In coverage of Black Lives Matter protests that have swept across the country in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, the acronym “ACAB” has been emblazoned prominently on signs and throughout social media. Users are even adding ACAB stickers to Instagram stories. But with so many terms now coming to light with the recent (and frankly, much overdue) scrutinization of police culture, the uninitiated may be wondering what, exactly, this means.
The origins of ACAB
Fortunately, you don’t have to look far for a simple answer. As defined by Urban Dictionary, “ACAB” stands for “All Cops Are Bastards,” or its numerical code equivalent of “1312.” Even the basic number “12” is seeing a sudden spike in usage, which essentially stands for any police officer—with “fuck 12” being another popular variation.
Though it suddenly seems to be everywhere, ACAB is certainly not a new term. In the United Kingdom where it originated, ACAB was initially used as the abbreviation of the phrase “All Coppers Are Bastards,” which was adopted by punks and anarchists in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, it was fairly common for people immersed in these subcultures to have the letters tattooed across their knuckles or in other prominent placements.
Ironically enough, particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the term also had connotations in the skinhead community. The Anti-Defamation League classifies ACAB as a potential hate term, warning that it “should be carefully judged in the context in which it appears.”
What we mean when we say ‘all cops are bastards’
Perhaps the biggest misconception when it comes to ACAB is that, surely, not all cops are bastards. Aren’t there some good cops out there, who legitimately want to protect and serve their communities?
To understand the rhetoric of ACAB requires a deeper conversation about the history of systemic police brutality in the United States, which has been disproportionately targeted at people of color. Or, to put it in the most simple terms possible, as the old saying goes: “one bad apple can spoil the entire bunch.”
Thanks to ironclad police unions, it’s extremely rare that police officers are actually accountable for their actions—and even rarer that they’re held accountable by one of their own. When these so-called “good cops” conveniently turn their heads to the misdeeds of their colleagues, they’re essentially complicit.
As part of a New York Times student editorial contest last year (before NYT op-eds were basically canceled), 17-year-old winner Narain Dubey broke down the subject of “not all cops” in an essay about changing the social narrative about policing in America. In the piece, Dubey recalls coming to terms with the fact that police officers are not necessarily the “good guys” after learning about police brutality at a young age. However, he didn’t become fully disillusioned until a few years later, when his cousin, a “young, unarmed, African-American,” was shot and killed by police while driving.
“People are quick to challenge discussions of police violence with the idea that ‘not all cops are bad cops,'” Dubey writes, of the primary argument against ACAB. “But when we argue in defense of the morality of individual police officers, we are undermining a protest of the larger issue: the unjust system of policing in the United States.”
“It is not that some police officers aren’t doing admirable things in our communities, he continues. “But revering police officers for not abusing their power is dangerous—it normalizes police violence and numbs society to these issues. The idea that ‘not all cops are bad cops’ belittles attempts to uproot the system. When we go out of our way to controvert this fight, we are perpetuating the inherent problems with racialized policing.”
It’s easy enough to compartmentalize individual thoughts and feelings about “good cops” when it comes to a catchall term like ACAB, but to fully comprehend a deeply flawed system takes a much greater effort. When activists talk about defunding the police, they’re not talking about doing away with cops altogether, but dismantling and rebuilding a system where police have, for far too long, been able to serve as judge, jury, and—quite literally, in many cases—executioner.
ACAB memes on social media
Over the course of the past few weeks, as ACAB has become a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement, the term has been inescapable across social media platforms. We’re currently living in a historic moment embodied by a generation that wants change and peace—and is not willing to wait several more decades for it. However, this generation is also very good at the internet, as evidenced by the proliferation of both clever and acerbic ACAB memes on Twitter.
Predictably, there were some memes evoking the popular 2003 single “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers.
Universal police reform is going to take a lot of hard work and effort. But while it may appear a lofty goal, it’s not a completely unattainable one. Minneapolis’s city council has already has voted to disband the city’s police department, and they would not even be the first city in the United States to successfully do so. But until that day comes for every city across the nation, ACAB is an important message in the movement for police to finally be held accountable.