Above Photo: Belkis Terán, mother of slain Forest Defender “Tortuguita” Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, prays at the site of the activist’s police-perpetrated killing after spreading their ashes throughout the Weelaunee Forest in Southeast DeKalb County, Georgia, on March 12, 2023. Candice Bernd.
Pressure is mounting against the planned police training center after a week of unprecedented police repression.
Southeast Dekalb County, Georgia—Belkis Terán raised her arms wide to welcome the rain now pounding hard over the newly thatched pavilion in the parking lot of the “Weelaunee People’s Park,” a space once known to residents of Atlanta and Southeast DeKalb County as Intrenchment Creek Park.
Long before settlers dubbed the South branch of the Ocmulgee River here as simply the “South River,” the Mvskoke tribe, who were forcibly relocated from this area to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, called the river Weelaunee, the tribal word for “green/brown/yellow water.” More recently, the forested watershed has been called “the lungs of Atlanta” for its role in sequestering carbon emissions and providing the greatest amount of tree canopy shade of any urban area in the country.
Now, almost 200 years later, Mvskoke spiritual leaders have returned to their homelands once again to stand beside Terán, who flew here from Panama, as she eulogized her son, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán. To most witnessing the vigil, Esteban Paez Terán was known by their chosen “forest name” of “Tortuguita” (“Tort” for short), intended in part to shield their identity from ever-present state surveillance of their efforts to protect the Weelaunee’s sweetgum and boxelder trees. While the name, meaning “little turtle,” has helped shield their legacy, it ultimately couldn’t protect their life.
Police shot and killed Tortuguita in their tent on January 18 during a violent raid on a distributed encampment here that has sought to blockade construction of what “Forest Defenders” like Tort have dubbed “Cop City,” an 85-acre, $90 million police militarization and training complex spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). If built, the compound would be one of the largest police training facilities in the country, featuring several shooting ranges, a helicopter landing base, an area for explosives training, and an entire mock city for officers to game out tactics to suppress protests and uprisings.
“This [land] is sacred because we make it sacred,” Belkis Terán told huddled-together Forest Defenders after sprinkling Tort’s ashes at the site of the activist’s killing. “We hope that the government understands that. Shame for them if they don’t understand that, but we declare this land sacred. It’s already been declared for a long time. I’m just continuing [to pass] the torch.”
In contrast to its tumultuous start, Sunday’s vigil and ceremony provided a somber and heartfelt close to the fifth “week of action” against the planned training compound local organizers and Forest Defenders here have hosted since they first learned of the plan in 2021.
The Terán family laid Tort to rest in the woods they gave their life to defend, becoming the first environmental activist to be killed on U.S. soil while protesting. The ceremony was held a day before the family briefed the public on the results of an independent autopsy commissioned by family showing the Forest Defender had bullet-exit wounds in both hands. The autopsy determined Tort had been sitting “crossed-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg,” with their palms up and facing inward when they were killed by a Georgia State Patrol SWAT team, who are not required to wear body cameras.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation initially said Tortuguita was killed after allegedly firing a gun and injuring a Georgia state trooper. The independent autopsy showed Tort was shot at least 14 times by multiple handguns and shotguns. While the report noted that it was impossible to tell whether Tort had been holding a firearm at the time of the shooting, it determined that Tort’s body did not show evidence of gunpowder soot or residue that would be consistent with their firing a weapon at officers.
The autopsy’s findings add to questions already raised by body-worn camera video released by the Atlanta Police Department (APD) from a unit of officers who were not directly involved in the shooting. The video shows officers in the initial moments after the shooting suggesting that the Georgia state trooper Tort allegedly shot was instead shot by friendly fire — something Forest Defenders alleged from the beginning.
For those who have vowed to remain dug in here, Tort’s remains add a deeply meaningful layer to the intentional space this community of decentralized activists has built together over the past two years.
In the camp’s photo-restricted central hub, called the “living room,” you’ll find them singing folk songs, giving poetry sessions and doing impromptu comedy routines in between morning and evening meetings. Elsewhere in the woods, you can find them planting fruit and nut trees, doing yoga and building new infrastructure, even as police helicopters circle above the treetops.
Activists say the camp is maintaining a defensive posture in the face of ever-increasing police repression in both the forest and downtown Atlanta, including a March 5 mass arrest that swept up 23 people attending a music festival on felony domestic terrorism charges carrying up to 35 years in prison.
During the week of action’s opening weekend on March 5, a subset of activists allegedly broke off from a large field in the park hosting a protest-themed music festival and set equipment at a Cop City construction site on fire. Law enforcement, failing to apprehend specific individuals at the site itself, indiscriminately targeted the music festival, pouring into the field, campgrounds and parking lot with weapons drawn. They issued commands, chased people down and threatened to shoot and arrest festival attendees, according to Truthout contributor Frances Madeson, who was on the scene.
The police detained 35 festivalgoers and charged 23 with domestic terrorism, the majority of whom, organizers say, were targeted with the charges simply for being from out of state. Just two people were from Georgia, including one legal observer with the Southern Poverty Law Center who was the only person to be granted bond by a local judge.
The March 5 mass arrest touched off an unparalleled wave of police repression throughout the following week in downtown Atlanta and Southeast DeKalb County, where the park and proposed Cop City site are located. Police deliberately targeted First Amendment-protected activity by activists, legal observers and journalists — including me.
On March 10, I followed and documented a group of about a dozen activists in downtown Atlanta as they demonstrated at local offices of organizations connected to Cop City or officials empowered to stop the project. The group, led by veteran direct action organizer Lisa Fithian, visited and attempted to get meetings at the offices of Atlanta Beltline, on whose board sits Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens; BoardWalk Consulting, which advises the Atlanta Police Foundation; and the Atlanta Hawks, whose owner, Tony Ressler, donated at least $1 million to the APF.
An extremely disproportionate police presence stalked the traveling protest at each of the stops, with at least two full vans of police and constantly circling APD vehicles hounding the group’s every move. The group then headed to the Peachtree Center, which houses the Atlanta Regional Center where Mvskoke leaders attempted to deliver an eviction notice to Mayor Dickens on March 8. At least five APD officers followed the group into the center. At that point, the group decided to disperse.
I left with a group of six people. Three folks broke off from us, but police continued to stalk me and two others as we made our way back to the car. We passed what appeared to be a plain-clothes police officer with an ear piece who flashed an “OK” hand sign at us, a well-known white supremacist hate symbol. A full van-load of police pulled up alongside us and even impeded traffic while we stopped to huddle about our predicament.
We proceeded to the car. Several APD vehicles followed our vehicle as we attempted to leave downtown. They stopped us. I documented what happened next on a Twitter thread and livestream. My friend was ticketed for allegedly not maintaining her lane and for her physical license being expired (though the license was technically renewed). That we were let go I can only attribute to the thread and livestream going semi-viral during the stop itself.
Our experience was just a small taste of the heavy-handed repression against First Amendment-protected activity throughout last week. On March 11, police raided the six-acre property of the Lakewood Environmental Arts Foundation (LEAF), a nonprofit community food-distribution center based out of the owner’s house. The LEAF property had been serving as a welcome center and medic hub during the week of action, and the organization’s property was used as a secondary encampment site for activists who obtained permission.
APD and Homeland Security officers entered the property with AR-15s and detained at least 22 people. They reportedly refused to provide an arrest warrant, saying it was offsite. One person was arrested for an outstanding parking ticket, demonstrating the state’s desperation to snatch up anyone associated with the “Stop Cop City” movement. Officers ruthlessly ransacked infrastructure at the LEAF encampment site, disrupting medic operations.
Earlier in the week, another small group of about 15 people gathered downtown to hand out flyers explaining their opposition to the proposed police training center. Police responded with more than 50 officers and a SWAT team.
Forest Defender “Taylor” described their experience being detained by police on the morning of March 7 after they and another activist hung a “Stop Cop City” banner on an overpass in Atlanta. The two were stopped by an APD officer who told them someone had called in a suicide attempt. (The activists had scaled a tall fence on the overpass in order to hang the banner.)
The cop, Taylor said, hadn’t looked at the banner, and the encounter was deescalated until a second officer showed up and read the banner. That officer then returned to their car and got on the radio, Taylor told Truthout. Soon, four more APD vehicles arrived. The cops huddled and then told the Forest Defenders that they were being detained but not arrested. The police ordered the two activists to turn off their phones, Taylor said, and told them they were to be searched and brought to a local precinct for an interview with Homeland Security.
Taylor said the two were at the precinct in separate interrogation rooms for about four hours. When police came into their interrogation room, Taylor said an officer was intentionally vague about which specific police agency they worked for, telling Taylor only that they were “Georgia police.”
“I can’t be sure that it was actually Homeland Security that talked to us, and that they weren’t just some state-level investigators. But, for sure, the cop that told us we were being detained said Homeland Security wanted to talk to us,” they said. Taylor refused to answer officers’ questions and had to sign a document confirming their noncooperation.
Later, another officer came into the room with a personal cellphone and closely photographed Taylor from every possible angle, they said. Police then released them with a traffic citation for creating hazardous conditions in a roadway. “My impression is, if the banner we were hanging had been about a separate issue unrelated to Cop City or police violence — if it had been about abortion access, for instance, or something that’s political but not about the cops — I have a lot of doubt that they would have made an incident out of it,” Taylor said.
Even with all the repressive tactics being thrown at activists, legal observers and journalists last week, Forest Defenders say they are more worried about what might be coming down the pipe this week — especially as activists and journalists who traveled to Atlanta for the March 4-11 week of action depart.
Police have cracked down against organizers after previous weeks of action, activists say, and some fear rumors that prosecutors are planning on releasing indictments charging them as a “criminal organization” under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act statutes could manifest this week, adding salt on the wound of the 41 total domestic terrorism charges faced by “Stop Cop City” activists and festival bystanders after March 5.
Challenging Police Narratives
Back in the Weelaunee Forest, activists are maintaining a sense of joy and community even while adapting to new levels of repression and an atmosphere of understandable apprehension in the wake of violent police raids and arrests. On my first visit to the “living room,” one Forest Defender I met explained that they couldn’t sit down for an interview because they were currently on watch, scouting for possible signs of police entering the woods as others chatted and mingled around a communal fire.
As Forest Defender “Jo” puts it, one of the main challenges for the encamped movement is mitigating fear and paranoia in an atmosphere where domestic terrorism charges and potential RICO charges are being employed as a means of intimidation. They told Truthout that Forest Defenders are talking through the importance of nuance when reporting back to the camp about police movements, for instance.
“If you’re reporting on police activity, don’t just be like, ‘Police in the parking lot.’ Is there one cop outside the parking lot? Yeah, we’re not incredibly worried. Are there 30? We’re a little more concerned,” Jo said. “Once people have an analysis about what different kinds of police presence and repression mean, and how they fit into the overarching political situation, then you can make confident decisions and know who to contact for support. So there’s a lot of that work that happens beforehand.”
While Forest Defenders work to maintain necessary operational security and mitigate internal narratives that might drive unnecessary fear, they’re simultaneously working against external, police-driven narratives that seek to divide the movement between Atlanta-based organizers and so-called “outside agitators” police are deliberately targeting with the label of “domestic terrorist.”
The struggle against Cop City, organizers say, is not just a struggle local to the Atlanta area: 43 percent of the training center’s trainees would be from out of state, according to documents shared with the Atlanta Community Press Collective from an open records request. Moreover, Jo noted that police are using their failures to justify an expansion of police infrastructure across the country, pointing to an effort by the Texas Department of Public Safety to justify the approval of a new statewide “active-shooter” law enforcement academy on the basis of the failed police intervention in the Uvalde school shooting.
“[The police] are trying to really push this ‘outside agitator’ narrative, but because it doesn’t reflect reality, like many things police say, it has to be produced,” Jo tells Truthout. “So, how do you determine who’s part of a movement except to start arresting people? If you want to produce an ‘outside-agitators’ narrative, you separate people by their residency and arrest the people who are from out of town, which implies that the movement is not local.”
The same goes, Jo says, for attempts to divide the movement based on tactic, with narratives that attempt to separate so-called “peaceful” protesters from those who engage in nonviolent property destruction. Jo cited a September 2021 demonstration in the park that didn’t involve direct action tactics but still resulted in arrests.
“In law enforcement’s effort to create this wedge, they also undo their own narrative,” they said. “Forest Defenders actually want peace. We want to do yoga in the forest. We want to cook for each other and clean together and do poetry readings.”
A Walk in Weelaunee
Rejecting the false divide between local and nonlocal activists, Atlanta-based Forest Defender “Morgan” told Truthout they have helped to set up much of the camp infrastructure that now supports activists of all stripes and backgrounds working in the Weelaunee Forest. They spent at least one night occupying a tree platform between the “living room” and the open field where the music festival was held before police tore the platforms down during previous raids.
Morgan walked me down to the creek which separates park land from the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, a complex of farms sold in a land lottery to a chattel slave plantation where the planned police compound is being built. The site became a city-operated prison and dairy farm where incarcerated people were forced to grow crops and raise livestock to feed the populations of other city prisons from about 1920 to 1989, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective. Today, the area continues to host a shooting range, juvenile detention facility and the Helms state prison. Gunshots from the shooting range echo across the park at regular intervals.
Forest Defenders say this history of the land, which includes the Mvskoke people’s forced removal in the 19th century, sheds important light on Cop City’s intersecting social and environmental injustices: Not only is the Weelaunee Forest and watershed one of Atlanta’s most important defenses in the face of the worsening climate crisis, it’s also long been the site of racist displacement, enslavement and carceral subjugation.
We continued walking along the creek until we got close to the site of the other, much less publicized development project currently threatening the forest: In 2020, the widely loathed private developer and former owner of Blackhall Studios, Ryan Millsap, made a deal with DeKalb County to swap 40 acres of park land here for another piece of land nearby. That deal is on hold due to a local environmental group’s lawsuit, but Forest Defenders told Truthout Millsap was personally present when contractors working on his behalf tore up the park’s paved parking lot and destroyed the original gazebo structure there. Activists recently rebuilt a larger structure that became the first site of Tort’s vigil.
Morgan told Truthout that, as a local Forest Defender, they feel betrayed by city officials in regard to both development projects. They criticized city and county leaders who claim to care about alleviating the pressures of gentrification in an area that has one of the widest income inequality gaps in the country. They condemned the Atlanta City Council for overriding as much as 70 percent of 1,100 constituents who expressed opposition to the compound during the approval process for the project in 2021. Black working-class communities who live near the proposed site in unincorporated DeKalb County also vocally oppose the project.
“I think the elected officials have completely ignored our voices and are choosing to follow corporate donations that are influencing the APF,” Morgan told Truthout.
Another inflection point in the struggle may come as early as next month, when the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals could rule on the merits of an appeal of the project’s land disturbance permit by a member of its own advisory committee. The appeal argues the county improperly issued the permit because the project’s construction would violate the Clean Water Act. The Board is set to have a hearing on the issue in April, and has 60 days to issue a ruling.
“What’s happening here will help determine the terrain for struggles to come. It will help define both what’s possible and what future repression will look like because law enforcement agencies and the courts are … trying to figure out how they can stop movements, and we have to fight on all fronts,” Jo said.
*All Forest Defenders are referred to with pseudonyms and “they/them” pronouns in order to protect their identity amid heavy police surveillance and repression of the “Stop Cop City” movement.