‘ACAB’ is the mantra that has been riding a wave of popularity for the past few years, but of course with its popularity, its etymology and meaning have been blurred, transformed, but also hated.
It has become commonplace to see ‘ACAB’ written on walls, the words ‘ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS’ chanted, and to think that it is totally unacceptable for an institution made up of different individuals to be attacked on a generality that is as banal as it is refutable. However, the cry of distress and rebellion that this slogan represents is not historically an attack on the individuality of a police officer; in general, ‘ACAB’ is a cry of resentment towards the institution of the police and what the police represent in the political organisation of a country. The term has mostly come into popular use due to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. But we must be careful, ‘ACAB’ has nothing American about its origin, it is an expression that has come to life on the Old Continent. It is not a product of the ‘woke’ generation as one often hears, and the slogan is, of course, older than the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement itself. ‘ACAB’, in reality, is a rallying cry against a representative of authority, who will abuse that authority, to effectively preserve the system of control. And taking this into account, to retort that ‘ACAB’ is too violent a response to police violence, because it attacks individuals, will mostly divert attention from the problem. Not all apples are rotten, but if the tree is poisoned at its roots, it does not matter what condition the apple is in. A slogan like ‘ACAB’ generalises the problem so that everyone is concerned, especially the individuals who are part of the institutional problem that creates a police system. The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ countermovement in support of the police can be reminiscent of the ‘Not All Men’ reaction once the words ‘Men are Trash’ are uttered. To take these slogans at face value, and especially to feel oppressed by thinking only in an individualistic way, is to ignore a much bigger systemic and/or societal problem that of course cannot be articulated in a protest slogan. These words are obviously not individual attacks, but an incentive to do better on a collective level, to encourage collective progress by questioning the institution of police.
Tensions between the forces of social control and working-class youth may be dated back to at least the nineteenth century, where police intervention into local street cultures brought resentment.Matthew Worley, « NO FUTURE », Cambrigde University Press, 2017, p.230.
Overall, it is often said that the slogan ‘ACAB’ has its origins in the first British skinhead wave in the early 1970s. However, according to New Zealand lexicographer Eric Partridge, the first iterations of ‘All Coppers are Bastard’ are thought to have been heard in the 1920s and its use was common throughout the 20th century in the British criminal world. Matthew Worley, a researcher of the relationship between youth cultures and politics in the 1970s, suggests that tensions between working class youth and law enforcement date back to the 19th century. The interesting thing about this observation is that it was in the 19th century that the modern police force as we know it was founded. First, the Metropolitan Police Service in London, founded in 1829, would reform the police system and then influence the rest of the world with a new system of control. This new police force was a response to the impacts of the industrial revolution which transformed London in both size and population density. The old volunteering system could no longer contain and control such a large population at a time when organised crime was prospering and spreading. Many large cities ended up following the lead of the Met, also known as Scotland Yard.
Thus, the police force became an impeccable weapon for dealing with large popular and working-class gatherings in this new industrial world and one can even trace the history of the first police crackdowns on the working classes to the 1830s. In the Queen’s realm, clashes between police and protesters were initially seen as gangland clashes, as evidenced by the fact that the deaths of some police officers, such as Robert Culley, were judged to be ‘justifiable homicide’. The reason behind the verdict was that the police did not have any reasons to violently repress the social gathering, thus were not protected by the Riot Act. As soon as it was founded, the police forces did not hesitate to abuse of their power. The term « peacekeeper » would be just as accurate if it were changed to « defender of the status quo. » Since the foundation of a modern police force, conflicts with the working classes have never stopped. And this was not unique to the British society. In France, we also find records of clashes between workers and the police forces, as Arnaud-Dominique Houte pointed out in his research: « the officer is injured or killed because he is facing the movement and not because he is a policeman or gendarme. Let us take for example the workers’ unrest in Paris in the autumn of 1840. In the early days of September, three sergents de ville were charged with protecting the Pilhet arms factory, which the mob was trying to take over.1” The three sergeants were killed by the mob. Indeed, the problem was the foundation of a system of government control, not planned attacks on an individual member of the police force.
‘ACAB’ is the result of multiple traumas bequeathed by previous generations of workers, which was then revived in the punk movement as a slogan calling for rebellion against all forms of authority. In the end, from these generational traumas, all that the punk youth of the 1970s retained was that the police were a system of control that hindered individual freedoms (the ultimate credo of the punk movement). ‘ACAB’, in general, is attributed to left-wing political movements. However, it would be a big mistake to limit its influence to the traditional political spectrum. It is necessary to take into account its societal origin and not to make the shortcut « worker->leftist. » It should rather be seen as a liberalist slogan. Especially in view of the popularity of the slogan in some far-right movements such as some skinhead branches, some nationalist punk genres, and especially within British football hooliganism.
‘ACAB’ is a political statement, but fundamentally it is a way of denouncing a system of control, which will in a way demonise its constituents while at the same time drawing attention to a larger problem: the failings of government. The police as such exist to repress and punish. It protects the will of the few and punishes the many. It preserves the systems of control of which it is a part and acts as a bumper for a government while representing the latter’s violence towards its citizens. In absolute terms, good police officers may exist, and that is perfectly normal, but it makes no difference if they are good police officers in a fundamentally bad institution. One can think of the whistleblower Amar Benmohamed, chief brigadier, who denounced racism in the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, who in 2020 spoke out for Streetpress as his reports were completely ignored when he tried to raise the issue internally. In the end, good police officers disappear, and the reason for the existence of the police persists.
The reality is that the police institution will never question itself. ‘ACAB’ is a cry of anger at a broken system, at the abuse of power, not an individual attack on a particular police officer. ‘ACAB’ is a way for the people to question an institution that has proven since its creation that it exists to repress the people. ‘ACAB’ is the code that shows the lack of trust of the citizens towards an institution that since its creation maintains oppression towards the working classes, the classes that question authority, the classes that are not afraid to make their voices heard.
1 : ,HOUTE, Arnaud-Dominique, « Les attentats contre les forces de l’ordre dans la France du XIXe siècle », La Révolution française, 2012, section 7.
Arnaud-Dominique Houte, « Les attentats contre les forces de l’ordre dans la France du XIXe siècle », La Révolution française [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 29 avril 2013, consulté le 23 août 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lrf/427 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lrf.427
WORLEY, Matthew, No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
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Cover Photo: Associated Press.