Anti-Police Messaging in Civil Rights Protests: An Opportunity for Ill-intentioned Groups to Co-opt Legitimate Calls for Change

The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned down by Minneapolis police officers, is an undoubtedly tragic event that reminds people of all races of the plight experienced by black Americans since the first slaves arrived in the U.S. In the months since Floyd’s death, protesters have taken to the streets, expressing antipathy towards systemic racism, inequitable criminal justice and police brutality. It is awe-inspiring to see the magnitude of protests across the country. The people have made it clear that they will not stand for continued injustice. They make legitimate calls for change and support organizations that propose concrete solutions to the crises facing communities of color. However, while demonstrations have been largely effective in exposing racial inequity and summoning global attention to the problem, a concerning anti-police message has also surfaced as part of an increasingly mainstream movement. This messaging opens the door for outside agitators to infiltrate protests, spread hate and commit crimes that distract from important calls for change in policing and treatment of minorities.

The police and black America have had a strained relationship for decades, leading to distrust of public servants who are meant to enforce laws and protect the community. Agitators are now exploiting this distrust to hide amongst peaceful protests for justice in order to incite violence and support their own agendas. These groups — including anarchists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis — seek to further divide the country and exacerbate societal discord. They rely on anti-police messaging that encourages division in addition to their signature tags in order to covertly threaten the legitimacy of demonstrations and sow seeds of hatred. For instance, anarchists are believed to have been partially responsible for the takeover of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ)” or “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP)” in Seattle. The unlawful occupation, which resulted in multiple shootings, is just one example of the dangerous consequences that come from extremists latching onto anti-police rhetoric in recent Black Lives Matter protests. Furthermore, members of the Boogaloo Boys, a far-right group that has been linked to the killing of Los Angeles law enforcement officers during protests in late May, have also taken advantage of anti-police rhetoric in protests to target police while largely ignoring legitimate concerns about racial inequality. Extremist groups like the Boogaloo Boys who hope to inspire a new civil war rather than peaceful reform could be looking to take advantage of the current widening division between police and black Americans as a potential catalyst to achieve their goals. Thus, demonstrators who choose to utilize distinctly anti-police language should be intentional and prepared to defend their message from those with more destructive objectives.

Framing the modern civil rights movement as an “us versus them” issue calls on the American people to choose sides between law enforcement and Black people, therefore promoting further division. It makes sense that in protests against police brutality and systemic racism, demonstrators would want to speak out against the organization that has been a source of oppression in the black community, but purely anti-police messages rooted in hate fail to acknowledge the complexity of the issues. For example, #acab, an acronym that stands for “All Cops Are B—ds,” was trending on Twitter in early June amongst supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been notably present in George Floyd protests across the country. However, many fail to recognize that this acronym originated from the neo-fascist skinhead organization and is connected to various anarchist movements. Some images of violent demonstrations in which police cars have been defaced and/or set on fire display ACAB and 1312 — the numerical expression for the same acronym. This slogan has been especially popular amongst protest participants engaged in the illegal acts of vandalism that have tainted the movement’s image and increased skepticism towards Black Lives Matter protestors as a whole. Unbeknownst to well-meaning peaceful protestors, reports of outside agitators encouraging violence during peaceful demonstrations suggest that some individuals promoting these messages may have ulterior motives. When demonstrators promote “ACAB” without introducing the nuance of their argument —something that is hard to do in a protest setting — they perpetuate hate and play into the hand of bad actors who seek to divide the country. Black Lives Matter protesters should reconsider using symbols like “ACAB” because of their hateful origins and the opportunity it presents for extremist groups to hide in plain sight. If protestors do choose to continue supporting “ACAB” and other similar slogans, they should be vigilant in clarifying their position to avoid being lumped in with extremists to taint the validity of the movement, acknowledge the origin of the acronym and provide a nuanced explanation of the slogan’s relevance to calls for racial justice in policing.

It is wholly unacceptable that the expression of genuine pain being experienced by the black community is being muddied by criminals and ill-intentioned extremists. Riots and looting have plagued the country since the wave of protests first began after George Floyd’s death. Cities have burned. The black community and its allies are full of anger and passion, and rightfully so. Unfortunately — to further drive home the dangers of a movement pregnable by ill-intentioned and violent extremists — the media’s monolithic and unfair portrayal of protestors, rioters and looters brings to light the role of the 24-hour news cycle in exacerbating protest violence and representing the movement in a negative light. Images from major news outlets depict scenes of chaos in the streets of virtually every major American city, which is likely to be linked to small groups of extremists rather than fairly representing the majority of peaceful protestors. For example, the news has shown that in New York City, Xs and symbols resembling the celtic cross were spray painted across looted buildings and burned cars. The letter X is associated with the League of the South, a neo-confederate group that advocates for an independent, white South. The celtic cross is one of the most iconic white supremacist symbols, though its origins are mainly religious in nature — various neo-Nazi groups including the Arayan Nations, Atlantic City Skins, Storm Front and American Front have adapted the cross into their emblems. Additionally, photos of the aftermath of riots in Washington, D.C. show the wolfsangel symbol amidst anti-police graffiti. This symbol, which resembles a “z” with a horizontal line through the middle, was used by Nazis in Germany and has since become emblematic of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations.This organization, like the aforementioned Boogaloo Boys, was founded on belief in and support for an impending race war. It’s clear that extremists have infiltrated Black Lives Matter protests across the country to exacerbate division between police and Black Americans, but the media depicts violent acts by these groups as major headlines without properly recognizing who is carrying out the destructive behavior, tarnishing the good the movement has brought. This casts a negative light on legitimate demonstrations as much of the media coverage focuses on violent rioters who clash with police rather than on the peaceful marchers who are begging to have their voices heard.

In the fight against racial inequality, there should be a common enemy for all protesters. Anti-police messaging makes it seem like the common enemy is law enforcement. The enemy should instead be the racism that impacts nearly all parts of American life. Anti-police messaging takes attention away from the root problems that inspire civil rights protests — systemic racism and unjust treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement’s record of racial discrimination, disproportionate incarceration of black people and periodic use of excessive force are all important issues that need to be addressed, but framing racial justice protests in opposition to the police does not directly engage the problems. In order to find a real solution, it is important to first remedy the pervasiveness of implicit and explicit bias that contribute to discriminatory behavior.

Calling for better relationships between law enforcement and the communities they patrol could be a more productive approach to addressing problems of policing without inviting violent agitators to spoil the movement. Instituting training on how to avoid racism, sexism, ableism and general bias in the field might better equip officers to handle situations when faced with someone from a different racial or cultural background. Police officers should sit down with activists and have a conversation about what has gone wrong in the past and what concrete action can be taken to bring about equal justice under the law for all citizens. Local and state governments should take the time to author and debate thoughtful legislation that standardizes bias screening in officer onboarding to prevent any “bad apples” from ever having the chance to put on a badge. Court systems need to reevaluate the criteria they use when sentencing so that young black men from low income communities do not end up receiving notably harsher penalties than affluent, white men who committed the same offense. All of these steps towards a more equitable criminal justice system are contingent upon cooperation between law enforcement and advocates of change. That relationship will be difficult to develop if demonstrations continue down the anti-police path.

The U.S. must change for the better. The country expresses its dedication to justice for all citizens through foundational documents, legislative acts and constitutional amendments. Still, there are entire communities that weather constant injustice and bigotry. Senseless death from police brutality such as that suffered by George Floyd is a painful reminder of this inequity. History has proven that civil disobedience, protest and powerful calls for action are effective in creating change. Today’s activists who fight for underrepresented communities of the past, present and future must be judicious in their messaging. They have the unique opportunity to express calls for justice in a world laden with social media platforms and citizens eager to get out of their houses amid a global pandemic. It is essential that all Americans, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic background educate themselves on the injustice experienced by people of color every day — not only when it is caught on camera. It is equally important that activists educate themselves on potentially disruptive messaging that might surface during demonstrations. To the well intentioned protestors fighting for the fair treatment of all people: Thank you for your passion and dedication to this important cause; the world is watching and you have an incredible opportunity to make a change.