By Zane McNeill / Waging Nonviolence
At least 19 Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City activists occupying Weelaunee People’s Park in Atlanta, Georgia were arrested during a police raid on Jan. 18. Though police have claimed that they were conducting a regular clearing operation, the activists stated that it was in fact a heavily-armed raid. Dozens of DeKalb Police, Atlanta Police and Georgia State police destroyed the forest around the tree defenders’ camp, cut down trees and treehouses in attempts to remove protesters, and used tear gas and rubber bullets to extract the forest defenders. Activists were charged with domestic terrorism and criminal trespass.
One Indigenous land defender named Manuel Teran, also known as Tortuguita, was shot and killed by police during a raid of the park. Teran was a trained medic who ran a mutual aid group, was a member of Tallahassee’s Food Not Bombs, and organized disaster relief effortsfor low-income families in Florida whose homes had been damaged by hurricanes.
Forest defenders have occupied the Weelaunee (also called the South River Forest) since June 2022 after the $90 million dollar police training facility project, dubbed “Cop City,” moved forward despite community opposition at city council meetings and community engagement sessions such as workshops, potlucks and letter writing gatherings. Cop City would entail the destruction of over 100 acres of forest to build the largest police training facility of its kind in a state that — if every U.S. state was a country — would have the fourth highest rate of incarceration in the world.
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In June, one treesitter, named Wish, explained that the occupation of the forest was a necessity because “climate change and police violence are two of the most pressing issues affecting our society today, and they will only worsen if this facility is built. We cannot stand by as we sacrifice humanity’s future for a Cop City.”
There has been a great outpouring of grief and calls for action in response to the news of Teran’s death. Candlelit vigils, marches and rallies have been organized in Madison, New York City, Oakland, Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis and Atlanta. There were also reports of crowds occupying an intersection in Atlanta the night of the murder to draw attention to the police violence, and a solidarity noise demonstration was coordinated outside of Dekalb County Jail to support the treesitters who were arrested.
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an activist defense law firm has statedthat the killing of Teran is “the latest terrifying development in a pattern of police escalation against a protest movement. Months ago we warned that steadily increasing police repression would lead to protesters being killed, and here we are.”
Georgia State Patrol, or GPS, published a statement regarding the incident, in which it misgenders Teran who used they/it pronouns. Police have claimed that Teran shot and injured an officer, who underwent abdomen surgery and that officers returned fire in self-defense. No information, including the officer’s name, has been released.
Activists have voiced that police narratives on the murder of Teran have changed drastically since the raid. The first police narrative regarding the incident was than they were met with an ambush style attack. The story then changed to the police being approached by Teran individually, and then again to officers approaching a tent before being shot at. On the ground sources, however, have reported that they heard 12 continuous “rapid fire” shots, not an exchange of gunfire.
Additionally, those who knew Teran have emphasized that the forest defender was adamantly committed to nonviolent resistance. In an interview with Bitter Southerner, Teran explained that if police cracked down on the forest resistance movement, the defenders’ commitment to nonviolent action must remain intact.
“[If] they do a huge crackdown and completely try to crush the movement, they’ll succeed at hurting some people, they’ll succeed at destroying some infrastructure, but they’re not going to succeed at stopping the movement,” Teran said. “If enough people decide to do this with nonviolent action, you can overwhelm the infrastructure [of the state]. That’s something they fear more than violence in the streets. Because violence in the streets, they’ll win. They have the guns for it. We don’t.”
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund has stated that “GSP’s story is suspect, [as] they have released few details” and that the movement attorneys are “concerned a police coverup could be underway.” They are preparing to file a wrongful death suit against the GPS for the killing of Teran.
Activists have stressed that no gun was recovered from the scene and that there is no police body cam footage of the incident, leading them to believe that the officers’ injury may have been caused by friendly fire.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a division of the same organization that houses the Georgia State Police, is conducting an investigation into the death of Teran. In a press release published by the Atlanta Community Press Collective, Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City activists have called for an independent investigation of Teran’s murder and asked legal observers and journalists to accurately document the violent tactics used by the police against the forest defenders.
Defend The Atlanta Forest has called on the community to donate to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to support legal costs for arrested protesters, demanded that investors in Copy City divest from the project and that builders drop their construction contracts. They have also asked organizers to coordinate political solidarity bail funds, forest defense funds and forest defense committees across the country.
“The struggle that is playing out in Atlanta is a contest for the future,” the statement reads. “It will determine whether those who come after us inherit an inhabitable Earth or a police state nightmare … The forest defenders are trying to create a better world for all of us. We owe it to the people of Atlanta and to future generations everywhere to support them.”