“ACAB” Reflects New Sentiment About Systemic Racism In Law Enforcement

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Just days after the murder of George Floyd, the four letters “ACAB” appeared all over social media. “ACAB” is an acronym that is commonly mistaken as representing the phrase “All Cops Are Bad.” In reality, it means “All Cops Are Bastards.” While this distinction may seem irrelevant due to the similar connotations of “bad” and “bastard,” the word choice holds a great deal of significance.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “bastard” as “something that is… of questionable origin.” This term in context specifically refers to the deeply racist history of policing in the U.S. The formal American law enforcement system in the South began with the slave patrol, an organization that existed solely for the return of slaves to their owners; the suppression of slave revolts; and the punishment of slaves who did not adhere to plantation rules. After slavery was later abolished through the 13th Amendment, the slave patrol largely retained its original purpose of oppressing Black people and worked to enforce Jim Crow laws and encourage segregation.

Meanwhile, the North implemented centralized policing organizations, which targeted disorder in growing urban areas. However, due to the Fugitive Slave Acts, law enforcement in the North was not entirely exempt from contributing to the institution of slavery. Despite opposition from Northern abolitionists, members of the police captured fugitive slaves and returned them to plantations in the South. These organizations were the direct result of Boston merchants, who wanted a police force to protect their goods and property.

Today, while slavery is no longer legal (except in the prison system), Black people continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. According to the science journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men and Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white women. 26% of police shooting victims were Black in 2015, but Black people only made up 12% of the population then. Black people are also 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, are more likely to be searched during traffic stops, and make up 33% of incarcerated prisoners on counts for drug offenses.

Although it may be believed that Black people are more likely to be criminal and threatening to police, they are reportedly less likely to be armed than their white counterparts when confronted by police.

Black people also use marijuana at the same rate as white people, comprise only 5% of illicit drug users, and are less likely to possess drugs or weapons than white motorists. In confrontations with police, Black people are twice as likely as white people to experience aggression during searches and street stops, and are more likely to be subject to the “stop and frisk” tactic. This tactic allows officers to stop and search the person of any civilian they deem to be reasonably suspicious of criminal activity, even if the person has not committed a crime.

Across the U.S., there is very little correlation between violent crime and police brutality rates. Oklahoma City has one of the highest police killing rates of 12 per million and a violent crime rate of roughly eight per thousand. Boston has a violent crime rate of roughly eight per thousand as well, but a police killing rate of around 2.5 per million. Furthermore, poverty status, not race, is the precursor for crime. Poor people are more likely to commit violent crimes, and unfortunately, Black people are 3.2 times more likely to be impoverished than white people.

The phrase “ACAB” refers to the racist origins of the American police system. People who champion this phrase do so because they believe that all police officers contribute to and support an institution that is deeply rooted in the oppression of Black people. Various police departments continue to carry out discriminatory practices. “ACAB” is representative of the fact that even when officers are not actively contributing to systemic racism, police departments do not allow them to actively voice their opinions against it. This pattern is directly reflected in the case of George Floyd, in which officers Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K. Lane watched Derek Chauvin murder Floyd.

Through Teen Lenses: Has the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement changed your perception of the law enforcement system, and how so?

“Yes… in my town we are taught to respect our police officers, to view them as heroes, but it is clear to me now that this is not the case. Learning more and educating myself on the perspectives of black Americans has shown me that while some individual cops may be [“good people,”] they actively and knowingly participate in a system that was designed to oppress black people. On top of that, I have read more about how the reinvestment of resources from police departments to social services (education, housing, mental healthcare) is much more effective when it comes to stopping crime. So again, there might be individual police officers who are kind and respectful. But I have lost a lot of my respect for people who choose this career as there are better, more substantial ways to be a hero in your community.” Abby Chittenden, 18, Sophomore at George Washington University, Sudbury, Massachusetts
“I’ve always disapproved of the law enforcement system because of the people [I] grew up around and the media [I] consumed. The recent resurgence of the BLM movement has deemed my beliefs less radical (which they are, because people not wanting to be shot in cold blood isn’t a crazy concept) to the general public. The size of the movement has really opened my eyes to other problems with law enforcement I didn’t even think of. The bottom line is [I’m] glad people can say [“ACAB”] now without being labeled as a radical anarchist.” Evelyn Orellana, 17, Senior at Richard Montgomery High School, Rockville, Maryland
“In my opinion, everything that has been happening has not been increased as of recently or a “resurgence.” Black people have had to deal with this type of treatment from law enforcement officials for a very long time. It’s only now that things are being talked about and publicized. The way I feel about the law enforcement system has always been the same and I think now, because things are so much more public it only validates the way I feel.” Jayla Johnson, 17, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland
“I have always hated and recognized the injustices that our ‘justice’ system serves. Even with having a family friend being a police officer, I have never trusted a single cop I have come into contact with. It stems from my negative experience with one while talking about a sexual assault. But though I have always been weary, I never realized how deeply rooted racism is within law enforcement’s creation. I can’t even begin to understand why we glorify cops and give them so much power when they receive a minimal amount of training, make countless arrests for little to no reason, and use their gun solely because of their prejudice or preconceived notion of black people. [It] makes me sick and enraged and that’s why [I] will be saying ACAB, protesting, donating, and petitioning until major change is enacted.” Olivia Speck, 18, Gap Year, Gaithersburg, Maryland