How 'ACAB' Became the Universal Anti-Police Slogan

Four simple words are all you need to show your disdain for centuries of brutality and political persecution.
June 8, 2020, 8:00am
acab protester tear gas

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

From protests in America to graffiti daubed on the Churchill statue in London this weekend, the same four letters keep reappearing: ACAB. These four characters – an acronym for "All Coppers [or Cops] are Bastards" – are globally recognised, and we're likely to see more of them in the coming days as a wave of anger at police brutality following the killing of George Floyd sweeps the globe.

But where did those letters come from? And how have they become an international symbol for hatred of the police?

The clue is in the slogan: where in the world do people refer to the police as "coppers" but in England? England also happens to be the country that invented modern police forces at the start of the 19th century, first to put down rebellious Irish peasants and then to discipline workers flocking to cities looking for work.

The pithy phrase "all coppers are bastards" is a systemic critique of the role of the police. The French equivalent of "all coppers are bastards" is "Tout le monde déteste la police", which translates to "Everybody hates the police". Writing about "ACAB" in the Independent, Victoria Gagliardo-Silver explains that it expresses the idea that "The issue isn't 'a few bad apples'; it's a tree that is rotting from the inside out, spreading its poison."

Antipathy towards the police has been around for as long as they’ve existed. The death of the first police officer to be killed on the job in London, Joseph Grantham, was judged to be "justifiable homicide" by a jury who were suspicious of the new force. The first time political radicals clashed with the new police force, three cops were stabbed, one fatally, and again a jury said this was "justifiable homicide".

Nobody really knows the first time the phrase "all coppers are bastards" was used. Lexicographer Eric Partridge wrote in his book A Dictionary of Catch Phrases that the phrase had existed throughout the 20th century and had been used "among professional criminals and crooks, for at least a generation before". Partridge first heard the phrase in the 1920s as part of the song: "I'll sing you a song, it's not very long: all coppers are bastards."

Partridge writes that this was a variation on "[All those in authority] are bastards", which he described as an "age-old expression of resentment against the restrainers, the keepers of law and order".

The song appears in the We Are The Lambeth Boys documentary, which was filmed in the summer of 1958 and shows the life of a group of working class boys from Lambeth. As the boys are driven through central London on the back of a truck, they see a cop and sing, "I'll sing you a song, it’s not very long: all coppers are bastards" as they pass. A variation of the phrase – "all coppers are 'nanas'" – also appears in the early David Bowie song "Over The Wall We Go".

It's believed the phrase was first turned into an acronym by a group of striking workers in the 1940s, but this could be an urban myth. What's certain is that the acronym grew in popularity in the British prison system, with prisoners writing "ACAB" on walls and on themselves. Depending on who asked what it meant, it could also be spun as "Always Carry A Bible".

The graffiti can still be found in British prisons today; in his popular book about how to survive the prison system, writer Carl Cattermole describes ACAB as "a seventies acronym widely used by punks and criminals", and notes that his school bus driver had it tattooed across his knuckles.

The emergence of punk in the late 1970s helped ACAB to spread internationally. The acronym was particularly popular in the "Oi!" sub-genre – mainstream punk's more rebellious and working-class sibling. In 1982, east London Oi! band The 4 Skins released their song "A.C.A.B.". It was one of the more successful records to use and then popularise the acronym. Anti-fascist German punk band Slime released an "A.C.A.B." song of their own the year before, and that helped to establish the use of the term in German youth subcultures. These early records have been followed by countless others. You can now find tracks which use or reference the acronym across a range of genres including rap and techno.

ACAB has also spread through football's terrace culture. English football hooliganism in the 1960s and 70s was closely linked to the skinhead scene, which used the acronym, and as football supporters in other countries have copied some of the styles and language, they've also adopted ACAB.

The use of the phrase has spread as far as Indonesia: in 2016, a young supporter of Persija Jakarta died after being beaten by police, and "all coppers are bastards" was found written on notebooks at his home. In his book about football ultras, 1312 (the numeric code for ACAB), football writer James Montague talks to a fan of Indonesian team Persija, who complains about other fans wearing T-shirts featuring the acronym because it's "European".

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"ACAB" graffiti in London at a protest on the 31st of May against the killing of George Floyd. Photo: Chris Bethell

Where ACAB has really come into its own is through graffiti; you can go nearly anywhere in the world and find it scrawled on a wall. Anybody who's caught a train from south east London into London Bridge will have struggled to miss a giant ACAB painted with a fire extinguisher on the side of a building overlooking the tracks. Graffiti writers are frequently harassed by cops, and writing ACAB on walls is an easy way to strike back. The phrase is also written on walls by political activists critical of the role or existence of the police.

The use of ACAB as an expression of working class dissent against people in authority has itself been criminalised. Cops, it seems, do not like being called bastards. There are regularly reports of people across Europe being arrested by police for wearing items of clothing featuring the acronym. In Germany, the highest court in the land ruled in favour of a man who turned up to a football game with ACAB written on his trousers. The court reasoned that since the letters refer to the police generally, she could not be deemed to have insulted a police officer individually. A young woman was arrested in Spain in 2016 for carrying a bag featuring the acronym and the coy slogan "All Cats Are Beautiful", but police dropped the case after a backlash on social media.

Now, ACAB is absolutely everywhere. You can buy T-shirts and tote bags on Etsy, there are memes all over social media and video clips on TikTok, while the American president was recently pictured walking past a wall covered in anti-cop graffiti. Following protests over George Floyd's death, the acronym is believed to have recently made its first ever appearance in the New York Times.

From its beginnings on the streets of London, the phrase has become globally relevant.

@jdpoulter