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Family of Forest Defender Killed by Police Demands Answers

By Kenny Stancil - Common Dreams, February 6, 2023

Family members of climate activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán are demanding answers regarding the January 18 police killing of their 26-year-old relative, commonly known as "Tortuguita."

At a press conference held Monday morning outside the DeKalb County courthouse in suburban Atlanta, family members and lawyers discussed the results of a private autopsy and demanded access to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's (GBI) full record of events amid its ongoing probe.

According to the private autopsy, multiple officers from a joint task force shot Tortuguita at least 13 times during a raid on an encampment in the Weelaunee Forest. Tortuguita was part of a collective that occupied the forest in an attempt to prevent the construction of a $90 million, 85-acre police and fire training facility popularly known as Cop City.

The GBI alleges that Tortuguita fired a weapon before officers killed him. The GBI claims that it has traced the bullet that wounded a state trooper to a handgun found at the scene and has reportedly provided documents showing Terán purchased the firearm in 2020. However, law enforcement officials continue to evade basic questions about the fatal shooting.

"Manny was a kind person who helped anyone who needed it," Tortuguita's mother, Belkis Terán, said in a statement shared ahead of the press conference. "He was a pacifist. They say he shot a police officer. I do not believe it."

"I do not understand why they will not even privately explain to us what happened to our child," she added.

Civil rights attorney Jeff Filipovits lamented that "the GBI has selectively released information about Manny's death."

"They claim Manny failed to follow orders," said Filipovits. "What orders? The GBI has not talked about the fact that Manny faced a firing squad, when those shots were fired, or who fired them."

The GBI has stated publicly that body camera footage of the shooting does not exist. However, the bureau has not yet stated whether there is any audio or video from other sources, such as drones or helicopters that were being used at the time.

Tortuguita's family has requested that the GBI release whatever audio or video recordings of the shooting exist or any other information that could help illuminate what occurred.

"Any evidence, even if it is only an audio recording, will help the family piece together what happened on the morning of January 18," said Brian Spears, a civil rights attorney with nearly five decades of experience litigating police shootings. "This information is critical, and it is being withheld."

While the family searches for answers, Tortuguita's killing "escalates concerns related to the construction of a police training center and the government's willingness to deem activists as terrorists," Fossil Free Media noted. "The power used against these activists will soon be used against other protesters."

Several Weelaunee Forest defenders were arrested and charged—under a 2017 Georgia law that expanded the definition of "domestic terrorism" to include certain property crimes—during mid-December raids on their encampment.

More forest defenders were detained on the same charges on January 18, the day police fatally shot Tortuguita—the first or possibly second time that police have killed an environmental activist in modern U.S. history, according to experts. Additional activists are also facing prosecution as a result of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's crackdown on demonstrations held since Tortuguita's killing.

According toGrist:

Over the course of December and January, 19 opponents of the police training center have been charged with felonies under Georgia's rarely used 2017 domestic terrorism law. But Grist's review of 20 arrest warrants shows that none of those arrested and slapped with terrorism charges are accused of seriously injuring anyone. Nine are alleged to have committed no specific illegal actions beyond misdemeanor trespassing. Instead, their mere association with a group committed to defending the forest appears to be the foundation for declaring them terrorists. Officials have underlined that an investigation is ongoing, and charges could yet be added or removed.

Atlanta Police Department Assistant Chief Carven Tyus was recently quoted as saying, "Protests by non-locals are inherently terrorism," according to Fossil Free Media. Moreover, Tyus has admitted in private meetings with his advisory council: "Can we prove they did it? No. Do we know they did it? Yes."

Fossil Free Media noted that "the city of Atlanta has also admitted to using Georgia's hands-free driving law as a pretext to arrest at least one person for filming officers at Cop City."

Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights said that "police who behave legally have no reason to fear being filmed and should welcome it."

"Law enforcement has a vested interest in this training center that demands scrupulous transparency and impartiality," said Weber. "Unfortunately, we are getting the exact opposite."

While Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced what they called a "compromise" for Cop City last week, opposition to the project remains strong among locals.

"Cop City is something that no one in the community asked for, and survey after survey shows that the majority of Atlanta residents are opposed," Kamau Franklin from Community Movement Builders, one of the organizations fighting against Cop City. "The mayor continues to run roughshod over the desires of the community."

The Atlanta City Council gave the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private organization, permission to build Cop City in 2021, four years after the Atlanta City Planning Department recommended that the Weelaunee Forest—deemed one of four "city lungs"—be turned into a massive urban park.

A coalition of more than 1,300 progressive advocacy groups published a letter last week calling for an independent investigation into the killing of Tortuguita. The groups also demanded the resignation of Dickens, a Democrat who they said parroted "the rhetoric of extreme right-wing Gov. Brian Kemp" when he condemned protesters rather than police officers after the shooting.

The coalition pointed out that Dickens and the Atlanta City Council have the authority to terminate the land lease for Cop City and implored local policymakers to do so immediately.

Ikiya Collective, a signatory of the letter, noted that the training set to take place at Cop City "will impact organizing across the country" as police are taught how to repress popular uprisings.

"This is a national issue," said the collective. "Climate justice and police brutality are interconnected, which is why we are joining the Stop Cop City calls to action with the frontline communities in Atlanta."

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