Environmentalist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán’s death is part of a disturbing trend
What happened in Atlanta is clearly part of a dangerous trend of US law enforcement attacking climate leaders
An earlier version of this column appeared in The Guardian.
The United States this month crossed the Rubicon. It joined the ignominious list of countries around the world where police kill climate activists and use trumped-up “terrorism” charges to target climate protestors who successfully challenge entrenched and corrupt power interests.
This has profound implications for the climate movement, the right to advocate in the US without official harassment, and the very nature of our democracy.
Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, an environmentalist known as Tortuguita or Tort, was shot and killed by the Georgia state police on January 18 as he camped in a beloved and climatically important 300-acre forest in Atlanta. Activists have been trying to defend the forest from being razed to build an enormous $90m “urban warfare” style police academy called Cop City as well as well as a Hollywood-style production studio. This tragedy is a flagrant escalation by the United States government and the fossil fuel industry in its targeting of climate activists.
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Even more troubling is the lack of contrition exhibited by those responsible for this easily avoidable tragedy. Since the killing, the governor of Georgia, four Georgia police agencies along with the FBI, the state’s Attorney General, and most of the local elected political leadership in Atlanta (including the self-proclaimed progressive mayor and both of the state’s two Democratic Senators) have doubled down. Nineteen peaceful protesters who were protecting the forest with Tortuguita have been charged with “domestic terrorism” and face 35-year prison sentences under a legally questionable state law passed in 2017 in response to the murder by a white supremacist of nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina.
At the time, legal scholars and free speech advocates warned that the rapid passage of domestic terrorism laws in Georgia around the country – with their overbroad definitions -- would be abused for political purposes to target progressive activists and dissidents. That’s exactly what police and prosecutors are doing in Georgia.
Terrorism is generally understood in international law to involve the indiscriminate use of violence to sow fear in the civilian population. Yet none of the 19 charged as “terrorists” in Georgia are connected to any act of violence. At worst some might be guilty of misdemeanor trespassing. One or two people might have engaged in property vandalism of police vehicles. These are traditional acts of non-violent civil disobedience that harm no person. The conduct clearly is not terrorism.
But the point from the police perspective is not legal precision. It is to intimidate protestors and those thinking of joining their movement. And it is to try to use the Georgia situation as a legal lab experiment to see how far industry and police can go to lock up people because of their political beliefs.
The Weelaunee forest at issue is not just any 300-acre parcel of land. Located in Southeast Atlanta, it was once part of Creek indigenous territory and is a vital part of the city’s long-term design plan to preserve green space. It is home to wetlands that filter rainwater and prevent flooding in the surrounding community. It is also one of the last breeding grounds for many amphibians in the region as well as an important migration site for wading birds.
Polls show the vast majority of people living in the neighborhood next to the forest (and in Atlanta proper) oppose Cop City. But Atlanta’s so-called “progressive” political establishment and local corporate benefactors (including Coca-Cola and Home Depot) are backing the project which includes $60 million in private donations. I have called on the many corporations funding Cop City to withdraw their donations because the entire project is a step in the wrong direction in terms of the climate crisis and the connected crises in the United States of police racism and overincarceration.
The increasing desperation of the Georgia police to build their extravagant new training playground – one that activists say will be used to indoctrinate law enforcement agencies around the country in urban warfare techniques that will lead to more police killings in communities of color – is palpable when one reads the five sworn affidavits submitted in court to obtain arrest warrants. Released by the news site Status Coup, most of these affidavits contain serial exaggerations if not outright lies.
The affidavits claim the protestors are “domestic terrorists” but none connect any person to an act of violence. One person was targeted because he was “occupying a tree house” and refusing to leave while posting videos on social media that included “calls to action” to supporters. The affidavits also claim the federal Department of Homeland Security designated the group Defend the Atlanta Forest as a “Domestic Violent Extremist” organization, but a DHS official told The Washington Post that is not true and that the department has no such designation.
One can simply look at the Defend the Atlanta Forest Twitter account (which has approximately 25,000 followers) to see that is engaging in Constitutionally-protected advocacy.
The real problem for the Georgia police is that the forest defenders have been very smart and far too successful. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp – a former ally of Donald Trump known for his voter suppression campaign in mostly African-American strongholds – has heated the conflict to blast-furnace levels by calling the protestors “terrorists” and part of a “criminal network”. The day Tortuguita was killed, pictures show dozens of SWAT-style police with heavy weapons and armored vehicles entering the forest to conduct a “clearing operation” that looked like a military invasion.
These men looked like soldiers going to war but their charge was simply to evict young people living in hammocks, tents, and tree houses. The killing of Tort no matter how it happened – his mother and the activists believe it was a cold-blooded assassination while the police say it was self-defense – was an entirely predictable result given Governor Kemp’s hyped rhetoric and the use of militarized SWAT teams to remove peaceful land defenders.
This terrifying escalation lays bare the conflict between the corporate-backed police and those who are trying to save a precious forest that is a metaphor for our entire planet.
The Georgia Police have claimed that they “returned fire in self-defense” when someone “without warning shot a Georgia State Trooper” in the abdomen. Photos show the police who stormed the area were wearing body cams, but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation now says there is no video footage of the actual killing nor has the agency released the name of the officer who shot Tort. Tort’s fellow protestors say they heard shots coming from one direction and did not hear an exchange of gunfire. Tort also was known for years by his colleagues as someone deeply committed to Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence.
Even if we are to believe the police, the menacing SWAT team that showed up to clear the area provoked the very reaction the police could then cite to justify a completely unnecessary escalatory operation. We should also remind the Georgia police that civil disobedience is part of our nation’s history; indeed, modern Atlanta would not be the vibrant city that it is without non-violent civil disobedience led by Dr. King and many other courageous activists. Indeed, the United States never would have been founded without massive acts of civil disobedience deemed “criminal” by our colonizers just as Governor Kemp now tries to criminalize the forest defenders.
How these Georgia events connect to broader attacks on the climate movement in the United States is also disturbing.
What happened in Atlanta is part of a dangerous targeting of leaders of the climate movement that for years has involved elements of US law enforcement, courts, and the fossil fuel industry. What starts with a private prosecution and jailing of a climate lawyer by Chevron quickly grows to “domestic terrorism” charges leveled against peaceful protestors like Water Protector Jessica Reznicek, now serving a draconian 8-year sentence for vandalizing a pipeline. The FBI anti-terrorism task force worked with corporate-funded private security to target protesters at the Standing Rock pipeline. Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry is lining the coffers of police departments, with Enbridge paying millions to public police in Minnesota to help fund the arrest of protestors at the company’s Line 3 pipeline.
In Atlanta, the arrest affidavits against the so-called “terrorists” go to elaborate lengths to demonize the protest group Defend the Atlanta Forest. The so-called “evidence” includes finding a pellet gun, gas mask, and flare in the forest encampments. This almost feels like the House Un-American Activities Committee of Joe McCarthy as applied to the climate movement.
Global Witness recently reported that 1,700 climate activists around the world have been murdered in the last 10 years; nobody ever thought such a thing could happen in the US. Regardless of how the investigation turns out, the fact remains we now have the first-ever police killing of a climate activist. What actually happened to Tort and why body cam footage appears to be missing must be investigated independently and not by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which was one of the agencies connected to the forest operation.
We must grieve for the fallen, help fund legal support for those facing over-hyped “terrorism” charges, back the campaign to save the forest, and work to convince corporations to stop funding a police training complex that appears fundamentally misguided. In the meantime, Governor Kemp last week arrogated to himself “emergency powers” in light of the ongoing protests. Citizens all over the country need to monitor the situation to ensure the rights of those targeted are protected and the Georgia police and public officials do not escalate the conflict further with even more tragic results.
¿How can one contribute to the defense of the activists who are accused of “domestic terrorism”? !!!