Protesters question the circumstances surrounding the death of ‘Stop Cop City’ activist

ATLANTA (AP) — Tortuguita’s cautious voice rang out from a platform amid the tall pines the first time Vienna encountered them: “Who’s going there?” she remembers their call.

The arboreal, who chose the nickname Tortuguita – Spanish for “Little Turtle” – above his first name, was perched above the forest floor in the woods just outside Atlanta in the summer last.

Vienna quickly identified, and Tortuguita’s alertness blended into the bubbly, curious, and funny character that so many people in the forest knew. They welcomed the newcomer and helped her settle alongside the other self-proclaimed “forest defenders” at an 85-acre (34-hectare) site that officials plan to turn into a massive forest training center. police and firefighters. Protesters derisively call it “Cop City”.

“It was a magical experience for me, to be able to live out our ideals,” Vienna told The Associated Press, recalling how protesters shared clothes, food and money, while engaging in the community activism. She and Tortuguita quickly fell in love during those hot late summer days.

It was before. Ahead of a Jan. 18 police operation that ended in gunfire, leaving 26-year-old Tortuguita dead and a state trooper hospitalized with a bullet to the abdomen. Officials said officers fired in self-defense after Tortuguita, whose first name was Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, shot the soldier. Activists say it was a state-sanctioned murder.

Outrage over the events has galvanized leftists around the world, with vigils from Seattle to Chicago, from London to Lützerath, Germany.

For years, environmentalists had urged officials to turn the land into park space, arguing that tall pines and upright oaks were essential to preserving Atlanta’s tree canopy and minimizing flooding.

Vienna, 25, remembers her first four months there as filled with joy. There were campfires and sleepovers, in his tent or Tortuguita’s, nestled in the large wooded expanse that activists call Weelaunee Forest, the Muscogee (stream) name for the land.

The City Council approved the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost morale for battered police to the hiring and retention struggles following violent protests over racial injustice that rocked the city following the 2020 death of George Floyd.

READ MORE: Some states are struggling to implement police reforms enacted after the killing of George Floyd

The development project, funded largely by donations from private companies, has enraged activists. Trees would be razed to build a shooting range, a “fictitious village” to rehearse raids, and a driving course to practice chases. Everything would be within earshot of a poor, majority-black neighborhood in a city with one of the highest degrees of wealth inequality in the country.

A general view of the woodlands of Weelaunee People’s Park, the planned site of a controversial ‘Cop City’ project near Atlanta, Georgia, January 20, 2023. Photo by Cheney Orr/REUTERS

Like many who started living in the forest to oppose development, Tortuguita was an eco-anarchist committed to fighting climate change and stopping the expansion of a police state, Vienna said. .

Beyond the distrust many members of the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement have of the police, six people who knew Tortuguita told the AP that authorities’ allegations about the protester’s last encounter do not match the person. they knew: someone who, almost wrongly, always puts others first.

“They were really so generous and loving and always wanted to take care of people,” Vienna said of her partner, who last year took a 20-hour course to become a doctor for activists. “Their biggest thing has been creating communities of care. »

Tortuguita’s brother, Daniel Esteban Paez, said his brother even grows his hair long to donate to children with cancer.

Tortuguita was an “Earth citizen,” Paez said, having grown up in their home country of Venezuela, as well as Aruba, London, Russia, Egypt, Panama and the United States, the their father-in-law’s career in the oil industry that took the family around the world. Tortuguita graduated magna cum laude from Florida State University and was active in Food Not Bombs, helping feed the homeless in Tallahassee, Florida.

They had been living for several months among the campers of “Stop Cop City”, a group whose notoriety was growing among left-wing activists.

Campers built platforms in the trees and slept outside, seeking public support and to block construction. They barricaded the entrances to the forest and were accused of threatening contractors and vandalizing heavy equipment.

The authorities have recently increased the pressure. In December, authorities said firefighters and police were removing barricades at the site when they were attacked with rocks and incendiary devices. Vienna was among six people arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for allegedly throwing rocks at fire and emergency services, as well as a moving police vehicle. She fights the charges in court.

The allegations are designed to scare others away from the cause, argued Marlon Kautz of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a group providing legal aid to those arrested.

“These charges are purely for the purpose of putting activists in jail … and demonizing the movement in the public eye,” Kautz said. “When we see authorities using the criminal justice system to chill speech and prevent activists from joining the movement, that is a serious threat to democracy.”

People gather for protests after protester's death in Atlanta

Graffiti is seen at the edge of Weelaunee People’s Park, the planned site of a controversial ‘Cop City’ project, days after protester Tortuguita was killed in a police raid, near Atlanta, Georgia on 21 January 2023. Photo by Cheney Orr/REUTERS

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston declined to comment on the specific facts of each case, but said that “if a person uses threats and violence in an attempt to force a government entity to change a policy …which is defined as domestic terrorism under Georgia’s statute. .”

A month after the December altercation with police, Tortuguita was dead, killed as officers tried to clear the last protesters from the site. Seven other people were arrested for domestic terrorism during what authorities called a “mine-clearing operation”.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said there was no body camera or dash cam in the shooting, but this ballistics analysis shows the soldier was shot by a bullet from a handgun in possession of Tortuguita.

The GBI said Tortuguita was inside a tent and did not comply with officers’ orders before shooting authorities. Vienna declined to comment when asked if she knew if her partner had a gun, although the GBI says records show Tortuguita legally purchased the gun in 2020.

Vienna and other activists have questioned the official version of events, calling the shooting a “murder”, accusing those responsible of an inconsistent and vague account and demanding an independent investigation. The GBI says it has a “record of impartiality” when investigating shootings involving officers.

Last Saturday, violence and vandalism erupted when a masked contingent among hundreds of protesters in downtown Atlanta began throwing rocks and firing fireworks at a skyscraper housing the Foundation of the Atlanta police. The activists then set fire to a police car and smashed a few more windows. No injuries were reported.

READ MORE: Protest in Atlanta over state police killing of environmental activist turns violent

Authorities arrested six more people that night, including on domestic terrorism charges, saying “explosives” had been recovered. Police declined to elaborate when asked if it was fireworks or more dangerous incendiary devices.

“Make no mistake about it: these individuals have hurt people,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said Saturday at a press conference.

In response, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency on Thursday, giving him the ability to call in the Georgia National Guard to help “contain riots and unlawful assemblies.”

Paez, Tortuguita’s 31-year-old brother from Texas, said his family was heartbroken.

“Our family doesn’t want violence from the cops, but we don’t want violence from the cops either,” Paez told the AP. “I’m just terrified that the tactics that were used to kill my brother are going to be replicated in Cop City.”

He bristles at the allegation that Tortuguita was a domestic terrorist. They were too nice. Too smart. Too caring.

“He was a privileged person, but he chose to be with the homeless, to be with the people who needed his care,” said Tortuguita’s mother, Belkis Terán, who lives in Panama.

For a long time, Paez said he didn’t care about the fate of the forest. He was far more concerned about Tortuguita’s safety.

“I said to my brother, ‘If you ever were to die, I’m going to dump oil and hazardous materials in your stupid forest,'” Paez recalled, his voice cracking. “They called my bluff. I care about the forest now.


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