Plastered on Twitter bios and scrawled on London’s Winston Churchill statue—no four letters embody this turbulent decade more than ‘ACAB’. The acronym is an abbreviation of “all cops are bastards” and has been popularised in recent years by the anti-racism movements sweeping across the world.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a modern phrase, coined by gen Z, placed up there with avant-garde terms like ‘ghosting’ and ‘incel’. You know, phrases often misunderstood by older generations. But ACAB has a rich, and rather complex, history. Let me explain.
Although pinning down a concrete origin of the term is hard to achieve, the general consensus is that the acronym emerged in England in the first half of the twentieth century. The term “all coppers are bastards” was used by workers on strike in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, VICE unearthed the phrase from grainy footage in an extract from the 1958 documentary film We Are the Lambeth Boys. Listen carefully and you can hear the young boys running down the street, chanting “all coppers are bastards.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s when the Daily Mirror ran a story, using ACAB as the headline, that the phrase really took its modern meaning. The report told the story of policemen picking up a teen with the ACAB acronym on his jacket. The boy, who said he had copied an image from a Hells Angel member he saw on the street, claimed ignorance, arguing he thought the phrase stood for “all Canadians are bums.”
Whether he actually thought this is anyone’s guess, but you have to admire the kid for his creativity in getting out of the sticky situation. In the end, he was let off with a five-pound fine. But the story—or more the headline ‘ACAB’ embossed in bold black print across the front cover—went on to influence generations to come.
The emergence of punk music in the 1970s was the ignition ACAB needed to spread internationally like wildfire. The acronym was propelled into popularity by the East London punk band The 4 Skins, in their song ‘A.C.A.B’. The band was one of many in the Oi! sub-genre of punk—a rebellious and working-class offshoot of mainstream punk rock. Its influence still makes waves within the music industry today, with a wide array of musical genres including the phrase in their tracks—from hip-hop to techno.
It was around this time that ACAB seeped into football’s terrace culture—in particular, football hooliganism, which was closely related to the skinhead scene. In Germany, it’s been the subject of hate speech litigation, with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) currently listing ACAB as a symbol of hate. Take this statement with a pinch of salt, however, as the League notes “it should be carefully judged in the context in which it appears,” used by both racist and anti-racist groups.
It’s pretty difficult to gauge context in art though—especially when it’s sprayed on a bus shelter, overpass or monument, under the cover of darkness. And it’s here where the phrase really comes into a world of its own, as street art has played a major role in keeping the slogan in public discourse. Outside of my social media echo chambers and digital bubble, it’s pretty much the only way I hear (or see) of ACAB in the real world.
Take a train between any city in the UK and you’re bound to see those infamous four letters sprawled across tunnels or derelict buildings. It’s a reflection, arguably by a minority, but a reflection nonetheless, of the relationship between citizens and the state. The phrase criticises the role of police in society, with many political activists pushing for a defunding of the police, or even abolishment of the police altogether.
And can you really blame them? I’ve never had major run-ins with the police. In fact, the only time I’ve ever been confronted was when they thought I hotboxed my car at the age of 18. The plumes of smoke weren’t from a spliff but actually from my friend’s vape—sorry to disappoint, officer. I often question whether that situation would have panned out differently if I wasn’t white.
Although our television screens often point towards the US when highlighting racial issues, it’s important to remind ourselves that police brutality and systemic racism is very much a British problem too. Until we resolve our own societal problems, ACAB will continue to be painted on our red phone boxes for years to come.
Racism is in the air—quite literally. TikTok user @haute.hort proved this to be the case in a viral video in which he describes how neighbourhoods impacted by redlining (the systematic refusal of services based on factors like race) have higher temperatures than other neighbourhoods.
The TikToker, named Bryan, first posted the video as a part of a trend on the video-sharing app where users share statistics that “live in their heads rent free.” In it, Bryan explains that neighbourhoods that were previously redlined in the 1900s are today 5 to 12 degrees hotter in the summertime than their non-redlined counterparts.
This is because redlined neighbourhoods have fewer trees, which help reduce heat by providing shade and moisture to the surrounding air through evaporative cooling. But what exactly is redlining?
In 1933, faced with a housing shortage, the US federal government began a programme explicitly designed to increase—and segregate—America’s housing stock. According to NPR, the housing programmes begun under the New Deal were equivalent to a “state-sponsored system of segregation.”
The government’s efforts were “primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families,” explains Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. African-Americans and other people of colour were left out of the new suburban communities and pushed instead into urban housing projects.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighbourhoods—a policy known as redlining. The FHA’s justification was that if African-Americans bought homes in these suburbs, or even if they bought homes near these suburbs, the property values of the homes they were insuring (meaning the white homes they were insuring) would decline. And therefore their loans would be at risk.
As expected, these decades-old housing policies have had a lasting effect on American society. “If we want greater equality in this society, if we want a lowering of the hostility between police and young African-American men, we need to take steps to desegregate,” says Rothstein.
The information that Bryan highlighted in his TikTok video had in fact been proved in January 2020 by a team of researchers who studied 108 US urban areas and found out that yes, the formerly redlined neighbourhoods of nearly every city studied were hotter than the non-redlined neighbourhoods, some by nearly 13 degrees.
In other words, Rothstein had a point; discriminatory, race-based housing practices put in place nearly a century ago still had repercussions on those same neighbourhoods today. Nearly 90 years after those maps were created, redlined neighbourhoods are hotter than the highest-rated neighbourhoods by an average of almost 5 degrees, according to the research from Portland State University, the Science Museum of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It was very surprising when we saw that it was a pattern that we were seeing consistently across the country,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, who co-authored the study when speaking to NPR.
The injustice doesn’t stop there: that extra heat can have dangerous and sometimes deadly health consequences. Extreme heat kills more Americans every year than any other weather-related disaster, and as climate change progresses, heatwaves are growing in intensity and frequency too.
In Baltimore, NPR and the Howard Center found dramatic increases in the rates of emergency calls during dangerous heat waves, as low-income patients in the city’s hotspots visited the hospital more often than low-income patients in cooler areas.
Cities, in general, tend to be hotter than their rural surroundings—the way they’re built often creates what is known as an ‘urban heat island’. That’s mostly due to the fact that cities have more pavement and concrete, which absorb heat and release it slowly. They also tend to have fewer trees, which cool the air and provide shade. Cities are hotter, but any green space and concrete within them aren’t distributed evenly across these urban areas, which can create micro heat islands within a city.
Looking at the neighbourhoods with hotter temperatures than others, the formerly redlined neighbourhoods statistically have about half as many trees on average today as the highest-rated predominantly white, and wealthier neighbourhoods on those maps.
The results of these studies confirm what has been in talks for years: our cities were designed by people who knew exactly what they were doing. And evidently, not everybody’s best interests were held in mind when plans for cities and communities were made. What now? As Rothstein says, “You can’t undo the damage. You need explicit policy, race-based policy. You need affirmative action in housing.”