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The 100-Year History of ‘ACAB’

The discourse around 'All Cops Are Bastards' is tricky, but no one can deny the straightforward, meme-like acronym both annoys the hell out of police and inspires serious conversation about the abolitionist movement

For as long as there has been a police force in this union, there’s been some citizen somewhere yelling that it can go fuck itself.

In 2020, it’s ACAB — or “All Cops Are Bastards.” It’s being chanted in the streets. It’s being spray-painted onto police cruisers and government buildings. It’s become a slogan in the make-believe worlds of Animal Crossing and blown up as a meme on TikTok. And, much like a phrase like “Fuck tha Police” did back in 1988, ACAB has become another divisive flashpoint in the culture war over how we view, and ultimately treat, law enforcement in America. Police abolitionists want the phrase to go mainstream, while police unions are losing their collective minds over the taunt being uttered at all.

Meanwhile, in between them, a whole bunch of people new to protest speech are puzzling over what it means. Can you utter “ACAB” if you actually think there are good cops in the world? Some remain concerned that the catchphrase represents a radical streak that could hurt the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, droves of organizers around the country seem more than happy to let ACAB energy flourish on the march. I saw it last week at a San Francisco protest that concluded against a riot line outside the county jail; ACAB signs and chants were part of the front-line script, along with old classics like “fuck the police” and the more youthful “fuck 12.”

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It’s a swift debut in the zeitgeist for an acronym that’s mostly been associated with skinhead punks for the latter half of the 20th century. It’s fitting that so many bands have enshrined ACAB into musical history this way; skinhead culture comes from working-class communities, and it’s no surprise that so many blue-collar British youth harbored a suspicion of authoritarian agents of the state.

Things get a bit hazier before the 1970s. In his Vice analysis, James Poulter points out that lexicographer Eric Partridge traces the phrase back to the 1920s, as part of a ditty with a punchline: “I’ll sing you a song, it’s not very long: All coppers are bastards!” And while there are some mythical claims that striking workers popularized the term in the 1940s, what’s more clear is that ACAB blew up in U.K. prisons. Researcher Angela Devlin observes in her 1996 book Prison Patter that the acronym caught on as a tattoo and slang phrase starting in the 1950s, and it’s because of ACAB’s association with prison gangs and right-wing skinheads that the Anti-Defamation League considers it a potential “hate slogan” today.

There’s a certain poetry to ACAB originating in the nation that basically invented modern policing. Even the origins of the word “cops” speaks to the relationship police had with the citizenry — the slang comes from the verb “cop,” meaning “to take or seize.” That’s a pretty blunt assessment of a force that’s supposed to serve and protect, and this was back in the mid-1800s. But police abuse and corruption is something that occurs all over the world, and in the last few decades, ACAB has spread to a litany of battlefronts.

ACAB has been graffitied on walls stretching from Tahir Square in Cairo (during the Arab Spring) to France to Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests continue to rage. ACAB was the center of a court victory in Germany, where free speech has far fewer protections compared to the U.S. It’s popular in Indonesia, which saw massive riots and brutal police crackdowns last year after a questionable election. ACAB shows up in soccer stadiums, outside parliamentary buildings and in anarchist meetings all around the world. I think it’s because, much like “fuck the police,” there’s an elegant simplicity to the phrase no matter what language you speak.

“Fuck tha Police” sent police organizations into a mad, insulted tizzy that lasted into the 1990s, as the phrase took hold in pop culture. The Fraternal Order of Police announced a boycott of any groups that “advocate violence against law enforcement.” Numerous police departments shared the song’s lyrics by faxing them to other cops, and it resulted in actual cancellations of concerts and other events. Conservative voices back then freaked out about how the phrase was evidence of the moral decay of the youth. In 2020, conservative voices are still freaking out about how “ACAB” is evidence of the moral decay of the youth.

And, for what it’s worth, the discourse between fans remains tricky, too. Some consider “All Cops Are Bastards” to be a loose metaphor, while others think systemic corruption makes all cops complicit and therefore evil, while others advocate that anyone who becomes a cop must inherently be a terrible person. But regardless of the details, the value of ACAB and other protest slogans like it lies in how a straightforward, meme-like acronym both annoys the hell out of police while inspiring serious conversation about the abolitionist movement. It puts the onus of the crisis directly on the individuals that make up police forces, while also serving as a signifier for allies who want to show they’re down with more radical ideologies.

The future of protest slang is as fluid as it is vibrant, but ACAB is an example of how language sticks around when it’s elegant in form and function. More importantly, its re-emergence is a reminder that people just can’t help but talk shit about police and authority, no matter what era they live in.