On January 18, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, 26, who took the forest name Tortuguita (“Little Turtle”) or Tort, was shot by police who were raiding various camps and tree sits in the forest that comprised the movement to Stop Cop City. The official police story – amplified by the mass media, the mayor and Governor Brian Kemp – is that someone shot first at the officers, injuring one, and the police returned fire. They said no camera footage is available, and they didn’t produce a gun for several days that they now say was bought legally by Paez Terán. They have also told conflicting versions of what happened. In one version police say they surrounded the tent while Tort was inside, leading to speculation that the officer was injured by friendly fire.
The Atlanta Police Foundation, a private entity, got permission from the city to build an actual town on 100 acres of forest, the better to practice urban policing. Not just activists, but local residents from the neighboring part of the city, which is majority people of color and lower income, oppose the project. Part of the forest is a public park, used by people on a daily basis.
From mid-December until mid-January, a total of 19 people have been arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism,” but the putative actions by the protesters that prompted the charges have not been specified. For most, their only crime was trespassing, a misdemeanor. The raids on the forest defenders have been carried out by an almost unprecedented collaboration of local, county, state and federal authorities, including the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The opposition to Cop City – focused on racial and environmental injustice and climate concerns – has been militant and decentralized, with some people carrying out sabotage of heavy machinery and focusing their ire on the CEOs of companies participating in or funding the project. Some consider destruction of property violence, while others don’t, but it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of killing another human being. Tortuguita (who used they/them pronouns) declared on several occasions to reporter David Peisner their commitment to non-violence, if not as a belief system at least as a strategy: “The right kind of resistance is peaceful, because that’s where we win. We’re not going to beat them at violence. They’re very, very good at violence. We’re not. We win through nonviolence. That’s really the only way we can win. We don’t want more people to die. We don’t want Atlanta to turn into a war zone.” I urge everyone to check out the full story by Peisner in The Bitter Southerner.
Peisner even speculated that Tort might have been telling him what he wanted to hear about nonviolence, but concluded they were most likely sincere, based on how they lived their life. They were a trained medic and volunteered with Food Not Bombs. I have met countless young people engaged in frontline fights around the country who remind me of Tort: smart, extremely brave, loving, mostly anarchists and committed to nonviolence.
A week before Tortuguita was killed, I interviewed a local resident who has been active in the fight to Stop Cop City. I spoke to her again after their death, and she said, “Folks who live here are incredibly grateful for all the support we’ve gotten – vigils, donations to a memorial fund, notes of condolence; donations to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, and some people have traveled to Atlanta to stand in solidarity. We are continuing to push because police and politicians are out of control. We’re calling for an independent investigation that does not include law enforcement.” Click here to help.
Tortuguita’s mother hopes to travel to the U.S. from her home in Panama to pursue justice for her son.
Anyone in Connecticut who wants to work on this issue can sign up for a zoom meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 31.