What Does ACAB Stand For?

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two police offers standing in front of police car

After the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement was established. And after the brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020, it's important now more than ever to reform the systems in the United States (and around the world) that oppress Black individuals.

Since Floyd's killing, There have been numerous protests and marches in every state and in countries around the globe, as people stepped up to demand reform in how police deal with citizens — specifically, Black people and people of color.

Protestors asked for changes to police procedures in America, but social media hashtags that accompany the movement can be confusing and, in some cases, controversial.

One acronym that keeps popping up is ACAB.

What does ACAB mean? 

The acronym ACAB stands for "All Cops Are Bastards", sometimes written as "1312".

"1312" is the numeric version of the same four letters (A is the first letter, C is the third letter, and so on).

It can be considered a pretty inflammatory statement, which is kind of the point.

It's meant to draw attention to the subject of how the public regards the police and what changes in policing would benefit society. 

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Where did the ACAB phrase originate?

The saying isn't new. It dates back to at least the 1970s and was a catchphrase in England. Apparently, British inmates would tattoo the letters on their knuckles.

Later, anarchists and punks used it as a general expression of anti-establishment sentiment. The Anti-Defamation League notes that neo-Nazis and racist skinheads have used it at times as well.

The punk band The 4-Skins wrote a song "ACAB" in the 1980s, which was a popular anti-authority, anti-police song.

And now, ACAB is being used by the movement to protest police brutality

But all cops aren't bastards.

If you walked up to a protestor holding an "All Coppers Are Bastards" sign and said, "My aunt is a cop and she's not a bastard. She's a generous person who wants to help make our community safer," the protestor would probably acknowledge that you're correct about your aunt. She probably is exactly as you describe.

What activists want to point out is that a lot of policies that police departments have in place are bad, and all cops are subject to those policies.

The level of police violence allowed is one of them.

For example, the kind of chokehold that Derek Chauvin used on George Floyd, where he pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his neck, was perfectly acceptable under Minneapolis Police standards. (They have since banned the use of chokeholds in response to the protests.) All cops in the department were permitted to do this to people if they saw fit.

Some cops might never go to that extreme in their day-to-day jobs, but it was a universally-accepted procedure that all police officers could engage in if they wanted to. By allowing police the use of chokeholds, which many view as overly-violent, protestors suggest law enforcement as a whole has been corrupted. 

Indeed, ACAB is more complicated than it sounds.

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What does it mean when protestors say they want to defund the police?

The idea behind a lot of these protests is to force leaders to scrutinize what the mission and tactics of policing have become in recent years, and consider reforms to the whole law enforcement operation.

Phrases like "All Cops Are Bastards" and "Defund The Police" are meant to grab attention quickly so people are willing to start the deeper conversations.

Lynda Garcia, an expert on policing at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told reporters, “A lot of what we advocate for is investment in community services — education, medical access. You can call it ‘defunding,’ but it’s just about directing or balancing the budget in a different way.”

The point is that a lot of what the public needs is outside the scope of what police are currently trained to do, but the police get called to the scene anyway.

For example, a person dealing with a mental health crisis or a drug-induced altered state might be doing frightening things, and the cops show up to help.

But what a person in that condition needs isn't handcuffs and time in a cell; they need mental health and substance abuse assistance that cops just aren't prepared to provide.

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said back in 2016. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

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What other changes to law enforcement do advocates want?

In addition to reallocating money to social services, protestors and advocates have focused on use of force policies in many police departments.

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There are very specific tactics they would like to see banned including chokeholds, shooting at moving cars, and issuing a warning before firing weapons.

In addition, reforms can include mandates that police try de-escalation tactics first, and that they exhaust all other alternatives before resorting to any kind of use of force.

The Chicago Police Department, for instance, made these reforms in response to protests:

There are signs that other police forces are ready to make changes, but there's still so much to accomplish.

In June 2020, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city would cut $150 million from the LAPD budget and reinvest the funds “in black communities and communities of color.”

Other cities, including Minneapolis, were rumored to be considering similar measures, though they have since only made superficial cuts in the police budget.

In February 2021, San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed announced the Dreamer Keeper Initiative that will redirect $120 million from the police budget to efforts to support the Black community.

While protests have slowed, the movement shows no signs of doing so. These acronyms and phrases may be controversial, but it's all in an effort to make real change towards a more equitable nation. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.