ACAB: All Cops Are ... Bounded


This photo was taken at Thursday evening's demonstration against the criminalisation of protest - in particular the arrest of almost 20 people for participating in a 2 hour blockade of the Tánaiste 3 months previously. It shows protesters holding signs saying 'ACAB' – but what does this mean? It means 'All Cops Are Bastards'. We can hear some people objecting already: 'not all Gardaí are bad'. But please hold on, that's missing the point entirely. ACAB doesn't mean that each police officer as an individual person is nasty, sadistic, dishonest, and so on. It means that every police officer is bounded by their job as an agent of the state, and this necessarily causes cops to act like 'bastards' - whether or not they want to.

A cop goes to work as a cop, not as an individual. They cease to be 'John Murphy' and become 'Garda B203', anonymous law enforcement officer 71032. ACAB means that no matter how nice a person the cop is individually they must break strikes, attack social movements, execute homophobic, sexist, and racist laws, deport and evict people, and even torture and murder, because that is what the police do. Feel free to make a conscientious objection, you will be fired.

ACAB is a comment on the institutional role of the police. Far from being a personal insult it is actually drawing attention away from the cop as a personality and focusing on the cop as a job. Do you really think that every single Garda approves of the dawn raids on Tallaght residents, pepper spraying people in Jobstown and Coolock, spending their days as private security for Irish Water and their contractors? Do you think every Garda approves of arresting drug addicts instead of giving them medical treatment, harrassing homeless people, and all the rest of it? You get the point. Even if an anarchist became a policer officer, they could not refuse an order to arrest people attempting to sabotage US warplanes in Shannon airport. 'I don't agree but I have to because it's my job', i.e. All Cops Are Bounded.

None of this is to say that some police officers aren't personally obnoxious, corrupt, and vindictive. Many certainly are. Neither is it to excuse their actions, especially not particularly horrendous abuses. Power corrupts, it makes people anti-social, snide, grasping, egotistical, and prone to be violent, and power attracts the power-hungry so scum rises to the top. In fact the phrase 'one bad apple rots the barrel' couldn't be more wrong. The truth is that 'one bad barrel rots the apples'.

The police are an unaccountable power given to one group of people over another, to use force and violence, and that power has been established to maintain the current social order (the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and all that other good stuff). Also, the police is a special in-group which separates itself from, and puts its own interests above, 'the public'. It is not the community protecting itself, it is an alien state body hovering over the heads of the community.

All of this has become painfully obvious for thousands of people across Ireland in the struggle against the water charges, though it is in no way new. It is certainly not news to those who are aware of the campaign against Shell in Rossport Co. Mayo. Patently An Garda Siochána are on the side of the powerful. However, it is a mistake to – as many have done – blame this on some lack of personal honour among individual Gardaí. It is vital to recognise that the repressive role the Gardaí are playing is exactly why the police was invented.

The upshot is that contrary to common belief the police weren't established by well meaning people who wanted to make everyone as safe as possible, the police were established to crack down on working class activity, slave rebellion, and – to put it generally – to shore up the privileged economic position of the elite. With over 100 Gardaí deployed to arrest protesters this week in Tallaght alone, while thousands of people chronically cannot get a hang of them to deal with anti-social crime, the priorities of the police as an institution are crystal clear.

This basic truth is what lead author, journalist, and socialist, George Orwell to say: 'I have no particular love for the idealised worker as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.' These sides are well established. For instance the police have a long history of beating and murdering workers on strike.

So a cop is bounded by their institutional role, but you will have noticed that this of course isn't unique to the police. The same is definitely true of soldiers. In fact this institutional stricture is a defining feature of our society at large. 'All Corporations Are Bastards' – in a capitalist market corporations must seek maximum profit or they will be annihilated by competitors (this is basically what is meant by 'the logic of capital'). Whether or not an individual corporate executive is greedy and ruthless, they must act that way or lose their job.

This applies to politicians too. To retain their seat they must play the electoral game, with all the ideological compromise and self-promotion that entails. Once in power they realise they can change very little for the better. As said in a previous article on Syriza's election, the party faces a fundamental political limitation: if 'the markets' don't like their program, a huge capital flight will cause economic disaster in Greece. If that doesn't work, there will be a coup. This is a historically proven formula, and it's one big reason why change can't come from parliament. It must come below from social movements.

The most general point to take here is that it is much more fruitful to focus on systems and institutions rather than individual personalities. This is a way of looking at the world which has far greater explanatory power. Once you realise this, you stop believing that we just need 'better politicians', 'better bankers', 'better bosses, 'better police officers', and so on, and start advocating systemic change.

So you will see from reading this that responding to ACAB with 'not all cops are bad people' doesn't actually make sense. Everyone knows that, and that's not the point. All Cops Are Bastards, All Cops Are Bounded.