We get an update on calls for an independent investigation into the Atlanta police killing of an activist during a violent raid Wednesday on a proposed $90 million training facility in a public forest, known by opponents to the facility as “Cop City.” Law enforcement officers — including a SWAT team — were violently evicting protesters who had occupied a wooded area outside the center when they shot and killed longtime activist Manuel Teran, who went by the name “Tortuguita.” Police claim they were fired on, though protesters dispute this account. We hear a statement from an Atlanta forest defender about what happened, and speak with Kamau Franklin, an anti-“Cop City” activist and the founder of the Atlanta organization Community Movement Builders.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
In Atlanta, Georgia, calls are growing for an independent investigation into the police killing of an activist Wednesday during a violent raid on an encampment of protesters opposed to the proposed $90 million “Cop City” training facility in a public forest. Law enforcement officers, including a SWAT team, were clearing protesters who had occupied a wooded area outside the center, when police claim they were fired on and fired back. Police say a Georgia state trooper was wounded by gunfire. Activists have now released the name of the victim of the police shooting: longtime activist Manuel Teran, who went by the name “Tortuguita.”
In an audio statement sent to Democracy Now! Thursday, an Atlanta forest defender describes what happened and who Tortuguita was. They asked to remain anonymous and for their voice to be distorted for security reasons.
FOREST DEFENDER: On Wednesday, January 18th, multiple police departments descended upon Weelaunee People’s Park in unprecedented numbers and force. They blocked access to the park on both roads and bike trails. Some people were arrested for attempting to document police actions that day at the park.
Gunfire was heard at 9:04 a.m., about a dozen shots fired in rapid succession, followed by a loud boom about a minute later. For hours after the murder of Tortuguita, police continued to hunt, assault and arrest our brave forest defenders.
Those defenders in trees were targeted with pepper bullets. One tree sitter had their treehouse, which stored food and water, cut from beneath them. They were left without food and water for over 12 hours up in the tree as police waited at the base of the tree to capture them. This same tree sitter continued to stay in their tree until the next morning, when they were arrested.
Other forest defenders were chased by police dogs. 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.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was an anonymous statement by an Atlanta forest defender sent to Democracy Now!, his voice disguised.
Vigils for the slain forest defender Tortuguita have taken place from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to Charlotte to Chicago. In Atlanta, activists held a vigil the night of the shooting and are planning a march on Saturday.
For more, we go to Atlanta to speak with Kamau Franklin, founder of the organization Community Movement Builders.
Kamau, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you please tell us what you understood happened?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Well, we have very little information on what took place, besides what your earlier recording just said, that the only version of events that’s really been released to the public has been the police version, the police narrative, which we should say the corporate media has ran away with. To our knowledge so far, we find it less than likely that the police version of events is what really happened, the idea that he was sitting in a tent and fired out of the tent at basically a SWAT team, DeKalb County police, the Atlanta police and Georgia state troopers, who were there in great numbers to do the raid that they conducted in the park. And the idea is that this person shot, and then they fired back. As the little intel that we have, residents said that they heard a blast of gunshots all at once, and not one blast and then a return of fire. Also, there’s been no other information released. We don’t know how many times this young person was hit with bullets. We don’t know the areas in which this person was hit. We don’t know if this is potentially a friendly fire incident. All we know is what the version of the police have given.
And that’s why we’re calling for an independent investigation, not one that’s done by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, not one that’s done by any federal authority, but a complete independent investigation, because that’s the only way we’re going to know what really happened. But right now, based on what we do know, we cannot say anything except that this is probably a political assassination. This is something that could have been prevented. There was no reason for them to take the tactics that they did in terms of going into the forest with weapons in hand, with pepper spray, with live ammunition, to go shoot forest defenders who were engaging in civil disobedience and direct action politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Kamau Franklin, can we step back and talk about what Cop City — proposed Cop City city is and why people are encamped there?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Cop City is an idea that came after the 2020 uprisings, by the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Foundation — the Atlanta Police Foundation. The idea, basically, is that they want to develop a militarized police base that’s right next to a Black and Brown working-class community. And by building this base, they want to cut down over a hundred acres of forest. They want to develop an area where there is room for explosive testing — explosives testing, over 12 firing ranges, a place where there’s a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad, a training center for them to practice crowd control. We should also mention that they are engaged in international training with the Israeli police. And so, we think this project really is the beginning of a militarized police base here in Atlanta, which will be the largest facility of its kind in the country.
And the reason for doing this, coming out of the uprisings, we believe, is to stop movement politics and movement building in Atlanta, to coordinate efforts across the country with other police departments, and now internationally, to stop movement building. And we think this is going to be further sort of terroristic action on Black and Brown communities by a police state which is out of control at this particular stage.
AMY GOODMAN: Kamau, you had a piece in Truthout, and I wanted to — it was headlined “MLK’s Vision Lives On in Atlanta’s Fight Against New Police Training Facility.” Interestingly, in 2021, the city of Atlanta announced plans, you know, for Cop City, saying it was to carry on the city’s civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King and others. Can you talk about this?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah, I mean, we live in a dystopia, where the legacy of Dr. King is being used by city officials, the same city officials who say that they love “good trouble,” they love John Lewis, they love Dr. King. When Dr. King was alive, Dr. King was working against police brutality and police militarization. Dr. King poignantly stated that the police themselves harass and are open to and conduct raids on communities. Obviously, Dr. King was surveilled by the FBI, a local police task force, along with federal police task force. They harassed Dr. King. They sent a letter to Dr. King to kill himself.
And so, these tactics, in different ways, continue today. The Cop City task force, which is developed between the FBI, the DeKalb County Police Department, the Atlanta Police Department and several other agencies, Homeland Security, is basically a task force to stomp out movement activity, because they’re afraid that the protesters, the various types of protests that are happening, are getting the word out that no one has asked for Cop City. Any survey that’s been done has shown that 70% of Atlantans have been against the building of this facility, but yet they went ahead and decided to build it anyway. And now that there’s a protest movement against it, they’re using all actions, all — everything in their capability and capacity, to stop this movement. And now they’ve turned to the idea of actually murdering protesters as a way to stop people from going into the forest and to stop the defenders from defending the forest.
AMY GOODMAN: Last December, the Atlanta forest defender Tortuguita, who was shot dead by police this week, was featured in an article headlined “The Forest for the Trees,” that was written by David Peisner, published on The Bitter Southerner. In the piece, Tortuguita says, quote, “We get a lot of support from people who live here, and that’s important because we win through nonviolence. We’re not going to beat them at violence. But we can beat them in public opinion, in the courts even.” They’re also quoted saying, “This is my home now. We’ve built a nice community here. It’s about reclaiming the parks and public space.”
The Atlanta Community Press Collective also wrote, Tortuguita, quote, “spent their time between Atlanta, defending the forest from destruction and coordinating mutual aid for the movement and, and Florida where they helped build housing in low income communities hit hardest by the hurricane. They were a trained medic, a loving partner, a dear friend, a brave soul, and so much more. In Tort’s name, we continue to fight to protect the forest and stop cop city with love, rage, and a commitment to each other’s safety and well-being.”
Finally, Kamau, if you can talk about where this protest stands now? Did the police succeed in completely clearing the encampment, or are people still there?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: To our knowledge, there’s still people who have access to the forest who occasionally will go in. We think, obviously, this is a dangerous time, because the police tactics have stepped up to the point where they’re actually using live ammunition to shoot and kill protesters.
But even with that said, we will continue to protest both in the forest, around the forest and in the larger city of Atlanta, and, again, asking for not only national support but international solidarity on this issue, which we’ve gotten so far, which we expect only to step up more in the coming days and months. This protest movement is not over. It is not defeated. In the memory of the young person who was killed, we will continue to fight.
And let’s remember also there was over a dozen arrests yesterday. There are more people charged with domestic terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: With domestic terrorism?
KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yes, more charges of domestic terrorism. The interesting thing is that they charged the people from out of town, people who are not Atlanta residents, with domestic terrorism. Bu they so far have not charged — in this latest round, they have not charged people who were arrested who are from the city with the charge of domestic terrorism. So, we, obviously, think, again, these are scare tactics. These are tactics meant to criminalize the movement against Cop City.
And what’s really, really important, that we have to keep hammering home, is that this task force, or this idea about what’s happening, this criminalization of movement politics, is something that’s being done with so-called moderate liberal Democrats in Atlanta, and now a right-wing Republican who is the governor of the state of Georgia, who is now somehow taking the lead in criminalizing and calling protesters names. But this is done together as a collaboration between the Atlanta political establishment and the governor of Georgia. And they are using all of their security forces — again, the Atlanta police, DeKalb County police, state troopers, in conjunction with the FBI and even Homeland Security — to criminalize this movement and now to kill a young activist.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Governor Brian Kemp. Kamau Franklin, I want to thank you so much for being with us, the founder of the organization Community Movement Builders. And we’ll link to your piece at democracynow.org and continue to follow this encampment and the series of protests.
Next up, we speak with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors about the death of her 31-year-old cousin Keenan Anderson. He was a 10th grade English teacher, who died after being repeatedly tased by police. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Déjà Vu,” performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, is written by David Crosby, who has died at the age of 81. To see our interview with him and Graham Nash, you can go to democracynow.org.