeper sense, this is an age-old paradox that wisdom traditions have long struggled to unpack. How can Jesus condemn in the strongest terms those who exploit and dominate, but at the same time implore his followers to love their enemies?

Faced with such a paradox, we must beware of too-easy answers. Justice movements teach us that it is no simple task to separate the sinner from the sin. We must strive to hold two insights about our humanity at once: that for humans to challenge evil requires narratives that dramatize evil, and that no human is fully constituted by evil. To be faithful to these insights requires care, but also trial and error. It requires a certain spirit that Alinsky himself exemplified: a spirit of lightness, of playful experimentation, fueled by the cries of the Have-Nots yet guided by faith in the goodness of our fellow humans.