The Future of American Environmental Protests May be Unfolding in a Forest Outside Atlanta

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Deadly violence against environmental protesters could become a reality in the United States.

The past two weeks have marked a significant escalation in the years-long struggle over the proposed construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center (PSTC), a $90 million project that would be built on nearly 100 acres of city-owned land in an unincorporated section of DeKalb County—Georgia’s fourth largest county that encompasses a sliver of southeast Atlanta. The forest—once the homeland of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, then the site of a slave plantation and notorious prison camp—for at least a year has been occupied by activists who call themselves “forest defenders.” They have camped among the trees with the goal of blocking the construction of the PSTC, a massive complex for law enforcement that would include training and recreational facilities.  For them and other opponents of the project, PSTC is known instead as “Cop City.”

On January 18, a multi-agency task force that included Atlanta police, the Georgia State Patrol, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided what they estimated to be about 25 campsites throughout the forest. During the operation, a Georgia state patrol trooper shot and killed a 26-year-old activist named Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who went by the nickname “Tortuguita.” The state’s Bureau of Investigation released a statement claiming that officers approached Terán in a tent, and then Terán shot at a state trooper first, wounding him, before officers returned fire. Law enforcement has said there is no body camera footage. 

Fellow activists dispute this account and have called for an independent investigation. Terán’s mother, who is originally from Venezuela but now lives in Panama City, Panama told The Guardian that she believes her child was “murdered in cold blood” and that she will work to “clear Manuel’s name.” Protests following Terán’s killing led to a police cruiser in flames and smashed windows at the Atlanta Police Foundation headquarters, Wells Fargo, and Truist Bank branches in downtown Atlanta. In response, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp called a state of emergency and activated the Georgia National Guard (though they were not deployed).

In his State of the State address the day before the state of emergency was declared, Kemp decried the violence of “out-of-state rioters” and applauded the police response to the protests. “That’s just the latest example of why here in Georgia, we’ll always back the blue!” he said. 

In countries in the global south that are on the frontiers of resource extraction, being an environmental activist is extraordinarily dangerous. A 2021 Global Witness report estimated 1,700 environmental activists have been killed in the last decade. But, as Kate Aronoff wrote in The New Republic, Terán’s death is a worrisome sign that this deadly violence against environmental protesters could become a reality in the United States, too. Terán’s death is the first known example of someone killed by law enforcement while engaged in environmental “land defense” activism.

“This idea that violence against environmentalists is something we only see in the jungles of Brazil, has really made us blind to the situation we’ve now found ourselves in in the United States,” says Will Potter, Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Civil Rights Fellow with the University of Denver Animal Law Program who has reported extensively on environmental activism.

In a 2017 proposal commissioned by the city of Atlanta, the land proposed for “Cop City,” one of the largest remaining green spaces in the Atlanta metro area, was slotted for conservation, not for new development. Indeed the document described the forest as one of the four “lungs of Atlanta”—a reference to its tree canopy. Soon after the city adopted the proposal into its charter, urban planner Ryan Gravel, an author of the report, began to work on the overall conservation plan with The Nature Conservancy.

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