The Decades-Long Persecution of Forest Defenders
This was first published by the Global Justice Ecology Project.On January 18, Southeast of Atlanta’s downtown, in an area once inhabited the Muscogee (Creek) people in what they called the Weelaunee Forest, now called the South River Forest, 26-year-old Indigenous, queer, non-binary forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known to his friends and family as Tortuguita (Little Turtle), was shot and killed in his tent by the Georgia State Patrol. Members of the State Patrol were part of a SWAT team composed of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Atlanta Police, other local law enforcement officers and, according to a GBI press release, the FBI.
Carrying automatic weapons, accompanied by K-9s and with drone surveillance support overhead, this militarized police force moved in on encamped forest activists protecting some of the last remaining canopied forest area in metropolitan Atlanta in a predominantly black neighborhood. Claiming that Manuel fired first, this SWAT team shot him 14 times, and for the first time in the history of the U.S. environmental movement, a forest activist had been killed by the police. Not that they hadn’t tried before; more on that later.
Tortuguita was one of a few dozen participants of a loosely knit collective of forest activists, police abolitionists, Black-led Community Movement Builders, anarchists and others from around the country who have been engaged since April 2021 in direct actions against the destruction of the Weelaunee Forest for a huge police training facility. Reportedly using tactics such as tree sitting and heavy equipment destruction, activists have been engaged in a furious battle to stop the chainsaws, while legal challenges to protect the forest wind their way through court. This collective of radical resistors are attempting to protect the land from not just one, but two proposed projects.
The largest of the two projects threatening the South River forest is a proposed police public safety training center that has been referred to by the activists as “Cop City”. This futuristic police training center is on the drawing board to become an 85 acre complex of helicopter pads, shooting ranges and a mock city and would accelerate the already dramatic militarization of police forces (the Atlanta PD already has an armored tactical vehicle something along the lines of an MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle) which they’ve nicknamed “The Beast”). Sponsored by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which has contracted with at least three different contractors to build the compound (a $90 million project). It is reportedly funded by major corporate donors such as Delta Airlines, Waffle House, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, UPS and Georgia Pacific. Coca Cola was also a sponsor, but pulled out after a report issued by Color of Change showed a direct connection between various police foundations around the country and police violence against citizens engaged in peaceful protest. That 2021 report was entitled: “Police Foundations: A Corporate-Sponsored Threat to Democracy and Black Lives”.
Funded by taxpayer dollars and the Atlanta Police Foundation, some of Atlanta’s last forest canopy would be cut down and replaced by Cop City. During the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War, this area was a dairy farm and later the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. From 1920 to 1989, prisoners endured brutal conditions and lynchings there while they raised food for Atlanta’s other prisons. Cop City was initially given a green light by former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms. This was despite a 70% disapproval rating by the general public; and many think this project and the extreme reaction to protests against it are a perverse police reaction to counter the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements which took root after the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020.
Intrenchment Creek Park
The other project activists are opposing is called Intrenchment Creek Park. This land-swap deal would give public land to Blackhall Studios and result in the construction of the largest soundstage in the country. Locals fear this dubious deal would accelerate the effects of global climate change in the greater metropolitan area such as flooding and increased temperatures. Concerns are also high that the project would result in the gentrification of the predominantly African American neighborhoods which border the project.
First reports of police-involved shootings are often fraught with omissions and half-truths. A February 17 investigative story by the Washington Post found that the first draft of an incident most always favors the police version of what happened, and the truth must wait for reporters, journalists and concerned citizens to actually force the real story to the surface. Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who researches criminal behavior by police said that “the police own the narrative in every interaction they have with the public, because they write-up the reports, and sometimes the reports are written to justify the actions the officers have taken and sometimes to cover-up what actually happened.” In the shooting death of Manuel, the official narrative is being challenged as more information surfaces. This 26 year old Magna Cum Laude graduate of Florida State University was reported to have shot and wounded an unnamed police officer, and the public was told that there was no bodycam footage to substantiate the charges that Tortuguita was killed in a hail of gunfire in a reaction by the SWAT team. However, on February 8th, just two days after Manuel’s family and attorneys held a press conference outside the DeKalb County courthouse calling for transparency on the part of the police, the Atlanta police department released bodycam footage of their officers involved in the raid, questioning who really shot the unnamed Georgia State Patrol officer. An Atlanta law enforcement officer can be heard asking, “Did they shoot their own in there?” Another officer replies, “we don’t know what he got shot by.”
“Imagine the Police Killed Your Child, and Now Imagine They Won’t Tell You Anything“
A second autopsy done at the request of the family revealed that Manuel was most likely shot while he was in a seated position, and that their body included exit wounds through the palms of both hands. According to a March 11 NPR story, Tortuguita’s family has now sued the GBI for more information on the shooting under the Open Records Act. “Imagine the police killed your child, and now imagine they won’t tell you anything. That is what we are going through,” said Belkin Teran, Manuel’s mother. This is the same GBI that has instructed the Atlanta Police Department to not release any more bodycam footage or other information on this tragedy. In a March 10th press release, GBI defended the agency’s decision to restrict information saying they want to “preserve the integrity of the investigation and to ensure the facts of the incident are not tainted.”
“I’m Scared Every Day”, Judi Bari, EF! organizer on her continued activism after a 1990 car bombing in which she was almost killed
Infiltration and obstruction of groups and organizations out of the mainstream have long been a modus operandi for FBI agents. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO operation began in 1956 originally to target the activities of the Communist Party of the United States, but later expanded to include civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. One FBI document stated one of the purposes of the program was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of the Black Nationalists”. As years went by, some of these same tactics would be used against Native American activists such as Leonard Peltier, who still remains in prison after being framed for the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. The FBI’s tentacles would eventually reach out to ensnare environmentalists.
The Car Bombing of Earth First! Activists
Take, for example, the case of the car bombing in Oakland, California of Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. In May of 1990, these two forest activists were organizing for “Redwood Summer”, a campaign calling for forest protectors throughout the nation to come to Northern California to protect the last of the magnificent ancient redwood trees from being clearcut. The brainchild of Judi, and based on the 60s civil rights “Mississippi Summer” where activist “freedom riders” traveled to the Deep South to advocate for voting and civil rights for Blacks, EF! hoped to use similar tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to disrupt and delay the destruction of the remaining redwood forests of which at that time only around three percent remained.
Early one morning, as Judi and Darryl were driving in Judi’s Subaru station wagon on their way to Santa Cruz, CA to recruit activists; Darryl with his guitar and Judi with her fiddle, they were nearly killed when a pipe bomb exploded underneath Judi’s driver’s seat. Judi was seriously injured in the blast, and both her and Darryl were hospitalized. Almost immediately, the FBI and Oakland Police Department charged both of them with possession and transportation of explosives. This was largely due to the fact that FBI agent Frank Doyle stated that the bomb had been in the back seat, and not under the driver’s seat. This fabrication of the truth would result in the two activists being arrested in their hospital beds for possessing and transporting explosives. Weeks later, the District Attorney in the case dismissed the charges for lack of evidence. This was not the first time that Judi, the divorced mother of two, and Darryl had narrowly escaped death for their activism. Nine months before their bombing, the couple and Judi’s daughters were intentionally rear-ended by a logging truck in what Judi described as “attempted murder”. Photos also circulated in Mendocino County of Judi speaking at a Board of Supervisors meeting with a rifle crosshair superimposed on her face. A letter to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and signed by “The Lord’s Avenger,” claimed responsibility for the bombing of Judi and Darry later that year, but the case was never pursued by the FBI.
In 1997 a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the Oakland PD and the FBI for a violation of Judi and Darryl’s civil rights. In 2002 a jury awarded Bari’s estate (Judi had tragically died of breast cancer in 1997) and Cherney a total of $4.4 million. The award was later reduced in 2004 to $4 million, with a stipulation that the Oakland PD release all the evidence in the case to Cherney. Darryl would go on to use the money awarded him by the court to produce the 2012 documentary, Who Bombed Judi Bari?
Directed by Mary Liz Thomson, the documentary films Judi giving a deposition from her deathbed about what happened to her as a result of the bombing, and chronicles EF! fight to save the Redwoods. That same year, before the FBI planned to destroy them, a federal judge ordered the FBI to let an independent laboratory test fragments and other evidence left over from the 1990 bombing. That evidence also included the remnants of another, similar pipe bomb that, two weeks before the Oakland bombing, partially exploded at a Louisiana-Pacific lumber mill in Cloverdale, CA. In response to the ruling Cherney said, the FBI, “covered the tracks of the bomber”, and never conducted a proper investigation. Cherney went on to declare that, “they blamed us for the bombing. I want to find out who that guy is. This evidence represents the most promising opportunity to solve the case.” To this day, “The Lords Avenger” remains at large.
The 1990 bombing of Judi and Darryl shocked many in the environmental movement, myself included. As a Sierra Club member at the time, I had previously viewed EF! actions as a little too radical for my taste. However, after the bombing I felt that EF! must be doing something right if the opposition had tried to kill them. I made the trip up to Ft. Bragg from Southern California to Redwood Summer for a rally and march to save the redwoods. This was my first experience marching in a demonstration, and it was as anxiety-filled (cops from as far away as Petaluma lined the parade route in riot gear) as it was inspiring. Hundreds of activists marched through the downtown streets of Ft. Bragg chanting, “Earth First!, profits last”, as loggers and their families looked on. It wasn’t until “Ecotopia Summer” the following year that I got to meet Judi. As we were sitting in her car with her two daughters in the back seat, I told her that I thought she was the bravest person I had ever met. Judi looked at me and said to me words that I will never forget, “I’m scared every day”. Those words don’t just haunt me still today, but also inspire me to do more. To fight against those, “who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing”. Now 33 years after the bombing , one of our own has been killed outright by the police, and we must fight for justice now just like we did back then.
Outraged by Tortuguita’s shooting and the susequent lack of transparency by the GBI and a growing body of evidence contrary to police accounts, there have been numerous actions, marches, fundraisers and demonstrations resulting in many arrests with 20-25 activists being held, some even facing domestic terrorism charges which can carry a sentence of up to 35 years. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund has been at the forefront of jail support for those being held in the DeKalb County Jail (a request to jail officials as to exactly how many activists were being held was not answered).
From March 4th to 11, 2023, there was a Mass Mobilization to #StopCopCity. People came from around the country to make their voices heard against the killing of Tortuguita, and the continued oppression of the protestors. Among those who spoke out are Muscoggee Creek and Lakota Sioux peoples, the Atlanta Community Press Collective, and over 65 environmental, human rights and civil liberties groups who on March 8th sent a letter to Georgia prosecutors calling for the domestic terrorism charges to be dropped. Ted Terry, a former Georgia Sierra Club director, has been the only county commissioner to oppose the building of Cop City.
A Tainted Investigation
Tortuguita’s family and lawyers have held two press conferences since his killing. On March 13th during the second press conference asking for information and transparency from the GBI, lawyers decried not just the Blue Wall of police silence, but how the county, city, state and federal authorities were in “lock step” in a coverup. Attorney Brian Spears said that the investigation is already tainted, and that the family has had no access to an autopsy performed by DeKalb County. Results of a private autopsy showed that Manuel was shot 14 times, with some of the bullets converging and intersecting. Tortuguita was shot through the right eye, in the right forearm, in the abdomen, in both legs and in both palms, facing inwards. Attorneys also said there were wounds in the legs of Tortuguita from two different police shotguns. Belkis Teran, Tortuguita’s mom said, “we don’t know anything, there is only silence. I am suffering for my right to answers. My heart is destroyed.”
To contribute to Tortuguita’s family in their fight for justice, visit their gofundme page.