Cover Image Photo credits to Chad Davis.
** Some information in this blog was obtained from reputable news sources who reported on evidence obtained from public records requests. Narratives constructed from this have been presented as such and are still under investigation, please take this into consideration.**
This blog is a follow-up on the ongoing protests against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, otherwise known as Cop City.
To learn about what Cop City is, its historical background, and efforts to end this mega-development project from destroying Atlanta’s last major urban forest, read my article here. In the meantime, the Atlanta City Council approved the funding for the Atlanta Public Safety Center, i.e. “Cop City” in early June 2023. What is described below are the developments since my last post.
Since March, the movement to stop Cop City and relationships with law enforcers have only become more contentious. Construction in the South River Forest has begun, while the efforts to stop it have only become more fervid.
Autopsy revelations and public record reports
Environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran (they/them), was lethally shot 13 times on January 18th, 2023. The altercation between state troopers and protesters began simply over the forced removal of activists from the site soon to be developed into the nation’s largest police training facility. Instead of peaceful dialogues or dispersions, the incident ended in the tragic killing of Manuel Teran.
Much speculation surrounds this event given the lack of body-cam footage as state troopers do not usually wear body cams. Given the presence of multiple other agencies, however, such as the DeKalb County police departments, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and possibly the FBI, the lack of footage is concerning in and of itself.
In whatever case, Teran’s family has released the conclusions of an independent autopsy they had done. Based on the location of bullet wounds, the report hypothesized that Tortuguita was more than likely in a cross-legged seated position, with their hands raised in the air. Tortuguita suffered from multiple gunshot wounds, but most tellingly, they had several exit wounds through their palms.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) released a statement on Friday, March 10th stating that the initial autopsy was conducted by the DeKalb Medical Examiners Office and that the GBI would not be communicating more at present due to concerns over the ongoing investigation. The state has still not released its own autopsy report over two months after Tortuguita’s death.
In spite of this, incident reports have become available (alongside the independent autopsy) and state that, in contradiction to widespread claims that police acted in “self-defense,” just the opposite is true.
These new records were obtained by The Guardian through a public records request with the Georgia Department of Public Safety 一 previously unreleased in the wake of international outrage calling for answers and accountability. The written narratives are not to be totally trusted, memory is a fragile thing often more subject to our imagination than we would like to believe. With this in mind though, a tentative sequence of events can be gleaned from the multiple officers’ reports on the day of Teran’s killing.
The following is the sequence of events gleaned from reports accessed by The Guardian.
Before the police raid, officers and SWAT teams were briefed on the ‘domestic terrorists’ trespassing in the forest beforehand, with claims that demonstrators might possess rifles, pistols, explosive devices, or Molotov cocktails. It was stated that the Defend the Atlanta Forest group had national contacts and widespread solidarity. Additionally, officers were warned about the possibility of booby traps and tripwires. Lastly, officers were warned some protesters may throw fecal matter or urine, and since, quote, “it was known that some trespassers carried STDs” this may lead to infection for the city personnel. (It should be noted this is not how STD transmission works.)
Three search teams of officers were deployed into the forest. The second team, consisting of SWAT, were the ones who encountered the large encampment where Teran resided. They approached their tent from behind and noted movement inside, the tent flap was closed. This is where some accounts start to contradict slightly in their order of events, however, the main components remain the same.
Officers ordered Manual Teran to exit their tent or they would be arrested for trespassing, to which they responded, “No, I want you to leave.”
At this point, Teran either opened the flap slightly, surveyed, and then re-closed the entrance, or asked what they were being arrested for without opening their tent flap beforehand. In either case, Teran opened and closed their tent flap at one point to which one officer wrote that this was “resisting orders.”
Then there was an order to fire a pepper ball gun into the tent and chaos ensued.
After hearing cracking sounds inside, officers began firing into the tent.
One officer called out they had been hit and medics rushed to provide immediate medical attention. The same was not given to Teran.
After opening their tent with a ballistic shield and a diversionary device was deployed, officers found Teran with multiple gunshot wounds, “unquestionably deceased.”
Coinciding these written accounts with body cam footage of officers in other parts of the forest, at 9:01 am four shots were heard followed by a flurry that lasted approximately 11 seconds. At 9:02 am officers heard on the radio that one was injured.
Body cam footage caught the discussions of police a few minutes after the incident and caught one asking, “Did they shoot their own man?”
Tortuguita is the first environmental activist to be killed by the police in America.
Protests of destruction over Cop City construction
As construction began on the proposed Cop City site in the Weelaunee Forest, attempts to remove protesters have a renewed fervor. Two ‘clearing out’ raids to remove protesters from the forest have been conducted by police since construction began, the first of which resulted in the death of an activist.
Nearly two months later, Cop City has come under the scrutiny of international attention, and feelings surrounding the issue have only intensified. In the first week of March, protesters planned to hold a “week of action” wherein a coalition of people from various social justice networks would come together over the growing concerns to stop Cop City.
These included Atlanta-area residents, organizations such as the Community Movement Builders and Black Voters Matter, and a local rabbi. The week was to include a music festival, a Shabbat, and a “know your rights” workshop.
However, during the music festival, certain protesters entered the construction site and set fire to construction equipment. The events escalated further to include throwing bricks at officers. In the end, 35 people were detained.
This too has become massively contentious as 23 of the 35 detained were at the Weelaunee Forest Festival 一 located over a mile away. On March 5th, an hour after the events at the construction site, police arrived at the festival and began arresting people, especially those with out-of-state IDs. These individuals have been charged with domestic terrorism (a sentence that can carry up to 35 years) for ‘vandalism’ and ‘arson’ of the site over a mile from the concerts.
On March 23rd, a judge denied bond to 8 out of 10 defendants. Only two were granted bond at $25,000 and with numerous other conditions. One was a law student who had been at a food truck in the area when arrested. They were almost forced to withdraw from school before finally being granted a bond and being ordered to wear an ankle monitor. Another person was denied bond because they live in New York as the sole caretaker of her aging uncle with dementia. She was denied bond because the judge deemed her a “flight risk.”
These arrests of people attending the music festival have been called indiscriminate because of a lack of evidence from the police and little to no case from the prosecution. Micah Herskind commented:
“During these bond hearings, it was clear that the prosecution has not yet put together any case. They are using these fallbacks. You know, one of the examples that they gave was that people were wearing black and that that was evident of playing on the team, of being on the side of the protest. And so, you know, the charges are all really shaky. There’s really no legitimate evidence that’s been put forward.”
Intake paperwork of arrested individuals also noted mud on people’s clothes as probable cause for being at the construction site despite the music festival being hosted in the South River/Weelaunee Forest.
Tensions have only been rising, and with it, the threat of violence, in whatever form be it legal or physical, has become apparent on both sides of this contentious issue.
The creation of labels and narratives impacts on social justice movements
Since protesters are being labeled as domestic terrorists, we need to understand the implications of this language, or better yet, where it originated from.
In an email from April 2022, the Atlanta police and fire department described the movement to save the Weelaunee Forest as a group of “eco-terrorists” in correspondence with the FBI over unspecified investigations.
This would not be the first instance of the FBI insinuating violent behaviors in those with environmental concerns.
The Stop Cop City movement gained international attention after the killing of Tortuguita Teran, however, support had already crossed state borders in the U.S. as demonstrators spread their message on social media.
On July 18th, 2022, a Twitter account named “Chicago Against Cop City” began posting information on the campaign to resist the construction over 700 miles away. Additionally, a post on the same day promoted a speaking event at a local bookstore on Chicago’s West side. This was one of several events that activists held over the year, and across the country, to educate people on the plan to construct Cop City and raise awareness surrounding the issue.
According to research conducted by Grist, it took less than two weeks for the FBI to flag the account and begin tracking posts on the account, including other Chicago activist groups, and events. Grist also obtained FBI records through a Freedom of Information Act request which they have made publicly available. This first document focuses on the “potential criminal activity” of groups resisting the development of the Obama Presidential Library, Tiger Woods golf course, and Chicago Police Training Center that would destroy over 2,000 trees (page one).
It goes on to claim that Chicago Against Cop City is a “spin-off” of the Defend the Atlanta Forest group (page 3), however, according to a spokesperson for Rising Tide Chicago they do not know who created the Chicago Against Cop City Twitter account and claim that it “doesn’t appear to be a formal group.”
Mike German, a former FBI agent who now works as a fellow for the Brennan Center for Justice in the Liberty and National Security Program, reviewed the documents and stated that the FBI had made several misleading statements meant to create a narrative. While it is true that some violent and destructive events in Atlanta have occurred, no evidence was given in this dossier to support any direct connection with either organization in Atlanta or Chicago. Moreover, the Chicago Police Training Center did not require the clearing of forested land, and most controversy in the last couple of years on the issue focus on the cost of construction being $170 million.
In the second document, on page 15 the Defend the Atlanta Forest group (DTAF) is called “a very violent group” and noted that Chicago has several projects of a similar nature (threatening environmental spaces against public wishes). This report then claimed that “DTAF members came to Chicago to provide training to like-minded individuals.”
While these documents have an emphasis on Chicago, the first document I mentioned also includes photos of similar accounts in Minnesota (page 12).
According to Adam Federman, one unnamed activist who had traveled to Chicago in July 2022 had only given “informational slideshow presentations” that had no training and merely focused on raising awareness about the issue.
None of the “evidence” collected by the FBI has shown any encouragement of violent tactics.
In the end, the dossier that was created by the FBI on August 16th, 2022 is important for several reasons. One, the FBI is clearly monitoring actions that are protected by the U.S. Constitution and as human rights, which include freedom of speech and assembly. These rights are clearly laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Preambles 18, 19, and 20.
Moreover, the usage of the labels “Anarchist Violent Extremists (AVE) and Environmental Violent Extremists (EVE)” set the tone for how these groups and their concerns are approached by law enforcement (page 4). This has been made clear in the case of Tortuguita Teran when teams that entered the forest that morning were informed about the alleged “violent nature” of the DTAF activists.
Changing dynamics of protests: Resisting assaults on social justice attempts
It is clear that the issue over the destruction of the South River forest is one that extends beyond Atlanta. Groups in Chicago have contested the destruction of Jackson Park on the South side and other green spaces. Also, concerns over police militarization are not just in Atlanta but extend hundreds of miles away in the United States. This very reason has prompted resonation with abolitionists and environmental activists alike.
More and more police training facilities are being built across the country and some are estimated to cost around $120 million to $150 million in construction. Two have been proposed in both Pittsburgh and Chicago despite public outcry.
However, in the face of this coalition building across specific issues and geography, new and more frightening narratives are being written to undermine the efforts of these groups. This is not to say that violence and destruction are answers but to emphatically denounce strategies that seek to end civil rights and social justice movements with arbitrary arrests, exaggerated charges, and monitoring of activist groups.
The use of social media is a revolutionary tool for activists since it has the power to succinctly and quickly reach a broad audience 一 a crucial step in sustaining a thriving movement. This, alongside workshop events on rights and training on peaceful civil disobedience (this latter one not being mentioned as occurring in the Chicago or Atlanta groups), are tactics that are protected and signal a thriving political culture. This shows that a nation has strong democratic values as people seek to not only engage with their local and national governments but also do so with the equality of all people.
Instead of monitoring with suspicion and animosity, we should celebrate the diversity of people who have come together to raise their voices in support of their goals. There is hope here. What may look like tensions, anger, divisions, and even hate, also shows us the passion of so many people of different backgrounds and social causes being engaged. It shows us that there are those who will not accept a lack of representation, lack of community, or lack of safe environment. It shows us that, if only the channels of communication would open, there are people screaming, chanting, and singing for the opportunity to work for a future for us all. There are people who are fighting in the forest for more than just the space, but for a future.
After a public meeting that stretched 14h and in which many people spoke out against the project, Atlanta City Council approved “Cop City” in a vote of 11-4 on June 6, 2023. The Council agreed to provide $31m in public funds for the center’s construction and approved a provision that requires the city to pay $1.2m a year over 30 years ($36m total) for using the facility. The rest of the $90m project is to be funded by private donations to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the non-profit responsible for planning and building the center. Atlanta organizers unveiled a plan to stop “Cop City” at the ballot box.
If you want to learn more about activism or the organizations mentioned in this article, check out the links below. Also, if this is an issue you feel connected to, please contact your local, state, or federal representative to express your concerns directly. Urge your representatives to reach out and begin talks with any activist groups because we all have a part and voice to play in securing our rights and ensuring the best, most equitable community.
- The Implications of Selective Activism on Human Rights by Danah Dib
- The City in the Forest Soon to be Cop City by Alex Yates
- Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we Celebrate Human Rights Day by Chadra Pittman
- Parallels of Democratic Turmoil: Looking at Riots in the U.S. and Brazil by Alex Yates