The acronym ACAB is something you might have seen this past week, whether in Instagram comments, graffiti, or protest signs. It stands for “all cops are bastards,” or, perhaps the less inflammatory, “all cops are bad.” ACAB has been heavily used in recent ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other Black lives lost at the hands of police. It’s a loaded phrase—a rallying cry to some and a vile remark to others.
There has been much criticism of ACAB. Some people are angry that anyone would suggest that all cops are bad. They vehemently claim there are good cops who would never be racist, that ACAB is unfair and only adds hateful fuel to the fire. But what does it say when so many people are passionately arguing about how police aren’t the problem at large, instead of focusing on the Black lives that have been taken by the police? If you’re defending all police, what about all Black lives?
Even those who firmly believe that Black lives matter have a difficult time reconciling that all cops are the problem. It’s often those who also believe that racism isn’t an integral part of our country’s system—who believe in the “few bad apples” scenario—that think there are only a few bad cops whose crimes have been inflated to represent the entire police force.
In doing so, those people are ignoring the numbers and facts. The Washington Post’s database on police shootings shows that Black people are killed by the police at more than twice the rate of white people in America. Since January 2015, 1,252 black people have been shot and killed by the police. Numerous studies have shown that Black people are more likely to be stopped and frisked, pulled over to be searched, and arrested for drug possession and distribution. In fact, white people and Black people sell drugs at a similar rate and when searched, white people almost always were more likely to have contraband. In Minneapolis, where about 20% of the population is Black, nearly 60% of police’s recorded use of force was against Black people. That’s seven times the rate force used on white people. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Black people are often disproportionately targeted by the police and that this isn’t the work of only a few bad cops.
In any other profession, “bad apples” would be punished and made examples of, but in the police force no such thing has happened. According to Mapping Police Violence, 99% of police killings from 2013-2019 resulted in no charges. In 2019 alone, there were nearly 1,100 fatal police shootings. This is no doubt due to the structure that protects police from being sued or charged or punished. This lack of consequence is a system that protects racism and brutality.
Studies and numbers aside, it’s also important to remember that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor aren’t the first Black people to die at the hands of the police. In the past few years alone, there have been too many unjust deaths—Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and many more. We can only assume there have been more that haven’t made it onto our radar for any number of reasons. It’s nearly certain that they wouldn’t have died if they had been white. A whole history of being brutalized and harrassed by the police—a history that includes today and will include tomorrow—would be enough to make anyone say ACAB.
Historically too, the police were never meant to be anyone’s friend. It isn’t entirely accurate to say that the police’s purpose is to protect people. Professional policing first started in England to bring larger order and reached Boston in 1838 with the intent of protecting property and goods. Likewise, in the South, the police force was focused on the area’s most valuable property at the time: slaves. Their job, emerging from slave patrols and the end of Reconstruction, was to uphold the slave system by capturing runaways and putting down slave revolts. This evolved into enforcing Jim Crow laws and opposing the civil rights movement, all while protecting white supremacy. This isn’t to say the police’s only purpose ever was to uphold a racist system. Police forces have, at crucial times, protected people from harm. In the context of larger history, however, the police have always been used by the state to put down strikes, protests, and anything else that threatens the status quo.
For some people, saying ACAB doesn’t mean that they think every single cop is a bad person or racist murderer. The large majority of police officers are not racist murderers, but ACAB calls out the systemic racism entrenched in the justice system. ACAB applies more to the dangerous cop system and those who are fostering it. As for individual police officers, racial prejudice is deeply instilled in nearly all of us, and police training has been known to encourage prejudiced ways. Who’s to say that the good cop wouldn’t react harmfully toward a black person perceived as a threat? Is that conscious racism, or is it centuries of racism and a racist system?
While some people think that the police system is inherently bad, others mean that individual police officers are also the issue. Even the ones who are “good,” they believe, are complicit. Although some officers join to create progress from the inside, they’re often suppressed by the culture and structure of the police force. There are police who quit for this reason and because they no longer choose to carry out inhumane actions such as the ones being seen in the recent protests.
I don’t doubt that some of you know good cops, or, more specifically, know cops that have been good to you. But there are countless people who haven’t had that privilege. For many, ACAB is a call to recognize the severe problems in the police system. ACAB is a criticism of the heinous actions police have inflicted on Black people. Entire communities have come to fear and hate the police through their history of brutality and discrimination. ACAB is their personal experience.
Many of those using ACAB today are protesters who are directly facing attacks from the police. What happens at these protests makes it nearly impossible to deny that the police are against the people. Videos of police kneeling and marching with protesters are almost always a ploy, as the cops have proven they’ll most likely arrest and tear gas the people with whom they were just kneeling and marching. Additionally, police have been caught in multiple videos using vile and excessively violent tactics during these peaceful protests.
Right now, cops are attacking and harassing people in the streets. Not just peaceful protesters, but journalists, medics, young children, uninvolved bystanders, and even shop owners attempting to protect their stores from looters. In one dangerous attack, two police SUVs ran into a crowd of protesters in New York City. Journalists and protesters have been hit with rubber bullets, some permanently losing an eye. Even medics have been targeted. Police all over the country are beating peaceful protesters with batons, shooting them with rubber bullets at close ranges, pepper-spraying and tear-gassing crowds, and using excessive force. The police are enforcing curfews at ridiculous hours, entrapping protesters, and arresting them en masse for peacefully protesting the unjust police killings of Black people in this country. They don’t seem to care that the protests are peaceful; they seem intent on punishing protesters and painting them as a threat to the country.
What’s happening in America is alarming and if it were happening to any other “democratic” country in the world, Americans would be shocked. When police were fighting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, didn’t you think the police were bad? Would you not say the same of your own country’s police, the ones beating up and harassing citizens? Wouldn’t you say ACAB if you, yourself, were being brutalized by swarms of cops? If your community was targeted by them and lost lives because of them?
At the beck and call of the state, police are making national protests for Black lives into dangerous battlegrounds against the people. The police are acting not as police, but as counter-protesters. The police aren’t protecting people—they are terrorizing them.
This is why the people are saying ACAB.
By Hannah Yang
Photo by Célia Blum