Protest language is not a tool for the disobedient

Discussing the repercussions of misusing protest language.

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Society has a responsibility to ensure protest language is not delegitimized.

In recent months, streams of N.W.A.’s 1988 single “F—k tha Police,” have increased by over 300 per cent. The song details court proceedings between N.W.A. and the police, ultimately having them prosecute the police for their crimes against Black people. It’s no surprise that Americans angered by institutional racism are flocking to this song, whose lyrics demand police are held accountable for racist behaviour, over 30 years after its release. Unfortunately, while written as a protest song fighting for racial solidarity, the song’s powerful lyrics have been misappropriated by white teenagers expressing youthful disobedience.

As anti-police language returns to the public consciousnesses, a similar trend is developing. Phrases such as ‘ACAB’—an abbreviation for ‘All Cops Are Bastards’—and ‘F—k 12’ are being misused by many, particularly young people. While the growing antagonism between police and students breaking coronavirus guidelines has created a new space outside of police brutality protests for anti-police language, this space ultimately just cheapens the language and distorts the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The origins of ‘ACAB’ and ‘F—k 12’ are not particularly clear. ‘ACAB’ appeared in music as early as the 1920s and eventually became a trademark of 1970s punk rock. Regardless, the meaning has always been clear: all cops belong to a system which disproportionately targets the poor and disenfranchised. It is a phrase rooted in class conflict once used by both the working class and prisoners; the tendency for socioeconomic and criminal matters to become racially divided led to the racialization of the phrase.

When police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020, ‘ACAB’ became integral to the associated protest movement. Protestors recognized the problem as extending beyond a few bad cops, choosing rather to speak out against the institution of policing which quite possibly encourages the oppression of BIPOC. Even if some cops are good, they exist as active outliers in a system that arms and enables the so-called bad seeds.

The most crucial component of anti-police rhetoric is its ability to educate through pithy yet complex statements. With that in mind, it’s become clear the phrase ‘ACAB’ has been corrupted as Instagram feeds are frequently full of posts about parties broken up by police with captions that read ‘ACAB’ and ‘F—k 12’. These captions—far too often uploaded by white youth—provide no reference to the institutional flaws of the police system that have a disproportionately negative effect on Black and Indigenous people.

Without any mention of policing at all, posts such as these are using ‘ACAB’ as a simple expression of youthful disobedience against authority figures. The act of police breaking up a party—thrown illegally during a pandemic, no less—pales in comparison to police brutality and murder. The problem with the police is not that they ruin the fun, but rather that, as it stands, they are often allowed to kill people when their job is to serve and protect them. Misusing a phrase such as ‘ACAB’ only complicates and misconstrues this important point.

The improper use of ‘ACAB’ within the student population is only getting worse, especially as police levy massive fines on irresponsible partygoers. Each unwarranted use of ‘ACAB’ dilutes its potency and limits its ability to educate. The phrase is becoming separated from police brutality entirely, hindering society’s ability to recognize it as a serious problem.

Furthermore, the misuse of ‘ACAB’ and ‘F—k 12’ provide critics with an opportunity to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement as simply being an excuse for young people to lash out at societal authority figures. Conflating protestors with partiers delegitimizes the concrete policy reforms being put forth as immature and unrealistic. As Black Lives Matter protestors advocate for concrete changes to the criminal justice system, the integrity of their message is critical to the overall success of the movement. Otherwise, these needed reforms will be written off as uneducated opposition to enshrined institutions.

In discussing “F—k tha Police,” former N.W.A rapper Ice Cube described the song as being “more than just a song that was insulting the police. It was a revenge fantasy, like Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino." It speaks volumes that Ice Cube was willing to compare his perspective of police to Tarantino’s vision of Nazis. Back in their heyday, N.W.A. was approached by police backstage who read them laws about obscenity, leading to the song being banned from their 1989 tour and from most radio stations. 

At the time of its release, the song represented an urgent message fueled by high stakes and pent-up anger. However, by 2016, the song had, in many respects, lost its potency through overuse, as evidenced by a Massachusetts D.J. being fined for playing the song at a bar. He admitted to never having considered the meaning of the lyrics and described it as “college kids having fun.”

Phrases such as ‘ACAB’ and ‘F—k 12’ cannot be treated like “F—k tha Police.” We cannot allow them to become synonymous with “college kids having fun" instead of rallying cries tied to potent political movements. While the misuse of protest language by Queen’s students has little effect on popular culture, they are contributing to a nationwide problem.

For Black Lives Matter protests to result in institutional reform, the message cannot be confused or diluted. Queen’s students have a responsibility to educate themselves and speak with purpose. Allyship plays a critical role in social movements of any kind; there must be a concerted effort not only to self-educate and share knowledge, but also to keep the movement focused.

Claiming to care is no longer enough. The first step to showing you care is by remaining thoughtful in your language.

When you say ‘ACAB,’ you better mean it.

 

Amanda Hacker is a second-year Arts & Science student.

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