By Mike Ludwig / Truthout
An activist was shot and killed by police on Wednesday during a violent raid of the protest camp and community gathering space that has blocked construction of an enormous police training facility known as “Cop City” on roughly 100 acres of public forest in southeast Atlanta.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation initially said a suspect was shot and killed after allegedly firing a gun and injuring a Georgia state trooper during the raid, but fellow protesters and community activists doubt the official narrative and are calling on journalists and legal observers to investigate. Tensions between police and the tree-sitting protesters (known as “forest defenders”) have been rising for months, and activists said they had previously demanded police stop bringing guns and other weapons into the forest to prevent needless injury and death.
Statements from activists identified the person who was killed by police as a protester named Manuel Teran, who also goes by the name Tortuguita. Teran is described as a “generous,” “kind” and “fierce” activist who was a trained medic and ran a mutual aid group as part of the forest defense community.
The killing came as multiple law enforcement agencies swarmed the area Wednesday morning in their latest attempt to “clear” the protest camp. The effort featured search dogs hunting for activists, bulldozers and both lethal and non-lethal weapons, according to statements and posts on social media from accounts associated with the “Stop Cop City” movement. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims a handgun and shell casings were found at the scene.
The reportedly wounded state patrol officer was not identified as of Thursday morning, with law enforcement claiming the officer was in stable condition after being treated at a hospital and releasing few other details.
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In a statement to the media, anonymous activists reported hearing “dozens” of gunshots around 9 am on Wednesday, and it is “not clear” who fired the first shot. Police continued the raid after the protester was killed, the activists said, with people on the ground reporting bulldozers destroying forest around the camp and police using tear gas and rubber bullets to remove protesters from tree-sits.
“The police and local news are working together to control the flow of information, leaving us with vague news reports that suggest the officer fired at the civilian in self-defense,” said the Atlanta Community Press Collective in a separate statement. “We know they will say and do anything to prevent an Atlanta officer from being viewed as another Derek Chauvin, including withholding, distorting, or deleting evidence.”
There have been multiple clashes between police and the forest defenders during attempted raids in recent months. During a similar raid in December, police arrested six young activists and charged at least five of them with “domestic terrorism” after they allegedly threw rocks and bottles at police cars. Neighbors and local activists celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year by rallying in support of the arrestees and demanding that police stop using militarized tactics in a forest used locally as a park and green space.
“Atlanta police have shown a willingness to defend bulldozers with bullets. It’s unconscionable,” said one local resident in the anonymous statement released to the media.
The proposed “Cop City” facility has faced massive resistance from within the forest and in the streets of Atlanta since 2021, when plans to construct $90 million police militarization and training facility kept moving forward despite ongoing protests and steep publicopposition from local residents, environmentalists and racial justice groups.
Sited on land formerly occupied by a notorious prison farm and called Weelaunee Forest by original Indigenous residents and activists today, opponents say the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center would train police in militarized tactics used to repress social movements and communities of color. Kamau Franklin, founder of the racial justice group Community Movement Builders, described the project in a recent opinion piece for Truthout:
The Atlanta Police Foundation, the Atlanta Police Department and the City of Atlanta plan to destroy nearly 100 acres of forest to erect a domestic version of a military base in the heart of a working-class Black community. The plans for this “Cop City” include military-grade training facilities, a mock city to practice urban warfare, explosives testing areas, dozens of shooting ranges and a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad. This police training facility for the Atlanta police is a prototype of militarized police centers in the country. If built, “Cop City” will be the largest police training facility of its kind, in a city that is ranked in the bottom 20 of largest police departments in the country.
While residents and organizers in Atlanta pushed back against the planned facility, arguing the community was allowed little input on the matter, the Stop Cop City protest camp attracted young and rowdy crowds of activists who see issues such as police brutality, systemic racism and climate change intersecting in southeast Atlanta and Weelaunee Forest. To defend the forest, protesters built barricades and tree houses, as well as a communal kitchen and other infrastructure in the woods.
Activists said on social media that they expect more forest defenders to be arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism” as a result of the most recent raid, which could deflect media attention from the killing of a protester. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said on Thursday morning that “several people” were arrested during the raid and charges are pending. On Thursday morning, the Atlanta Community Press Collective said activists were arrested after being surrounded and removed from a treehouse by “dozens” of police officers as night fell on the camp.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has accused the activists of “domestic terrorism” and pledged to crack down on the camp along with local prosecutors. Protesters have used confrontational tactics such as forest blockades and loud rallies outside the offices of “Cop City” supporters, which they argue is necessary to both protect the land from destruction and prevent militarized and racist police violence in Atlanta.
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a nonprofit that supports people targeted by police for protesting, said legal observers are concerned that a “coverup could be underway” to shield police from accountability for killing a protester. The group said it is currently building a legal team to investigate the incident and potentially file a wrongful death lawsuit.
“We are skeptical of the police narrative. We want an independent investigation as to what happened,” Franklin told Truthout in an email. “Having SWAT teams clearing protestors with the Georgia State Police seems like a recipe for the disaster that has happened.”