On January 18, 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was gunned down by Atlanta police at a protest site in the South River Forest. The encampment that police were raiding that day is part of a movement to stop the construction of a sprawling, $90-million training facility for police that includes a mock cityscape, so that police can practice acts of urban warfare — a project activists have dubbed “Cop City.”
At the Stop Cop City tree-sit and encampment, Terán went by the name Tortuguita. Heartbroken comrades remember Tortuguita as a jubilant and caring co-struggler who loved their community, and espoused the virtues of nonviolent action. These descriptions of Tortuguita, and their own well-documented stance on nonviolence, do not fit the narrative police are offering: that Tortuguita shot a state trooper and was subsequently killed by police. Many activists, and even some public officials, have cast doubt on the official story, insisting on an independent investigation. As we consider what we know about this case, we are at a disadvantage, since most information and supposed evidence will likely be presented by law enforcement agencies that have a vested interest in declaring that the killing of Tortuguita was necessary and lawful. Tortuguita is not here to tell us their side of the story. But while Tortuguita cannot speak, there are voices among us who can lend us more insight and context in this moment.
There are people among us who can offer such insight because these events have a lineage. Experts have declared that Tortuguita’s killing marks the first time that an environmental activist has been killed by U.S. law enforcement. While their death does mark a historic escalation in these times, it is not altogether unprecedented, and we are unlikely to make sense of these events unless we consider them in their historic and global contexts. For example, many people in this country have died defending the Earth, as Indigenous people were resisting the destruction of the natural world while also resisting the acts of genocide committed against them, because to Native communities, this resistance was one and the same — defending their own lives, and defending the land and water.
We must not sever this shooting from the legacies of violence that clarify the character of the system and purpose of law enforcement.
Julia Wright — a veteran Black Panther who once accompanied Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver to the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers in 1969 and who has been working for nearly 40 years as part of the international campaign advocating on behalf of incarcerated journalist and veteran Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal — has observed these patterns of violence and repression, and sought to interrupt them, for decades. In this interview, Wright, who is also the daughter of world-famous novelist Richard Wright, shares her reflections in the aftermath of Tortuguita’s death, and explains what we should remember about the past in order to understand this moment.
Truthout: As a veteran Black Panther and a longtime member of Black liberation organizing, you have worked for decades within political communities that have repeatedly been shaken by assassinations. What was the impact of those tragic killings?
Julia Wright: The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shook us to the core and traumatized many of us — they towered way above us like trees and were felled. George Jackson’s claim that “fascism is already here” right before his own murder reverberates in our hearts. We had read him, followed him. I had followed Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, and Emory Douglas to the first Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969. Emmett Till and George Floyd’s assassinations reclaimed by Mamie Till-Mobley and Darnella Frazier have sparked mass movements not so much because of the lives stolen from them — lives unknown at the time — but because their death was strangely familiar: something the memories of our grandmothers and grandmothers before that had taught us about, taking us back to the plantation. All these deaths are part of our Black history — a history that is also being slowly, deliberately killed today.
You have played an active role in the coalition advocating for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the veteran Black Panther and author who has now been in prison for 41 years following a legal process that Amnesty International describes as failing to “meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings,” and over which UN experts have expressed “serious concern” about racial discrimination. How does your work as part of the Mumia coalition — and your experience of how police have spun criminalizing narratives about Mumia — shape your response to Tortuguita’s killing?
I see the life and death of Tortuguita through the lens of nearly four decades spent in the struggle to free veteran Black Panther and MOVE sympathizer Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as to monitor the human rights of political prisoners who are “invisible men and women” in the United States.
I am struck first by the fact that in the name of building “Cop City,” the public space we occupy, the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the streets we live in, become crime scenes. Just as Mumia was driving while Black, just as Rayshard Brooks was sleeping while Black, just as Elijah McClain was going home while Black. Just as wild species are driven out because of deforestation.
One deja vu aspect of the police narrative spun by the police agencies in Tortuguita’s case is the criminalization of the victim. Tortuguita, as the police tale goes, is supposed to have shot first. Are we really to believe that the gentle, peace-loving, highly intelligent Tortuguita — as quotes from him now show — would have shot at a police officer, knowing how many were present? After Tortuguita’s brother phoned the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to find out how his sibling died, he concluded: “They’re not investigating the death of Manuel — they’re investigating Manuel.”
This brings us back to Flint Taylor’s book, The Torture Machine, where he documents the smearing of the character of the Panthers by the FBI and the police to cover up the fact that they had linked up to organize a murderous raid. The head of Richard Nixon’s Civil Rights Division, lawyer Jerris Leonard, referred to the Panthers as “hoodlums” and “a violent street gang.”
This also brings us back to the demonization of Mumia. Mumia’s COINTELPRO files state: “Mumia is intelligent, has no criminal record but it is the nature of his writings that cause us to place him on the National Security index.” One detects a scintilla of regret that a criminal record could not be dug up. If it had been after 9/11…
Mumia had been to visit Fred Hampton’s crime scene and had written, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” These words were used to demonize him and witch-hunt him at trial, whereas Mumia explained that the barrel of the gun was that of the police, since the Panthers had only shot once, whereas the police, helped by the FBI, had shot over 90 times. Was Mumia’s death warrant signed after he returned from Fred Hampton’s crime scene in 1969?
So we find that the police narrative in all cases is intent in accusing the victim of the crime the State commits against him.
And of course, a common thread that holds all police narratives together is the complicity of the corporate press. In fact, Mumia was — at the time of his frame-up and attempt on his own life — a journalist critical of the corporate press, walking through the Philly projects and recording instances of police brutality with his legal pad and pencil, taking down police badge numbers and following the Black and poor defendants’ sham trials in court to report on them. Mumia used to tell me when I visited him on death row, “We must be journalists of ourselves.”
The more I look at police narratives, the more I tend to see how repetitive and uncreative they are — almost laughably, if it were not so tragic. It is almost as if the police and FBI have some police narrative algorithm applicable to all cases. Why waste time, right?
I would add that police narratives gain in strength to the extent that our Black history is being pulled from under our feet because our history is the depository of our own slave narratives, of how we resisted, of our underground railroads, of the memories of our grandmothers (to reference the essay written by my father, Richard Wright).
The historical pattern of police attempting to criminalize the people they have killed in order to distract from the violence they have committed is devastatingly unrelenting. Are there other examples that come to mind for you as you critically analyze the statements made by police and investigators in Atlanta this week?
Let me attempt a comparative examination of the police narrative as it is unfolding in Tortuguita’s case with the police narrative in murdered Fred Hampton’s case and the police narrative of a young eco-protester in the French colony of Martinique in 2020, Keziah Nuissier.
First, we see that the forest defenders are faced with a double jeopardy: either they protest and protect the land and are arrested to be charged with domestic terrorism, becoming young Mumias (young eco-political prisoners), or they are killed outright like Tortuguita. This is what Panthers like Fred Hampton faced.
This is also what Mumia faced the night of December 9, 1981, when his lung was lethally perforated, his head rammed repeatedly in a lamppost after being shot at, when he bled out 20 minutes on the floor of a hospital corridor only to wake up after surgery to be charged with the murder of a police officer. Mumia said: “My only crime was that I survived that night.”
Then there is almost always an issue with body cams linked with the need to tamper with the crime scene and disguise what really went on. A forensic deconstruction of how the Atlanta Police Department deliberately forgot to turn on body cams and deleted body cam footage after a violent mass arrest of a peaceful protest last year for Jacob Blake has just been documented. On the other hand it comes as no surprise to me that the Memphis Police on the contrary have released some of the videos of their Black officers’ violent and deadly encounter with Black and peaceful Tyre Nichols — an encounter so graphically incriminating of the arresting officers. The racist trope being that shining a voyeuristic light on this Black on Black violence obscures the fact that the problem of policing is systemic and white supremacist. This also reminds me of the foundational principle of neocolonialism: have the oppressed enforce the oppression
Then we see the Georgia Bureau of Investigation maintaining in the face of general incredulity and ridicule that there is no body cam footage of what took place on January 18 in Weelaunee Forest, although there were at least five police agencies present. Similarly, in Mumia’s case, an independent crime scene photographer, Pedro Polakoff, entered an unsecured crime scene shortly after the shootings took place and took a series of photos which he later proceeded to offer to the prosecution.
The prosecution close to the Fraternal Order of Police turned Polakoff’s photos down, probably for a good reason: the photos show that there was extensive tampering of the crime scene and deconstructs the testimony of their star witnesses. These two witnesses, as exculpatory evidence hidden by the prosecution for 36 years shows, were bribed to finger Mumia.
In the case of Fred Hampton’s murder, the police narrative was to maintain that the Panthers initiated the raid, and the crime scene, as Flint Taylor writes in The Torture Machine, remained unsealed with nail holes being counted as bullet holes.
For Tortuguita, the police would have had to cordon off a whole forest … impossible.
In the case of the youth from Martinique, Keziah Nuissier, the French gendarmes (these are literally “men of arms” or weapon-carrying police) were equipped with a special spray can to clean the blood from the street because there were eco-protesters filming from above. The footage from the activists’ iPhones shows a policeman cleaning up after Keziah was beaten and his optic nerve sectioned, a torture technique practiced by the French army against the Algerian liberation movement for national independence. Keziah (who thankfully survived) and his mother were peacefully protesting against the French elites’ use of a highly carcinogenic pesticide called chlordecone on export crops in Martinique; the chemical was outlawed even in the U.S. since the 1970s. It is estimated that over 90 percent of the land and waterways of Frantz Fanon’s native island are contaminated for decades if not centuries to come — not to speak of the exponential rise in cancer rates.
I have just received a message from one of the lawyers defending the eco-protesters of Martinique: It says they are writing a letter of solidarity for the Forest Defenders.
In George Floyd’s case, the verdict would have been a “medical incident” if it had not been for the independent iPhone footage.
As the Senegalese human rights activist Ramata Dieng, who lost her brother Lamine in Paris, France, to the same type of chokehold as George Floyd, says: “This type of footage may not give us justice, but it gives us the truth.”
You have described the killing of Tortuguita as connected to what you portray as a greater trend of the use of torture against eco-activists. Could you explain what you mean by this?
At the UN Climate Change Conference known as COP 27 (pardon the unfortunate pun), the chief corporate lobbyist was Coca-Cola — also one of the major donors to the Atlanta Police Foundation that pledged $60 million of the $90 million to build the urban guerilla warfare training center on land belonging to the Indigenous Muscogee Creek peoples.
During that same conference, in the touristic town of Sharm el-Sheik surrounded by eco-protesters who were cordoned off from the conference center, Alaa Abd El Fattah, the political prisoner who was already on a hunger strike and very weak, stopped drinking water to draw attention both to the social and political situation created by Egypt’s autocratic government. (I’d also like to think that it drew attention to the theft of publicly owned water Coca-Cola uses to bottle its drink, selling it at such a profit that those it steals the water from cannot afford to buy the Cokes.)
In the first letter he wrote to his mother, El Fattah reassured her he had started drinking water again after undergoing a “medical procedure” in prison. We know this is a euphemism for forced feeding, which the ACLU and other NGOs classify as torture.
Torture is unfortunately a strangely familiar theme in the context of eco-protest. There is more and more overreach in police repression against climate activists and the social justice struggle that goes with it, because these activists are on the front line that threatens the billions of dollars of profits derived by ecocidal corporate interests.
Although it is true that big companies in the past thought they could intimidate eco-activists by bleeding them financially through litigation, they are now finding that because of anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws attorneys like Steven Donziger are bringing in, stronger tactics are necessary, such as bleeding the activists physically. Also, importantly, Donziger has created a strong movement to make ecocide an international crime and monopoly capital is nervous.
So, would it be fair to assume that beyond crowd control, fire range training, etc., torture will be taught in Cop City? It would be strangely familiar. Torture is a “technique” learned and practiced in imperial wars such as Vietnam (infamous former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge took it back to the Chicago police force); such as Iraq (Charles Graner first exercised his brutal and racist prison guard techniques at SCI Greene in remote Pennsylvania where Mumia wrote about him on death row before becoming torturer-in-chief at Abu Ghraib); such as Guantánamo.
How do you see Cop City and the murder of Tortuguita relating to the recent history of the George Floyd protests? Do you have thoughts about how future historians of social movements should make sense of Cop City and Tortuguita’s killing?
There are efforts to deprive us of the memory of the days that shook the world after George Floyd was murdered. There are efforts to suppress the little-known history of what happened when George Floyd’s brother went to the UN Human Rights Council and told the world what happened in his own faltering words. There are efforts to suppress the fact that in response to Philonise Floyd’s words, all 54 African member states at the UN drafted a letter/resolution to ask that the UN investigate systemic racism and police brutality directly on U.S. soil. There are efforts to make us forget that at the behest of Donald Trump’s allies at the U.N — Israel in particular — the resolution did not pass as drafted. There are efforts to make us forget that this inspired attorney Lennox Hinds to set up an International Commission of Inquiry which documented over 40 cases of police torture directly on U.S. soil. There is such a prevalence of corporate press that no outlet published Mumia’s message of gratitude dated December 11, 2022, to the 54 African states and their allies for their unanimous solidarity with our resistance to the police state we live under.
Resisting is refusing to forget, just as the neo-Nazis tried to erase the stark reality of the concentration camps where more prisoners resisted than is remembered.
Cop City is a direct backlash and a response to the historicity of the post-George Floyd protests: the message being from the international corporate world that those worldwide protests must be erased in order not to be repeated and must be quelled by all means necessary.
Here again the international involvement of Israel in the development of Cop City is no coincidence and police forces from all over the world would be trained in a “domestic military base,” to quote Kamau Franklin.
As Steven Donziger stated on January 24 in an interview with Status Coup News, the murder of Tortuguita is historical because it is the first time that a climate defender was killed in the U.S., whereas 1,700 climate defenders have been killed in the rest of the world over the past 10 years.
This is history we must hold on tight to in order to fathom its meaning going forward.
I would conclude with Kamau Franklin’s words in his remarkable article in Truthout published on the eve of Tortuguita’s murder:
The [Cop City] task force is a reminder of the political oppression suffered by organizers and movements from a generation past: when the FBI teamed up with the local police to commit criminal acts against movements. The range of those tactics included creating a divisive narrative, criminalizing dissent, false arrests and bogus charges, infiltrating and destroying movements and acts of murder (the most notorious being the murder of Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther, by the FBI and the local Chicago Police).
We need an independent investigation and an autopsy not only of the body of a beloved freedom fighter, but of the corporate body politic capable of such a crime. Independent research is needed from liberation movement to liberation movement that will help build resistance to state terrorism — a resistance that will link one ground zero to another, from Flint, Michigan, to Jackson, Mississippi; from Standing Rock to chlordecone-contaminated Martinique; from Mumia’s Philadelphia to Atlanta’s Forest Defenders.
We are not militarized, but we are legion.
Note: This piece was collaboratively adapted into a Q&A format based on written reflections shared by Julia Wright. The intro was written by Kelly Hayes.
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