Three years after the murder of George Floyd that inspired this article, police brutality remains a festering wound upon the social body. The circulation of violence that is expressed in the face of the police is even directed towards their own. These issues extend far beyond the police; they are directly related to wider mentalities of domination and control that we accept and reproduce amongst each other. We have opted to include this article in our archive because of the importance of having a discussion around the function of the police and control systems more generally. We want to ask what legitimises them, and what determines how far we allow the State to dominate our lives. And, finally, we want to begin imagining how we can live differently. But before we can imagine how to move beyond our current predicament, we believe that we must first understand it.
Written on the 5th of June, 2020.
The murder of George Floyd by a white cop who sadistically tortured him while his three partners approvingly watched has rightfully ignited a torrent of protests and riots in the United States and across the world. The look on Derek Chauvin’s face as Mr. Floyd was dying under his knee said it all: 'I know what I am doing, I am enjoying it, and I believe I can get away with it. Because I am white. And because I am a cop'.
While most people with half a heart, from the most radical to the most passive, rushed to condemn this extremely blatant abuse of authority, others inevitably proceeded to make further connections. Expanding arguments that have been issued by Black movements and writers for decades or centuries, they reminded us that this was not an isolated incident. This murder was intimately connected to a system. And this cop was not just a lone wolf. This cop had been trained in a specific context, in order to serve a specific purpose, in a police force established by that specific system to protect specific interests. And this system intrinsically relies on racism; from chattel slavery to the modern criminalisation of virtually all Black bodies, racial divisions are used to oppress, exploit, and marginalise Blacks and minorities. Then they are reproduced through the media, popular culture, the school system, and wider society in order to justify this oppression and make it appear natural. And police brutality is the most direct expression of these processes.
Yet, unsurprisingly, there were those who went the opposite way. Always ready to defend the most raw forms of violence through complex mental acrobatics, they unleashed a storm of social media propaganda that aimed to defend the police. From cops kneeling alongside protesters, to cops marching with them to some official building, to cops vlogging about their indignation and begging us to believe how sorry they are, the internet exploded with two opposing narratives: one united people against systemic racism; the other used a State murder to whitewash centuries of brutality.
Each country’s wider culture and ideologies are influenced by its historical trajectory. It is no surprise, then, that in Britain and Scotland these defences of the police found their way even into purportedly left wing spaces and discussions. Britain’s history is intimately connected with the police; Scotland, in its part, played a key role in the management the British empire. In addition, Britain and Scotland both saw periods where a mass trade union movement frequently collaborated with the police in attacking and ensuring the marginalisation of Black and other immigrant groups: 'they will rape our women, they will lower our wages', all the usual crap. What united the mainstream Left with the Police was, of course, what would today be considered blatant racism.
So, in the interests of clarity, and conscious of the fact that people in the UK and Scotland have a deeply internalised love for our glorious, baton-toting, murderous cops, it seems worthwhile to sit down and work through some of the reasons that the famous anarchist slogan still stands: All Cops Are Bastards.
Perhaps paradoxically, this is not a personal attack on cops. This strictly concerns their function within a wider system – it is bigger than any individual cop, and therefore it uniformly applies to every cop. ACAB applies to the murder of George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, and the murderer of Eric Garner, Daniel Pantaleo. It applies to Alan Paton and all the other unnamed cops who murdered Sheku Bayoh. It applies to the murderer of Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Athens in 2008, Epaminondas Korkoneas. And it also applies to the local cop who was supportive when someone broke into your house, or helped you out one night when you were hammered, or shared a video of himself crying over his peers’ murderous activities.
The most important reason why All Cops Are Bastards is that they have willingly given themselves to the State apparatus. These are people who, for whatever reason, have chosen to become tools of the State – they have selected to become the human components that execute the orders handed down to them from their superiors. This is not the same as being a regular worker in any other job.
It is not the same because of the job description. In capitalism, most workers have to follow orders from their superiors. When one goes to a workplace, they are aware that they will have to perform predetermined functions. From writing up a report, to cooking a meal, to sorting through endless items in an Amazon warehouse, the duties are specific and clear. When an individual chooses to become a cop, the duties are also clear: and there is always the possibility that they will be put in a position to kill, or seriously harm, another human. Not out of defense, but simply because they must follow orders.
To make matters worse, rarely are they in control of when and how this will happen: a 'good cop' might not personally want to beat up protesters marching for equality and justice, or capture migrant workers, imprison them and their children, and deport them. Privately, this cop might even sympathise with them (we doubt it, but let’s just speak hypothetically for a bit). But this cop is a cop, and will still have to execute orders. And therefore, every single cop is personally responsible. They are even more responsible for remaining in their positions when the organisations they represent are visibly engaged in perpetuating the oppression of workers, immigrants, minorities, and any other group struggling for a better world.
Personal responsibility and accountability is the essence of the All Cops Are Bastards argument. An individual might have many reasons for becoming an officer. Some of them may even be honourable: one might strive to protect the community, help the vulnerable, ensure justice is dealt (although again, we think this is very rare). However, the police force is not only about that. When the police is regularly connected to abuses of authority, when historically they have originated precisely to exercise and protect that authority, and when oppressed groups ceaselessly experience police brutality, this individual has a responsibility to act in a way that directly addresses the heart of the problem. It is not enough for a cop to upload a YouTube video talking about how sorry he feels for Mr. Floyd’s murder, when he knows that in a few hours he might have to arrest a black kid who is pushing some weed, therefore adding to the staggering number of blacks in the US who are imprisoned and forced to work in conditions that are comparable to slavery. The cop’s personal views or qualities have nothing to do with the discussion at hand. The cop who knowingly participates in this system, fulfilling the functions assigned by this system, is complicit.
Departing from the issue of personal responsibility and complicity, the second main reason why All Cops Are Bastards is to be found in the system they serve. The history of the police is a history of the ruling class protecting its interests. This has been deeply analysed by a variety of movements and writers, so we will not try to re-invent the wheel by explaining it. Suffice to say that the protective duties of the police, when they do occur, are purely incidental. In the United States, the origins of the police are to be squarely found in organisations formed to re-capture escaped slaves. In the UK, the authorities did not create police forces with the aim of making sure your home wasn’t going to be broken into: they created them so you wouldn’t break into theirs.
If you go work for a bank, you know that you are propping up a structure that steals from and impoverishes people. If you go work for an oil company, you know that you are somehow complicit in pillaging natural resources, impoverishing entire nations, and instigating deadly wars. Cops know what they are doing. Each and every one of them is complicit. By consequence, All Cops Are Bastards.
The most important thing to remember is that the slogan does not concern itself with personal qualities of individual cops. Like all slogans, it is unable to capture the nuance and complexity of an entire world system in a few words, and that is not its purpose. Slogans are intended to give you the spark – how you use it is your responsibility.
When people respond to the slogan or similar statements by vehemently trying to locate, and defend, the rare examples of 'good cops', they are trivialising both the complexity of the slogan and the demands and suffering of the people resisting the police. As a white man, I will not put words in the mouth of the thousands of Black folks who are on the streets these days – I will not try to claim that they uniformly adopt, or agree with, “ACAB” (although some do). However, the situation is blatantly obvious: this is a historical moment where, once again, people are focusing on issues such as systemic racism, inequality, state brutality, and on the relationship of these factors with the police force. This is an infinitely complex and important process which is entirely erased when one chooses to defend cops purely because they are offended by the ferociousness of the anger provoked by centuries of oppression. In doing so, not only do they not show solidarity to those struggling, but they come very close to being accomplices themselves.
When women are protesting against male aggression, it is ludicrous to respond to them by saying 'yes, but not all men are assholes'. When women all over the world are screaming that 'you are the rapist', it’s unimaginable to say 'I get you, but I have never raped anyone'. It is offensive, insensitive, it misses the point and it’s blatantly wrong. Yes, all men are not aggressive or abusive, but all of us have been socialised with the potential to abuse, even in ways that we may not be aware of. And, most likely, we have been or still are abusive. We cannot change our being men, but we can change how we respond to these deeply-rooted mentalities that we have been polluted with since our birth. Every cop is responsible for responding to the injustices perpetuated by the police. And, while he may not being able to change being a man, he surely can change being a cop: even though the police is the biggest gang there is, they graciously still accept resignations.
Defending the police at a time like this triviliases the matter and throws protesters under the bus. Essentially, you are doing the system’s job for them – instead of collectively coming together and trying to change our lives (the specifics of which require enormous amounts of thought and debate), we are caught contemplating trivialities and explaining things that should be obvious (as is happening in this essay). At the same time, we are involved in silencing and policing movements’ voices; especially when those voices are Black, all others ought to take a step back and try to find ways to support. They ought to invest time in researching Black voices and analyses on current events. This is the time to listen and take action.
It should by now be obvious that our main aim in choosing this click-baity title was not to stuff anarchist ideas down your throat. The author chose to write in order to highlight how problematic it is when people triviliase complex utterances that respond to real, daily oppression by attempting to find nuance where there is none. Every cop is responsible. If you don’t like the word 'bastard', you are free to replace it with something else. The real issue is not whether some cops are 'good'. It is that this racist, oppressive, exploitative system is killing us, with Black people all around the world being most directly threatened by its deadly operations. And, ultimately, we are all responsible.
P.S. : Usually these theoretical articles on Interregnum try to have a deeper analytical focus. This time it is unnecessary. Black and other movements over the years have produced incredible work on the issue of the police and their connection to the wider capitalist, racist, patriarchal system that we are forced to inhabit. We urge everyone to do their research (the attached link is a good reading list to begin with. For those are interested in something on this list which they can't access, we urge you to contact Interregnum; there might be ways we can help).
P.P.S : Those who have experienced the move that was used to murder George Floyd know that, even if it lasts for only two minutes, it is excruciating. You are brought to your breaking point. You gasp for the air you are unable to access. Very soon you realise that your life is out of your hands and in the hands of the cop above you. George Floyd was tortured like that for more than eight minutes. Everyone talking about 'isolated incidents' is vile; they are either sadists or are so innocent that they have never experienced something similar – in the second case, they are still responsible for not listening and respecting the experiences of those who have been subjected to these tactics for centuries. Furthermore, the existence of this manoeuvre all over the world and all over history shows that, when police claim it is illegal and unauthorised, they are simply engaging in damage-control and are lying to our faces. This is something that they have practised and forms a normal component of their arsenal to make you submit. You are supposed to suffer. You are supposed to fear for your life.