‘This Has Never Happened in the U.S.’: Atlanta Forest Defender Shot and Killed By Police
Twenty-six-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who went by “Tortuguita,” was shot and killed around 9:04 a.m. on last Wednesday by an unknown officer as part of a police raid on protestors occupying Georgia’s Weelaunee Forest to protect it from city plans to transform it into a police training center, as The Guardian reported.
“Killings of environmental activists by the state are depressingly common in other countries, like Brazil, Honduras, Nigeria,” author and Northwestern University history professor Keith Woodhouse told The Guardian. “But this has never happened in the US.”
Atlanta has the largest proportional tree canopy of any city in the U.S., but two planned developments put part of that canopy at risk, according to Defend the Atlanta Forest. One is the so-called “Cop City,” a proposed training facility for the Atlanta Police Department that would include a mock city and require the clearing of 300 acres of forest. The other is an airport and soundstage for film production company Shadowbox Studies, formerly Blackhall Studios, which will require cutting 170 acres of trees.
The developments are planned for the South River Forest–a wooded area just outside Atlanta that was called the “Weelaunee” by its original Muscogee (Creek) inhabitants before they were forced out along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, as Atlanta Magazine explained. The forest is now surrounded by majority Black communities who have already had to contend with environmentally unjust developments such as six nearby landfills.
The movement to oppose the new developments began as soon as then Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the plans for the “Cop City” towards the end of 2021, according to The Guardian. This development overwrote earlier plans to preserve the forest in order to help Atlanta respond to the climate crisis.
Opponents of the development included mainstream environmental and community groups, as well as the “forest defenders” who decided to occupy the area with their bodies, Atlanta Magazine pointed out. One of them was Tortuguita.
“I fell in love with the woods and I also fell in love with the community,” they told The Bitter Southerner.
In a statement, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) said that Tortuguita was shot during a multi-agency operation on the protest site after they first shot a Georgia State Patrol Trooper from their tent in the woods. The trooper was injured and taken to a local hospital. On Saturday, the GBI released an image of a handgun they claimed was in Tortuguita’s possession and said it matched the bullet recovered from the wounded trooper. On Monday, they said they had proof that Tortuguita had purchased the firearm legally.
However, activists on the ground have challenged the police narrative, as WABE reported. They also demanded body camera footage, which the police said was not available.
“The officers who were near the incident at the time of shooting were not wearing body worn cameras. Although the shooting is not captured on bodycam, there is bodycam footage of the aftermath,” GBI said in a statement Monday.
At least six activists present at the time said that they only heard one round of shots and thought the trooper might have been a victim of friendly fire, according to The Guardian. Tortuguita’s mother–Belkis Terán–who lives in Panama City–is convinced of his innocence.
“I’m going to clear Manuel’s name. They killed him … like they tear down trees in the forest – a forest Manuel loved with passion,” she said, according to The Guardian.
During last Wednesday’s operation, seven people were arrested under charges of domestic terrorism and criminal trespass, according to GBI. This follows the arrest of six other forest defenders under the “domestic terrorism” charge in December of 2022, as The Guardian reported.
Civil Liberties Defense Center founder Lauren Regan told The Guardian that these charges were also unprecedented for environmental activists in the U.S.
“They are trying to separate the tree sitters from all of us,” an anonymous protestor said in a press release from the Atlanta Community Press Collective responding to the December arrests. “They represent the movement to them so they are charging them with terrorism. But we are all forest defenders. We are all in the movement. And we won’t be scared away from this.”
A solidarity statement posted after Tortuguita’s death has been signed by more than 1,000 organizations and individuals.
“The struggle that is playing out in Atlanta is a contest for the future,” the statement reads. “As the catastrophic effects of climate change hammer our communities with hurricanes, heat waves, and forest fires, the stakes of this contest are clearer than ever. It will determine whether those who come after us inherit an inhabitable Earth or a police state nightmare. It is up to us to create a peaceful society that does not treat human life as expendable.”