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The Death of a Forest Defender at “Stop Cop City”

“We need real wide-ranging solidarity,” says organizer Micah Herskind.

Part of the Series

In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Atlanta organizer Micah Herskind and host Kelly Hayes discuss the death of Tortuguita, a forest defender who was gunned down by police while resisting the construction of “Cop City.” “It’s all hands on deck for the forces of the prison-industrial complex, the forces of capitalism … they are willing to use any and all tactics and tools available to them, whether that’s literal murder, whether that’s trying to deter the broader movement by slapping people with domestic terrorism charges. As environmental catastrophe is upon us, I think the forces of capital are organizing themselves,” says Herskind.

Music by Son Monarcas and Silver Maple

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about the struggle to Stop Cop City in Atlanta and DeKalb County, Georgia, and the death of forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was gunned down by police on the morning of January 18. The Guardian has called the deadly shooting “unprecedented” in the history of U.S. environmental protest. While the killing of protesters, including environmentalists, is not unprecedented by any means in this country, law enforcement entering a forest occupation and killing a protester does mark an escalation of state violence for this era. Co-strugglers have described Terán as “a trained medic, a loving partner, a dear friend, a brave soul, and so much more.”

At the Stop Cop City protest site – a tree-sit and encampment in the South River Forest, which activists call Weelaunee Forest – Terán went by the name Tortuguita, which is how we will be referring to them in this episode. Toruguita was part of a forest defense effort to stave off the creation of a sprawling, $90 million training complex for police that opponents have dubbed “Cop City.” After a dynamic grassroots organizing campaign and public opposition failed to prevent officials from leasing the land for the project, the forest defense stage of the struggle kicked into high gear. As activists built community and held their ground, staging educational and cultural events, distributing free groceries and practicing other forms of mutual aid, police harassment and attacks on the movement intensified. Cops flattened community gardens and art installations, and attacked protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, while threatening lethal force. Opponents of Cop City also carried out autonomous direct actions aimed at halting construction, including some acts of property destruction. The struggle’s decentralized nature makes it unclear who is responsible for particular actions, but the police and police-friendly media have zeroed in on tree sitters as a target to vilify, depict as violent, and attack.

On December 13, 2022, the Atlanta Police Department, Dekalb County Police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and the Department of Homeland Security descended on the forest defenders. A statement from the group Defend The Forest stated that tree-sitters were “shot with pepperballs and tear gas for up to five hours by police from the forest floor.” During the December 13 raid, police claimed that rocks, bottles and some “incendiary weapons” were thrown at them. Ultimately, six protesters were slapped with domestic terrorism charges that activists maintain are erroneous. Four days later, 175 people gathered in a park to voice their solidarity with the arrestees, with one attendee declaring:

They are trying to separate the tree sitters from all of us. They represent the movement to them so they are charging them with terrorism. But we are all forest defenders. We are all in the movement. And we won’t be scared away from this. We won’t stop until the APF [Atlanta Police Foundation] stops Cop City.

By the new year, repeated police attacks had taken a heavy toll on the encampment, and had driven many protesters away, but some forest defenders were still hanging on. Tortuguita was one of them.

On January 18, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, “Dozens of heavily armed DeKalb Police, Atlanta Police and Georgia State police shut down Weelaunee People’s Park and nearby streets before entering the tree line with guns drawn and heavy machinery poised to continue forest destruction.” Forest defenders reported hearing a rapid succession of gunshots around 9 a.m. Tree sitters were targeted with pepperballs and activists on the ground were chased by police dogs. A forest defender who remained anonymous for safety reasons told Democracy Now!, “These defenders had to hide and flee for their lives, all the while with the nauseating knowing that their dear comrade had been murdered in the sacred land that we call home.” Protesters say that since June 6, 2022, activists and community members involved with the struggle “have been demanding that officers stop bringing weapons into the forest after APD pointed their weapons at peaceful protestors.”

A lot of people may shy away from solidarity with the forest defenders, because the police are claiming that Tortuguita fired first. But we have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the police narrative, and we cannot abandon this struggle, as the violent and legal repression of protesters has implications for all of our fights against state violence and environmental destruction.

My heart is hurting over the death of Tortuguita, a forest defender I never met, for so many reasons. One is the loss of this young person, under any circumstance. Theirs was a life cut far too short. I also feel a sense of kinship in loss. I know many other activists who have worked encampments and tree-sits are also feeling this way, because there’s something special about that kind of struggle. There’s something in the prefigurative work, in the effort to rehearse the world we want, to care for each other, in the face of the elements, in the face of police, even when you’re under siege – it’s beautiful, messy work, and whether our battles are won or lost, we carry it with us, always. Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us that “where life is precious, life is precious.” In every encampment and forest defense scenario I’ve been a part of, people were trying to cultivate a place where life was precious and where people were precious to one another. In those spaces, I have seen things that made me believe we could remake the world. When I think about all of that power and potential, the thought of a young person, who was out there for the love of the trees, being struck down — it just rips right through me.

I am also saddened, once again, by how easy it is for the police to cast a self-serving narrative over any killing they commit. We have seen this countless times, and seen them proven liars just as many times. In case after case, we have seen the police change their stories as videos, witnesses or forensics disrupted their lies. This has happened in the killings of Walter Scott, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Timothy Mitchell Jr., Aiyana Jones, Dennis Tuttle, Rhogena Nicholas, Laquan McDonald, George Floyd, and so many others. Lying after killing is a standard police practice. On January 9, police in Oklahoma shot and killed Chiewelthap Mariar, a 26-year-old refugee from Sudan, at the meat-packing plant where Mariar had just been fired, but ordered to complete his shift. Another worker was fired for sharing a video that workers say contradicts police claims that Mariar posed a threat. The Memphis Police Department recently terminated five police officers in connection with the death of Tyre Nichols, who was brutalized by police after a traffic stop. Police originally claimed Nichols had complained of “shortness of breath” following a “confrontation,” before ultimately firing the officers and acknowledging the “egregious nature” of the incident. In 2022, U.S. police killed more people than in any year since experts began keeping records. So it’s important to remember who we are dealing with, on both sides of this story.

I attended a vigil for Tortuguita in Chicago the day after they were killed by police. One of the signs posted beside candles and other tributes included words taken from an interview Tortuguita gave to writer David Peisner. This is what they said of the movement to Stop Cop City:

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.

Sometimes, when police kill, a camera tells the story. But often, when the police take a life, we lack the information we need to fully reconstruct what happened. We have the word of police, who make a systematic practice of lying, and the absence of whatever story the dead might have told. Even video footage, which the police often seem to utilize, turn off or disappear at will, is treated as open to interpretation, as we saw with the case of Adam Toledo, whose death resulted in no charges or disciplinary action for the officer who shot him, despite camera footage that indicated Adam had put up his hands, as directed, before being shot. I cannot eliminate the uncertainty of what happened before police killed Tortuguita. I only know what that uncertainty means to me — that a wound has been inflicted on our communities, and on the earth itself, and that a hole now exists in the fabric of what should be; a hole that would not be there, if not for the violence of police.

Whether you are still contemplating what that uncertainty means to you or not, I urge you to listen to what my friend, Atlanta-based organizer Micah Herskind, has to say about the struggle that Tortuguita died waging. I want us to think about that movement, and about that loss, and what we recognize in it, in this moment, and in ourselves. Because it calls on us, as many future moments will, to decide what side we are on, and what we are willing to defend and fight for.

Micah Herskind: Thanks so much for having me, my name is Micah Herskind, my pronouns are he/him. I am an organizer here in Atlanta and I have been supporting the Stop Cop City movement, doing some more sort of journalistic documentation of some of the forces behind pushing the Cop City project. And then have just been trying to support folks as they resist the proposed creation of Cop City. So in terms of how people are doing and what people are feeling, I think there’s so many different emotions, grief and anguish, outrage, disgust, sadness. I think also determination to see this movement through. In terms of sort of what’s happened in the last couple days, a lot of details are not clear about exactly how things have gone down.

But what we do know is essentially on the morning of January 18th, a joint police task force led what they called a clearing operation in the Weelaunee Forest, which is the proposed site for basically destruction of that forest land and the creation of a massive police training facility in southeast Atlanta. During the raid, we know that police, Georgia State troopers shot and killed a forest offender. And at the same time a cop was also shot non-fatality and taken to the hospital where they were treated and they’re stable. That police raid continued throughout the day and police arrested, I believe around eight more forest defenders, many of whom were charged with domestic terrorism charges. Which mirrors a raid that happened back in December where six forest defenders were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. And so that’s sort of the basic story of what happened. There are very few details that have been released officially. Of course the cop narrative is that they were shot at and they returned fire in self-defense. But that narrative has actually changed multiple times already. So first they said they were ambushed out of nowhere with gunfire and an officer was non-fatality shot.

And then shortly after they said they were actually in conversation with the forest defender and gave the forest defender verbal commands, and then they were fired at and returned the fire. Throughout all of this, now, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said that there’s no body camera footage available, that PSP troopers don’t wear body cameras, and they’ve also refused to release the names of any of the officers involved. And so that’s the official narrative that’s already changed a couple times. Whereas on the other hand, reports from sort of on the ground that have been already covered by media have suggested the possibility of accidental friendly fire, so cops accidentally shooting each other and that would not be the first time that happened in Atlanta. So a lot of the details are unclear. What is clear is that Georgia Police shot and killed someone who was trying to stop the construction of Cop City in Atlanta.

KH: While police continue to push their narrative, some journalists have raised questions. In The Guardian, journalist Timothy Pratt pointed out that police have provided no evidence to back their claims that Tortuguita shot a state trooper or fired on police at all. In a piece called, “Little Turtle’s War,” David Peisner offers a portrait of Tortuguita, based on extensive interviews, that conveys a foundational commitment to nonviolence. Tortuguita told Peisner that they were not moved by what some people think of as the exciting stuff in forest defense work, such as acts of sabotage or property destruction. They told Pesiner, “I’m not an adrenaline junkie.I don’t crave conflict. I’m out here because I love the forest. I love living in the woods. Being a forest hobo is pretty chill. Some folks probably have flashpoint moments where it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, the truck is being lit on fire!’ But not me. I love it when everything is calm.”

MH: There have already been so many stories pouring in. You can see them all over social media of people who knew them and remember them as a loving friend, a dedicated comrade, in fact, someone who was vocal about their commitment to nonviolent resistance. And there’ve already been vigils that have been hosted in their honor and in their memory with more vigils and more protests planned. And so there’s already been such an outpouring of love and support and remembrances of this person and just how loved and incredible they were. And I believe the Atlanta Community Press collective has been documenting a lot of those stories.

KH: One co-struggler who paid tribute to Tortuguita stated, “They loved all life and people -especially their qtpoc community — deeply.” I think it’s important to remember that, while we do not know what exactly happened to Tortuguita on January 18, in the moments before they were killed, we do know that virtually everything we know about Tortuguita runs counter to what the police are saying, and everything we know about the police suggests that they would lie in the wake of a deadly shooting.

MH: I think when people are hearing and taking in these police narratives, it’s really important to understand that cops’ stories change all the time. And there’s really established precedent that police lie, particularly in the wake of police violence. There are too many examples to go through all of them, but we of course saw that with the police murder of George Floyd.

Here in Atlanta in the 2000s, police sort of went through with a mistaken drug raid and they went to the wrong place and shot and killed a 92-year-old Black grandmother, Kathryn Johnston. And after they did that, and actually they hit each other with friendly fire in the midst of that raid and to sort of cover that up, they planted drugs in the house and they claimed that they were injured by Ms. Johnston. And so there’s a long history of cops committing violence and then lying to cover it up.

And then the truth maybe comes out because there’s citizen footage or some sort of footage that comes forward. But I think people should know to be deeply, deeply skeptical of cop narratives, particularly when police have killed. I’ll also just add that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is helping lead this joint police task force that is basically trying to take on the forest defender and take them down. And they’re also the ones who are tasked with investigating the shooting. And so I think people need to be very clear that there needs to be an independent investigation that all of the footage needs to be released, whether that’s dash cam footage, footage from other police forces who were in the forest, even if they weren’t with the troopers when the shooting happened. And so folks are calling for an independent investigation, which is really important. But one other thing I want to say in general about the narrative and how to think about the cop narrative is that cops lie.

Cops lie all the time. We should be prepared for anything that they say in the wake of the shooting to be a lie. But also we should recognize that even if it turns out that what the cops are saying happened is true in part or in whole or whatever, that doesn’t change the fact that the responsibility and the culpability for this shooting and this death ultimately lies with the police, with the Atlanta City Council, with the Atlanta Mayor. With the entire sort of network of forces who have pushed this facility despite all of this public backlash. No one would’ve ever been in a situation to be shot and killed if the Atlanta City Council and the Atlanta Mayor and Atlanta leadership broadly had not decided to move forward with this. So I think we do also, we need the details and we need the investigation. And also, regardless of the details that come out, we need to recognize that no matter what, the responsibility here lies with the people who are trying to destroy a forest and create a massive police militarization facility.

KH: Responsibility is really important to emphasize here. We need to look at who is mass-producing harm while also claiming the authority to legitimize or delegitimize violence. We live in a world where corporations, governments and militaries that drive climate disruption are not held responsible for the deaths or displacement of millions of people. We are faced with the possibility of extinction, and the people who would ultimately be responsible for that annihilation are not on trial. Millions of people are experiencing torturous conditions in the U.S. prison system daily. There are no raids happening to stop the people responsible for that violence. As Mariame Kaba and I discuss in our upcoming book Let This Radicalize You, protesters on the left are expected to passively absorb any and all violence visited upon them while upholding respectability, at all times. Even people who acknowledge the heinous extremity of state violence often become critical of protesters who are not solemn in their absorption of that violence, or those who destroy property. Even as the world burns, our enemies have many of us putting our own people on trial in our minds, weighing their innocence or guilt by laws that allow the powerful to annihilate humanity with impunity. Personally, that’s not how I plan to tabulate blame as the world falls down. From my perspective, the violence of the state is fundamentally illegitimate. That’s my jumping off point.

I will say more about Tortuguita, their death, and how we should remember them, but first, we are going to get a bit more of the backstory of the struggle they were waging when the police took their life.

MC: So in the summer of 2021 essentially was the first time that this proposal to destroy close to 400 acres of forest land in southeast Atlanta. And to replace that, to build in that forest place, a massive police training facility that the protestors are calling Cop City. That first came forward in summer 2021. There had actually been plans for it that were first sort of laid out going back to 2017. The Atlanta Police Foundation is this private nonprofit that a lot of cities have police foundations and APF is a really significant one, has a ton of money, a ton of corporate backers. And so they had sort of been devising this plan for several years, but it seems like it was pretty dormant until the uprising hit.

And it was this summer across the country, across the world, of so much revolutionary energy, abolitionist thought and practice, I think really went sort of mainstream for the first time. People in Atlanta, people everywhere were calling for the defunding and the abolition of the police. Of course there was massive police repression of those uprisings, massive police violence and response. And what followed that police violence was sort of a policy violence. So Georgia passed, essentially, a Blue Lives Matter bill, Atlanta quickly gave raises to cops and gave one time bonuses that were funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation to cops. There were all these announcements of these new anti-crime strategies. They opened a new police precinct in Buckhead, which is this sort of white wealthy area of Atlanta. All of these stories started to run in the media in Atlanta’s corporate owned media about the crime wave.

Crime is out of control. It’s because of the defund movement, it’s because of the abolition movement. In terms of policy, again, the Atlantic City Council rolled back its 2018 bail reform law. So there was all of this. There was a sort of flurry of both policy responses and police violence in response to the uprisings. That’s sort of one thing happening. Another thing happening is that Atlanta is looking to host several events in the upcoming years. So they’re hosting part of the 2026 World Cup. They’re pushing to host the Democratic National Convention in the coming years. And so with those events happening in a lot of ways, I think it’s mirroring what happened with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where they built a brand new city jail to hold people, to clear Black and homeless people off the streets in preparation for these major events.

And I’ll say at the same time that all this Cop City stuff is happening, the city also reversed, its 2019 promised to shut down that city jail that was created for the Olympics, and instead they’re keeping it open and they’re filling it with a bunch of people from the county jail. A sort of a third factor in this mix is that during 2021, this rich white area of Atlanta called Buckhead was pushing this secession movement where they wanted to secede from the city and take all of their tax dollars with them. It was very much a modern day white flight, white secession movement, white supremacist movement. And city leaders were really afraid of that.

And then the last thing I’ll say before trying to pull it all together is that Atlanta right now is also sort of the epicenter of huge development projects, enormous gentrification. People are being pushed out, new, wealthier and white people are being sort of pulled into the city through all of these different tech jobs. And of course, policing and police expansion and surveillance is central to gentrification, to the displacement of people. And so I think with all of these factors wanting to respond to the uprisings, sort of cement this police grip of Atlanta, prepare for all of the nasty things that cities do when they’re bringing big events, prevent this threatened secession by Buckhead all.

I think all of that combined to this sort of combination of state and corporate support for the creation of this police training center. And I think it’s really a way to buy loyalty and buy some sense of happiness and contentment for cops. It’s a way to assure all of these corporations that are really powerful in Atlanta that Atlanta’s going to crack down the uprisings. Atlanta’s going to make sure that basically all of their capital investments are safe against people who would ostensibly threaten it. And so I think all of that combines for why the city is pushing so hard for this project, despite the public being so firmly against it.

KH: Cop City is no ordinary training facility. The $90 million complex would include military-grade training facilities, a mock cityscape to practice urban warfare, dozens of shooting ranges, and a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad. As Kamau Franklin wrote in Truthout earlier this month:

This police training facility for the Atlanta police is a prototype of militarized police centers in the country. If built, “Cop City” will be the largest police training facility of its kind, in a city that is ranked in the bottom 20 of largest police departments in the country.

MH: So in terms of what sort of this police complex would include, it’s ostensibly a training area for both Atlanta police and Atlanta firefighters. One of the most controversial parts of it is that, and the reason that it was dubbed Cop City by organizers, was that it’s literally slated to include this mock city area. So this sort of mock village that would have residential areas, a school, nightlife, a bank, a gas station, all things or police literally to sort of practice modern urban police warfare tactics.

It’ll have a helicopter landing pad, a shooting range. Police actually already use this area as a shooting range. And so already residents talk about the sound of gunfire and even the environmental pollution that happens with shell casings being left behind, things seeping into the river. But this facility would include basically, basically a place for police to perfect their deadly tactics of social control, violence against organizers, violence against community members. That’s really what it is at the end of the day. And it’s not just something that will impact Atlanta. It’s a place that they will bring in cops from across the country, from across the world to come train, share tactics, work together. And so it really is a project that also has national and international implications.

KH: While there were some radical actions early in the struggle, including the sabotage of construction equipment, the movement to Stop Cop City built much of its early momentum by organizing community members to take on the City Council. A momentous grassroots mobilization formed to prevent the city from leasing the proposed site of Cop City, which officials originally dubbed the Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training, to the Atlanta Police Foundation. Yes, they actually tried to slap the words “social justice” on a military base for police. In a more apt characterization of the project, Kwame Olufemi, an organizer with Community Movement Builders, dubbed Cop City “a war base where police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements.” In the same statement, Olufemi noted that Cop City would include shooting ranges, and plans for bomb testing, and tear gas deployment. Olufemi emphasized that this was a rehearsal space for war-making against everyday people, saying:

They are practicing how to make sure poor and working class people stay in line. So when the police kill us in the streets again, like they did to Rayshard Brooks in 2020, they can control our protests and community response to how they continually murder our people.

MH: I think about the way that the movement has unfolded in two phases. And of course it’s not as distinct as that, but before the legislation for the facility was approved and after. So the final legislation was approved in September 2021, like I said before, the proposal for Cop City first really went public in the early summer of 2021. That was when it first really gained attention. And super quickly this coalition of organizations and individuals began to speak out against it. And it was really a movement with an intersectional lens. And people came to it from a lot of different places. So there were folks worried, of course, about the environmentally catastrophic implications of this, of destroying forest land. This is land I should say that has been referred to as one of the four lungs of Atlanta.

It’s really important for our air quality, for preventing flooding. Of course, as climate disaster approaches and as we’re already living it, this is really crucial forest land and it’s in a majority Black area of DeKalb County. And so there are folks sort of working on the environmental side. There were of course abolitionists who are saying, this is one year after APD murdered Rayshard Brooks and after these massive uprisings, and you’re going to pour 90 million into a massive expansion of policing’s footprint in Atlanta. Of course organizations and organizers who work on gentrification, who were making the connections between the fact that there’s so much rapid development happening in Atlanta and so many people being displaced. And the fact that police are part of that strategy, police are part of displacement and gentrification. And then there were also people who maybe weren’t even so politicized around some of those other things, but we’re just furious at the fact that this process was unfolding in such an anti-democratic way with such a lack of transparency.

These plans were created in secret. They weren’t shared with the commissioners of DeKalb County where the site was being built. Because the site is being built on city owned land, but not within city limits, it basically was able to skirt a bunch of these normal processes that this would go through to be vetted. And so you even had neighborhood associations who are closest in Atlanta to the proposed site drafting and passing resolutions saying, “We don’t want this in our neighborhoods. We don’t want this near us. This is dangerous and violent, and please don’t do this.” And so there was this really massive coalition that developed. People were marching, doing banner drops, they were circulating petitions as the legislation was working its way through the city council process throughout that summer at every city council meeting, people were at that point, everything was still virtual.

People were calling in and leaving hours and hours of public comment against the facility to the point where there actually were some wins within the eventual loss where the proposed acreage for the facility was brought down pretty significantly. And the proposal was actually delayed over the course of that summer because there was so much outrage. And all of that led to this final vote in September of 2021 where it literally took them two days to get through all of the public comments that people had called and left for them at the meeting. And so they listened to literally 17 hours of public comment, the majority of which was opposed to the project. And then of course they went ahead and voted for it anyway. And so that was sort of the first phase.

And I think that maybe followed a more traditional coalition work, organizing marches, protests, using a lot of the official channels of engagement that people empower, tell you that they want you to use the appropriate channels, which were then all of course ignored despite such resounding opposition. And then I would say after that fact was when I think the second phase of the movement began and that I think, that’s sort of where the movement is now. It is really dispersed and autonomous, that is not controlled or run by any one organization. There are organizations who are part of the organizing, but I think it’s moved into a phase where you have forest defenders who are going and living in the forest, who built encampments there to protect the forest through direct action.

And that’s looked like a lot of different things. It’s also looked like organizations putting pressure on contractors and saying, just because this thing was passed at the city council level, that doesn’t mean that the project is going to go through. Contractors can be pressured to pull out of the project. There’s been various efforts to slow down the permitting process, and there’s been a lot of skepticism on behalf of DeKalb County in granting those permits. And so there’s really, I think the movement is so varied. I heard someone refer to it as there are so many different corners of the movement, and again, it’s really sort of broad, autonomous, decentralized, and folks are working really hard to prevent the construction of this thing.

KH: Stop Cop City organizers have frequently noted that two-thirds of Cop City’s $90 million facility is being bankrolled by corporate funders and private supporters of the Atlanta Police Department, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s parent company Cox Enterprises, as well as Verizon, Equifax, and Delta, among many others — while the remainder of the bill goes to taxpayers.

In November of 2021, we published an episode of Movement Memos that discussed how Enbridge turned the construction of Line 3 into a piggy bank for police. To prevent losses on par with the $40 million that Morton County reportedly incurred for the costs of policing the Standing Rock protests, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission included a provision in Enbridge’s permit for the construction of Line 3 that required the company to establish an escrow trust that would reimburse local law enforcement for any mileage, wages, protective gear and training related to the construction of Line 3. Law enforcement made the most of these funds, holding “field force” trainings, staging helicopter and drone excursions, and other militarized police action, as they repeatedly surveilled, harassed and attacked Water Protectors with tear gas and rubber bullets, inflicting serious injuries, leveling inflated charges against protesters, and ultimately allowing an environmentally disastrous pipeline to be built. We would be remiss, in this moment, if we did not recognize that we are experiencing the corporate endgame of capitalism, where the stakes are getting clearer, and the ruling class is willing to pay for the war-making required to continue profit-chasing in a world on fire. In the eyes of the powerful, the idea of resolving social discord or unrest through good governance has outlived its usefulness.

But don’t take my word for it. A policy brief by Jacqueline L. Hazelton published in 2017 by the Belfer Center, which is a research center located within the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University, called “Why Good Governance Does Not Defeat Insurgencies,” spells things out better than I ever could. Hazelton wrote:

Conventional wisdom holds that defeating an insurgency requires states to make liberalizing, democratizing reforms that address popular grievances. Liberal great powers such as the United States thus press reforms upon counterinsurgent client states as the path to success and long-term political stability. Such reforms are, however, unnecessary for counterinsurgency success.… Counterinsurgency success is also thought to require avoiding unnecessary harm to civilians. In fact, breaking the flow of resources to the insurgency, often through the brute-force control of civilians, is critical to success.… Counterinsurgency success requires the use of force against civilians and the accommodation of rival elites, sometimes including those responsible for horrific acts. By contrast, good governance reforms are unnecessary and often unattainable.

Friends, this is the perspective of capital, at this moment in history. Yes, Hazelton was talking about so-called “client states,” but as we have discussed on the show, imperialism creates practice zones for the policing we see at home. The ruling class wants officials who are willing to take the gloves off in an era of collapse, because their policy experts don’t believe that attempting to sort things out through good governance is worth it anymore. We are watching, in real time, as the dynamics being described here are bought, paid for and implemented.

Another aspect of this situation that has largely been bought and paid for is a media narrative that has chronically demonized protesters.

MH: I think something really important to understand in terms of the connections between the major backers of this project and the media and various attempts to sort of manufacture consent for the project is that our paper of record in Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or the AJC, is owned by Cox Enterprises. Cox Enterprises is this sort of like media conglomerate. They actually own a bunch of different media outlets in Atlanta. And Cox Enterprises CEO, Alex Taylor is actually the individual who is chairing the fundraising campaign to raise 60 million in private funding for Cop City. And that has impacted, of course, the coverage in so many ways. So there was a moment in the summer of 2021 where city council essentially voted to delay the legislation from going through because of the massive movement against it. And the next day the AJC comes out with this editorial from its editorial board saying the crime wave needs to spur action on the center… They have this very hard line saying, the people who are delaying this are responsible for any increased crime or any increased violence. This super disingenuous editorial because of course, even if, even once this facility was approved, it’s still going to be years before it’s built. So here the AJC is pretending like if this hadn’t been delayed for three weeks, suddenly the crime problem’s going to be solved of course.

And in this editorial, they did not even include the disclaimer that their owner is fundraising 60 million for the project. So before that editorial and after it, there have been all of these articles, op-eds talking about how dangerous the movement is, again, branding organizers as domestic terrorists. There was already an opinion piece released, I think today, by the opinions’ editor for the AJC announcing the violence and demonizing the protestor who was killed. And so I think the media entanglements are a really, really important part of the story. Because they have done so much work in attempting to manufacture consent for this project despite such widespread opposition from Atlanta residents.

KH: In addition to being an important green space, South River Forest is also the site of previous atrocities committed by the carceral state. From 1922 to somewhere around 1990, a city-run prison farm was located on the site. The Atlanta Community Press Collective has worked to document the history of the site, compiling a report that states:

Newspaper articles, letters from nurses, legislative and inspection records, and folk stories tell tales of overcrowding, ‘slave conditions,’ lack of healthcare, labor strikes, deaths, and unmarked “pauper’s” graves.

Audrey, a member of the Atlanta Community Press Collective, told Melissa Harris-Perry in a recent interview, “Some of the worst accounts we found are Black women being instructed by white guards to go work in a remote area. They were then raped by the prison guards after being told to go work in those remote areas.”

MH: So the history of the proposed site for Cop City, I think, makes the entire project particularly devastating and outrageous. So this is land, it’s sometimes referred to as the South River Forest. The movement has referred to it by its original name, the Weelaunee Forest. This is land that was stolen from Muscogee Creek people in the 1800s and taken, and it’s now city owned land, stolen land. In the 1900s it was used by the city as the site of what’s called the old Atlanta Prison Farm. So it was a prison farm where mostly Black incarcerated people were forced to work on behalf of the city.

So they were working on city projects on the city farm. The Atlanta Community Press Collective has done some amazing reporting on the history of that space. And that Atlanta, the old Atlanta prison farm, the ruins are still there in that area, but it’s been an area where all of this life has grown in its wake. But it, of course, still carries all of these scars of state violence. And it’s also an area that is currently surrounded by a bunch of different carceral facilities. So there’s a children’s prison there. There’s a Georgia Department of Corrections prison there that holds terminally ill people and pregnant people. There’s what’s called a transitional center. So there are all of these carceral facilities surrounding it. It’s been land that has been deeply carceral and violent for a long time, but land also where sort of new life has grown.

It’s directly adjacent to a public park called Intention Creek Park or the Weelaunee People’s Park that has sort of been reclaimed by organizers and by people in the movement. And actually that land is also currently under attack. That land is owned by DeKalb County, again directly adjacent to the prison farm site. And that’s currently the subject of an attempted land swap where DeKalb County is trying to swap that land with Blackhall Studios with Hollywood Studios to build a sound stage. And so that would also devastate and destroy this public parkland. And so of course those are connected struggles and it all comes back to capital extraction and devastation of public spaces in service of capitalism and surveillance and police expansion.

KH: The last line of defense against those who would further devastate this space for the sake of police militarization has been a cluster of forest defenders. As a direct action trainer and organizer, I was mentored by people who honed their direct action skills at tree sits and forest defense actions in the 1990’s. I brought those skills into urban spaces, where my co-strugglers have squared off with police and waged shutdowns to protest state violence. In Cop City, I see a convergence of those traditions and struggles, which is crucial in these times. But one thing I know about forest defense and tree-sits is that taking direct action outside of public view creates a kind of vulnerability that one feels acutely when approached by angry workers or cops. As a blockades trainer told me and a group of workshop attendees many years ago, “All of these tactics are premised on the idea that they won’t kill us, and that’s not always going to be true.”

MH: Forest defenders have been living in the forest for over a year now in protest, in defense of the forest land, slowing down attempted construction. And the movement also expands far beyond people who are just living in the forest. It’s also the many organizations who are working to encourage contractors to pull out of the project, to basically make the conditions of attempting to move forward with this so untenable for people involved, such that the city realizes, the contractor realizes we simply cannot move forward with this.

Police repression and surveillance of the movement has been ramping up for a while now. They’ve created this joint police task force that has police agencies ranging from local Atlanta PD and DeKalb PD to the state police, the Georgia Bureau investigation, and even the FBI all working together to surveil and repress this.

In December, the police really sort of ramped up that attempted repression with one of their first raids, with one of their first large scale raids of the forest. And that’s when they really violently arrested five people on that day and then another person the next day and charged them all with domestic terrorism charges. So these really hefty state charges. They carry really lengthy sentences all for people who are living in the forest using their right to protest, their right to free speech, sort of working within the civil rights legacy of Atlanta. Which Atlanta leadership so often praises while of course, in the current times actively repressing it and violently repressing it.

And so police have been escalating the situation for quite some time now, going into the forest with guns and weapons. Using tear gas and other police equipment to go after protestors. And of course, that all escalated to the point where they’ve killed someone. And really, really tragically, about a month ago when that December raid happened, someone from the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has been helping coordinate a lot of the legal representation for arrested and criminalized protestors. Someone from the solidarity fund literally said, “If this goes on and something doesn’t change, police are going to walk into that forest and kill somebody.” And just a month later it’s happened. And so this is absolutely a matter of police escalation.

KH: In his recent essay, entitled MLK’s Vision Lives On in Atlanta’s Fight Against New Police Training Facility, Kamau Franklin described how Stop Cop City supporters have rallied around protesters who are facing domestic terrorism charges, writing:

We have had multiple trainings, demonstrations, banner droppings and teach-ins, among other organizing efforts. Now, more than ever, the campaign to Stop Cop City needs support to show that movements of people will not be intimidated by state violence and its corporate backers. In the midst of worsening climate change, killing a forest and displacing a Black working-class community for the sake of a militarized police base must be stopped.

That piece was published a day before the tragic events of January 18. Since then, we have seen vigils and solidarity actions memorializing Tortuguita organized in cities around the country. Some environmental organizations have notably remained silent throughout these events, but the outpouring of support and solidarity for Stop Cop City activists and Tortuguita has been significant.

Two days after the police killed Tortuguita, hundreds of protesters gathered in Atlanta to honor their memory. The protest drew condemnation from officials, after some participants allegedly broke windows and set a police car on fire. In a moment when the violence of policing, the destruction of the natural world and the killing of a protester should be front and center, we are once again being asked to fixate on the destruction of property that is utterly replaceable. Reports that protesters were brutalized by police in Atlanta failed to generate concern among officials, who focused on the conduct of the protesters. Atlanta’s police chief declared that breaking windows amounts to terrorism, and that protesters would be charged accordingly.

MH: I think that the broader anti-democratic push to create Cop City, and then most recently the fact they have literally murdered a climate activist, an abolitionist protester and organizer. I think it shows that it’s all hands on deck for the forces of the prison industrial complex, the forces of capitalism, those who are continually seeking to accumulate capital through any means necessary. I think it’s scary. It shows that they are willing to use any and all tactics and tools available to them, whether that’s literal murder, whether that’s trying to deter the broader movement by slapping people with domestic terrorism charges. As environmental catastrophe is upon us, I think the forces of capital are organizing themselves.

And if this moment is showing that it’s all hands on deck for the forces of capital and policing and developers and sort of Atlanta’s corporate elite and ruling class, it also needs to be all hands on deck for people of good conscience everywhere in Atlanta, across the country, across the world. There’s already been such amazing solidarity that’s been pouring in from places all over. And I think Atlanta needs that. We need the attention and the focus. I think that this has been really an underreported project for so many reasons. One of which is certainly that it’s happening in the South. They’re not going to stop at Cop City. Cop City will impact everyone around the world. And so I think we need a lot of attention here. We need a lot of focus on Atlanta and what’s happening here. We need support. We need public statements from people. We need people to not be deterred by the fact that they’re using language like domestic terrorism. We need real wide ranging solidarity. I think that’s it.

KH: “We need wide ranging solidarity.” Those words really say it all. We need each other right now, just as our co-strugglers in Atlanta need us to show up in all the ways that we can to support them. We also need to acknowledge the severity of our situation and decide what it demands of us. The natural world, of which we are a part, is being murdered. The carceral state is actively consuming those who defend it. Now, the state has killed Tortuguita. Disrupting cycles of extraction, whether it’s oil being pulled from the earth or time being extracted from the lives of human beings, is punishable by death in these times. That has been true in other parts of the world for many years now, and we knew we were not safe here, in the streets or in the woods. The killing of protesters is not unprecedented in the U.S., but the cost of resistance is getting deadlier.

These are facts. But what do they mean to us? And what will they move us to do? I know we don’t all have agreement on that, but I do know what the 26-year-old activist the police murdered at Stop Cop City had to say about it. Tortuguita told journalist David Peisner:

The right kind of resistance is peaceful, because that’s where we win … We’re not going to beat them at violence. They’re very, very good at violence. We’re not. We win through nonviolence. That’s really the only way we can win. We don’t want more people to die.

Tortuguita has been robbed of the opportunity to tell us what they did or did not do on January 18, or why. But they told us who they were and what they believed while they were still with us, and I see no reason to think they died any differently than they lived, whereas I see every reason to disbelieve the police. I say this not because I feel the need to redeem Tortuguita, but because we have been given the opportunity to understand them in their own words, and I think that matters. Between the story that Tortuguita told us about who they were, and the story police are telling us, I don’t think there’s any question about what should be uplifted.

I hope you will all continue to learn more about Stop Cop City and how you can support the struggle. There is a solidarity statement circulating that hundreds of individuals and organizations have signed, and fundraising efforts to support arrestees are ongoing – and we will be providing links to all of that information in the show notes of this episode.

In addition to hoping you take action, I also hope that you understand where we are, in this moment of history: the state is willing to kill to bring a practice city for police militarization into existence. The ruling class is preparing to wage a war against us, because they are killing the earth itself and grinding us under the gears of capitalism amid a global pandemic, and eventually, they expect us to reject our disposability under this system. They saw flashes of that rejection in 2020 and it terrified them. So they are preparing for the next round, and for a whole lot of forced cooperation with the mass disposal of human beings. They are bordering, caging, containing and dividing us by any means necessary to prevent us from fighting the very obvious battles before us. Realizing the scope of what’s happening is overwhelming, but fighting back begins with rejecting their bullshit story, and replacing it with our own.

I want to close with some words from the anonymous forest defender who spoke with Democracy Now! about Tortuguita’s death. They stated:

Tortuguita was a radiant, joyful, beloved community member. They fought tirelessly to honor and protect the sacred land of the Weelaunee Forest. They took great joy in caring for each and every person that they came across. Tortuguita brought an indescribable jubilance to each and every moment of their life. Their passing is a preventable tragedy. The murder of Tortuguita is a gross violation of both humanity and of this precious Earth, which they loved so fiercely.

Do not turn away from this violence. Do not allow the callousness of the police state to numb your heart. Honor Tortuguita by bravely witnessing the ongoing injustices the police and corporations are enacting upon the Weelaunee Forest. Honor Tortuguita’s legacy by embodying their joyous bravery. Tortuguita’s presence on this Earth is a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. It is time for people to join this movement and to say no to this pointless escalation by the police.

I want to thank Micah Herskind for joining me to talk about Stop Cop City during this incredibly difficult time. I also want to extend all of my love and solidarity to everyone who has been organizing against Cop City and everyone who is hurting over the loss of Tortuguita. We have lost far too many co-strugglers along the way, especially in recent years, but we will continue to fight for the world that our fallen comrades deserved.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

  • You can find the “Solidarity with the movement to stop Cop City & defend the Weelaunee Forest” statement here, and you can learn more about fundraising efforts to support arrestees and other ways to support the Stop Cop City movement here.

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