Sunday, 27 October 2013

In Defence of ACAB

    ACAB is an acronym that has been shouted, spraypainted, tattooed and banner-dropped the world over. In case you're not in the know, it stands for All Coppers Are Bastards - a phrase which concisely states a disdain for police, whatever those reasons may be. It is a phrase not without its detractors, which have ranged from ridiculous to rather reasonable. 

In the former camp: After a man was filmed being beaten by police at 2013's Mardis Gras in Sydney, an anti-police brutality march was organised. While some friends and I held a banner that bore the infamous acronym, a man approached me and angrily asked: "So if a gay person beat someone up, would all gays be bastards then?" It was an interesting attempt to conflate anti-police attitudes with homophobia, which I deflected by stating: "Being gay isn't a systematically oppressive job".

     In the latter camp, where people aren't pumped full of inarticulate rage, I would hazard that most would not deny some level of corruption or bastardry within the police force. But they would balance this with something along the lines of: "I know there's a few bad apples, but we need police to protect us and all up, they do a good job. Not all coppers are bastards".

     It is the generalisation - the all, in ACAB - that most take issue with. This is appealing, as it sounds like the most sober and level-headed analysis. Yes, ACAB is obnoxious. It's reductive. And definitely a little bit naughty. But to say it's wrong is to deny it a rationale that is definitely worth exploring.

     I'll kick off with the positives (don't worry, it won't last long). Obviously, police can be lovely individuals. Everyone's met nice cops. I have family friends who are police. In my job as a youth worker, I have liaised with police who I consider genuinely concerned with the local community. I'm sure police officers love their kids, love their partners, feed their goldfish on time and do the washing up.

     So it is unfortunate that the individual personality of a police officer has little bearing on their behaviour within the institution. Individuality is not something that is encouraged, as it would betray the uniform mindset necessary to impose a uniform system of law. To achieve this, orders are obeyed within a regimented hierarchy. This leads to a complete relinquishment of  individual conscience in favour of the collective power of the police force. "I'm just doing my job"... "I'm just following orders"... these are the defensive refrains that police use repeatedly when challenged.

     To compound this counter-rationality, strict internal codes are in place. Social dynamics and future job prospects are wholly defined by a police officer's loyalty to these codes. They must support (or, at least, not vocally oppose) the institution's behaviour. I met a police officer socially once, and her description of the social pressures, mutual protection and favour dealing sounded horrific. To put it bluntly, you have to be part of the gang.

     As a result, every police officer protects police brutality and corruption. It is not just a few individuals - the "bad apples" - but an intrinsic part of being a police officer. This is regardless of their position in the force. Whilst kettled in a protest in London, a friend of mine struck up conversation with a police officer. The latter expressed his annoyance at the illegality of police unions in the UK, saying he would definitely join a union if he could. My friend is a veteran with worker's rights, and was impressed with the attitude of who he called a "lefty copper". But what happened after that? The terrifyingly robotic riot squad lined up and, with systematic viciousness, violently dispersed the protesters. Do you think "lefty copper" stood against this violence? Of course he didn't. Individual conscience and decision-making is not required of police - "lefty" or otherwise. He obeyed his orders and protected the perpetration of police violence, as all police do.

     When a police officer commits murder or assault on duty, they are shielded from the law by a whole institution which is biased towards protecting police. What happened to the police who shot and killed Jean Charles De Menesez in London in 2007, believing the Brazilian electrician to be an Al-Qaeda terrorist? 1. What happened to the officer who batoned Ian Tomlinson to his death at the G20 protests in London in 2009? 2. What happened to the officers who shot and killed Mark Duggan in 2011, and purposefully obfuscated the events surrounding his death? 3. Nothing. A inquiry may be set up to publicly parade the pantomime of democracy. But after these reach vague conclusions and the furor has died down, relatives and communities are left with nothing but powerless grief. And this is just in the UK. I could go into the thousands of extrajudicial killings committed by Thai police in the 2003 War on Drugs. Or the various examples of police violence that the the Occupy movement suffered the world over. Or the current connections between police and militant fascist groups in Greece. Or, or, or, or...

     It's a well worn question, but no less valid: what would happen to you if you committed any of these acts? If you pumped seven bullets into an innocent man's head believing he was terrorist about to conduct a suicide bombing, how would the law respond to you? Why is police violence treated differently? It is because the law is not for police to abide by, it is for them to enforce. Laws are a facade of the guarantee of individual protection. The reality is that government structures break their own laws on a daily basis, and will attack you if they perceive you as a threat to their social control. The hypocrisy is there, every moment, for all to see. Just ask Chelsea Manning.

      Because of their preoccupation with preserving the status quo, police target those they consider the greatest challenge to it (whether in reality they are actually a challenge or not). Talk to people in ethnic, cultural or religious minorities. Talk to queers and trans people. Talk to striking workers and political radicals of all stripes.  Talk to people from poor communities, where police do little to alleviate poverty but much to punish those who are victims of it. These people will have  frequent contact with police, and will have stories of harassment, abuse, brutality, false arrests, trumped up charges and, sometimes, murder.

     A female friend of mine called the police to report a sexual harassment, and was made to feel as if she had provoked it. Another friend of mine went to the police to report an assault, and the police attempted to pressure him into stating that the perpetrator was black when he was not. The vile, intersecting prejudices of classism, racism, transphobia, homophobia and sexism are intensified by the uniform social codes in the police force and unleashed, knowingly protected by a fortress of silence.

     I recall being in Byron Bay, Australia in 2012. I witnessed a police car pull up next to a park where a group of homeless guys were drinking. The two officers got out and walked over to them, fully aware that their presence is intimidating to people who are clearly underprivileged. The officers stood over them, talked to them for a couple of minutes, then walked back to the car. I approached the officers and asked them why they bothered doing that. Their response? 

     "Because we can," said one. 

     "Because we're police," said the other. 

     And with that, they got into their car and drove off. 
     Probably unbeknownst to those officers, they concisely outlined the twisted logic of police culture: that any police action is justified simply by virtue of being in the police. Individual ethical conduct is not a concern to them, and so to criticise ACAB as a "generalisation" is to miss the point. In a regimented, uniform institution where individuality cannot exist, all members of that institution are bound by the same codes. They debase and generalise themselves as human beings. They commit acts of ruthless brutality or give tacit consent to that brutality by remaining silent and protecting it. 

If some are bastards, then all are bastards.

 "A few bad apples"? 

The whole orchard is rotten to the roots.