If you’ve missed this story, the short version is that a group of environmentalists have been camped out in an open forest south of Atlanta. The city plans to construct a brand new police training center on the site this year and the protesters, who’ve dubbed the project “cop city,” have been occupying the site to oppose the construction. There have been several skirmishes involving, rocks, bottles and even a couple Molotov cocktails. Last year police arrested more than a dozen protesters at the site. This week, police from various state and local agencies teamed up for what they called a “clearing operation,” i.e. a final sweep of the site that would allow construction crews to move in and safely get to work.
Wednesday morning, moments after the clearing operation started, police found a man inside a tent and ordered him to come out. Instead, he opened fire and shot a Georgia State Trooper in the abdomen. Police fired back and killed the shooter who was later identified as Manuel Esteban Paez Terán. Manuel never used his real name at the site. Instead he used the alias Tortuguita which is Spanish for little turtle. The trooper who was shot was taken to a hospital and has undergone two surgeries. He’s stable but still in the ICU.
Of course the story about Tortuguita shooting a trooper was immediately downplayed or discounted by his fellow protesters. On the morning of the incident a site associated with the protest claimed the police officer may have been hit by friendly fire, i.e. not by a shot fired by a protester. But police later revealed they’d found a gun and shell casings at the scene. Today, a local news outlet reports that the Georgia Bureau of Investigations has tested that gun and it is a match for the one used to shoot the trooper.
A newly released photograph of a gun is the weapon state investigators say was used by a protester camped near the so-called “Cop City” training facility site to shoot a Georgia State Patrol trooper on Wednesday. That protester was shot and killed by other officers on a task force assigned to sweep and clear the woods.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation says 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Teran was the person who pulled the trigger of that gun. Investigators say a forensic ballistic analysis confirms the remains of the bullet pulled from the trooper’s body during surgery on Wednesday afternoon was fired from the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm recovered at the scene.
Georgia State Troopers don’t wear body cameras so there won’t be any video from the perspective of the unnamed trooper who was shot. However, other law enforcement agencies were part of the operation that morning, some of which do use body cameras. So it’s still possible there is video or audio of the incident.
So one the one hand you have police who have already put together a pretty solid case that at least one protester had a gun and used it. On the other hand, environmentalist allies have been saying some pretty wild things about the incident. In the first couple days they were uniformly claiming Tortuguita had been “murdered” by police and even calling for revenge on the police. I saw at least one tweet calling him a “martyr.”
Yesterday, the leftist site Common Dreams wrote about the story and included a quote from the North America director of 350.org, a leading climate group.
Jeff Ordower, North America director at the climate action group 350.org, said in a statement Thursday, “With heavy hearts, we stand with the Atlanta Forest Defenders and all of those who defend the land, the water, and the planet.”
“Tortuguita’s ‘crime’ was defending a forest in the heart of Atlanta—yet police moved in full force to evict the encampment, using their usual litany of brutal tactics,” he added. “As we’ve seen all too often with police brutality, we can expect the usual false claims of ‘self-defense,’ coupled with an attempt to smear the victim and movement. Our movement will continue to stand up for intersectional justice—for the people and the planet.”
As you can see, he’s just outright denying the claim that Tortuguita shot first, calling the claims police responded in self defense “false.” Does 350.org have any evidence to support this? If so they aren’t sharing it.
Today, the Guardian published a story under the headline “‘Assassinated in cold blood’: the man killed protesting Georgia’s ‘Cop City.’”
Officials say Manuel shot first at a state trooper “without warning” and an officer or officers returned fire, but they have produced no evidence for the claim. The trooper was described as stable and in hospital Thursday.
The shooting is “unprecedented” in the history of US environmental activism, according to experts.
The GBI, which operates under Republican governor Brian Kemp’s orders, has released scant information and on Thursday night told the Guardian no body-cam footage of the shooting exists. At least a half-dozen other protesters who were in the forest at the time have communicated to other activists that one, single series of shots could be heard. They believe the state trooper could have been shot by another officer, or by his own firearm.
Meanwhile, both Terán and local activists are looking into legal action, and Manuel’s mother told the Guardian: “I will go to the US to defend Manuel’s memory … I’m convinced that he was assassinated in cold blood.”
The story makes clear that Manuel’s mother is in Peru. And while her anger is understandable, there doesn’t seem to be any way that she has more information about what happened then the people who were there. Also, the reference to Brian Kemp is a nice touch. I guess the idea is that Kemp, because he’s a Republican, wants to see people killed by the police and would gladly help them cover up a murder. Finally, this story was published earlier today, before the GBI released information on the gun matching the bulled pulled form the Trooper’s body.
Another person pushing the alternative narrative is Steven Donziger. I guess you could say he’s pretty experienced at pushing alternative narratives.
Three days after the police killing of a climate activist in Atlanta, serious questions are emerging about the official narrative. How many shots were fired? Who shot Tort? Why is video footage missing?
Start with a real investigation and independent autopsy. We need the truth. pic.twitter.com/d0iG8856eC
— Steven Donziger (@SDonziger) January 20, 2023
The bottom line is that there’s no evidence anyone was assassinated in cold blood. But that hasn’t stopped people from making wild claims about the case, claims which just happen to excuse the behavior of the protesters and pin blame on the police. It’s not hard to fathom why they are saying these things. They really want to claim this as an example of police violence, one which could be used to oppose the construction of the training center. But that doesn’t work if police fired in self-defense. They need that part of the story to go away.
I’ve seen a couple of profiles about Tortuguita. This one was published by a writer who spent some significant time with him last year. The author admits he doesn’t know what happened in the forest this week but remembers talking with Tortuguita about the concept of non-violence:
“The right kind of resistance is peaceful, because that’s where we win,” they told me. “We’re not going to beat them at violence. They’re very, very good at violence. We’re not. We win through nonviolence. That’s really the only way we can win. We don’t want more people to die. We don’t want Atlanta to turn into a war zone.”…
Is it possible that Teran was lying to me about their allegiance to peaceful protest? Could they just have been telling me what they thought I wanted to hear or what would look good in print? Of course, that could be true. Is it possible that in the time since we had those conversations — time during which Teran witnessed the increasing destruction of the forest — they’d been radicalized and changed their mind about violence? Sure, that’s also a possibility. But I personally saw no evidence of it.
Clearly the author is casting doubt on the idea that this 26-year-old was a trigger-happy extremist eager for a showdown with police. But again he’s not claiming the police version of events couldn’t have happened. Unlike some of the statements above, this author’s account is more measured and seems like a genuine recollection of a real person.
But of course people are complicated. Sometimes there is more than one stream joining into a particular river. Unicorn Riot published this video interview with two people who knew Tortuguita. There’s lots of superficial stuff about hugs and general kindness but at the end they both recall that he suspected he may one day die a “revolutionary death.” I haven’t read the piece that prompted Tortuguita to be thinking along these lines so I don’t know exactly what is meant by a “revolutionary death.” Still it’s interesting that he was thinking along these lines.
The partner and a close friend of Manuel Teran (aka Tort or Tortuguita), who was shot and killed by police in Atlanta, GA on Jan. 18, share glimpses into the forest defender’s life. pic.twitter.com/0UOHkEf894
— UNICORN RIOT 🦄 mastodon.social/@UnicornRiot 👈 (@UR_Ninja) January 21, 2023
There’s another meeting being held in Atlanta tonight. I guess we’ll have to wait a few hours to see if this turns violent.
Stop Cop City
1/21 @ 5pm
Underground ATL pic.twitter.com/HFmzPvOeWw
— Defend the Atlanta Forest (@defendATLforest) January 19, 2023