On Wednesday morning, law enforcement officers in Georgia shot and killed a protester in a densely wooded area of Atlanta’s South River Forest, which has been the site of ongoing protests against the development of a $90 million police training center, dubbed “Cop City,” for well over a year.
The protests in Atlanta have been tense for months. They began in November 2021, when activists set up camp in what they refer to as the Weelaunee Forest, where the city council had recently approved the construction of the 85-acre facility. When I visited in late July of last year while reporting for Rolling Stone, the activists had set up a flourishing, semi-autonomous community under the banner of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DAF). The forest camp had common infrastructure like kitchens, latrines, and public spaces, and often hosted live music festivals, teach-ins on indigenous history, and tours for school groups and families. But the activists also regularly faced off with law enforcement and construction workers, often working in conjunction to force out the DAF.
In December, law enforcement’s attempts to clear the protest movement from the forest intensified. In one raid, six protesters were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Activists say Wednesday’s raid was similar: a large-scale sweep of the forest involving SWAT teams and several agencies. The violence started almost immediately.
Michael Register, the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told reporters on Wednesday that a protester had been killed by police around 9:00 a.m. during an exchange of gunfire that began when a Georgia State Trooper was shot “without warning.” A GBI press release states that during an “operation to identify people who are trespassing and committing other crimes on the property,” law enforcement officers were fired upon as they approached an individual in a tent who was not complying with verbal instructions. The release claims that “a handgun and shell casings were located at the scene.” Photos of the scene released by GBI show a small hammock hanging between two trees underneath a tarp.
DAF activists were instantly critical of the GBI’s account, claiming there was “reason to believe” the officer was hit by friendly fire, not shot by the protester, pointing to reports by other forest defenders who heard one burst of gunshots not consistent with an exchange of fire. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides arrested activists with bail money, jail support, and access to legal representation, wrote in a statement that it was “preparing a legal team to investigate and pursue a wrongful death suit.”
“Georgia State Police has not released body camera footage or meaningful details, and we are concerned a police cover-up could be underway,” the Atlanta Solidarity Fund wrote.
“We know that Georgia Police regularly and consistently lie about the conditions under which they shoot and kill people, and that the ‘facts’ will frequently change to justify police action, no matter how murderous or egregious,” DAF said in a Twitter DM. “No matter what they do, police will always claim to be the actual victims.”
The GBI arrested seven protesters in the raid on Wednesday, all of whom are being charged with criminal trespassing and domestic terrorism. When reached for comment about the shooting, the GBI referred Rolling Stone to its prior statement.
On Thursday morning, the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a local group that covers autonomous movements, identified the killed protester as Manuel Teran, 26. Several sources confirmed Teran’s identity to Rolling Stone, noting that in the forest, Teran used non-binary pronouns and went by the name “Tortuguita,” or Little Turtle, a nod to their Venezuelan and Black heritage. (DAF protesters often identify themselves with “forest names,” flexible nicknames or monikers that allow them to shield their real-world identities.)
Friends described Teran as a loving comrade who was a big help in building ties between local Atlanta activists and full-time forest defenders, who often rely on local networks for support. Teran also participated in tree-sitting — spending long periods of time ensconced 15 or more feet in the forest canopy — and helped out around the camp’s kitchen. They joined the protests in May 2022 from Tallahassee, Florida, where friends say they worked on low-income housing construction projects.
Teran’s death has devastated activists in the DAF movement, many of whom knew them personally, and reignited tension that erupted after the Atlanta Police Department’s killing of Rayshard Brooks in 2020. Brooks, 27, was shot and killed during a DUI arrest in Southeast Atlanta.
“I was born and raised in Atlanta, and I lived in Lakewood when Rayshard Brooks was killed,” says a DAF protester who goes by Bunny. “For Tortuguita to be killed not even three years later just rips open healing wounds.”
The DAF activists see a through-line between police violence against Black communities and their movement, which sees itself as a joint project of ecological, racial, and economic liberation.
“Tortuguita was a proud and fierce anarchist,” says a friend of Teran’s who goes by the name Levitate the Pentagon. “The struggle for total liberation came as their first commitment in life. We must honor that commitment.”
The raid lasted hours after Teran was killed, extending well into the night as police attempted to remove at least one protester from another tree-sit. The protester was arrested early on Thursday morning.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has come down hard on the movement’s presence in the forest, referring to the encampment as a “criminal network” in a statement after the arrests in December. “Rest assured they will not be the last we will take down as this project moves forward,” Kemp said in his statement. “The only response we will give to intimidation and violence is swift and exact justice.”
But activists in the movement haven’t been deterred. Iris, a forest defender, says they returned to Atlanta after seeing the terrorism charges leveled against fellow activists in December.
“The exact point of the terrorism charges is to scare people away from participating, and so I would be letting them win if I let them scare me,” Iris says. “I know that they’re resorting to those charges because they know they’re actually in the wrong.”
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Teran’s death provoked a flurry of action across Atlanta, and several solidarity protests in cities across the country. Calls on social media have gone out for a “day of rage” on Friday, alongside a candlelight vigil and protests in downtown Atlanta on Saturday. Every activist Rolling Stone spoke to said they were committed to continuing the fight, despite increased police presence in the forest.
“This murder is a clear demonstration of how police violence and environmental destruction go hand in hand,” Bunny says, noting that bulldozers and construction equipment moved in after the shooting to continue displacing other tree-sitters. “It feels too overwhelming and too soon to properly express our grief, but we know that we must keep fighting to, at the very least, ensure that this senseless murder’s victim, Tortuguita, can rest in peace knowing that the forest will remain intact and beloved.”