Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán Shot Dead by Georgia Police in a Raid on “Cop City” Protesters

Tortuguita, murdered by police in Atlanta for defending trees from Cop City.


Tortuguita, murdered by police in Atlanta for defending trees from Cop City, January 18, 2023.   

Manuel Esteban PáezTerán, a 26-year-old “forest defender” who went by “Tortuguita,” was killed by Georgia State Troopers on January 18 during a violent raid by police in Atlanta's Weelaunee People's Park. Tortuguita was taking part in a protest, now in its second year, to stop a planned $90 million police “training facility”—named “Cop City” by those fighting to stop it.

On Saturday, January 21, a march was held in Atlanta to commemorate Tortuguita's life and protest the killing. According to police, some of the protesters damaged property, leaving police cars damaged and one set on fire, windows smashed in the building that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation, and anti-police graffiti on other buildings. Police say they arrested six people. 

Early in the demonstration, activists shared their memories of Tortuguita, describing them (Tortuguita was non-binary) as an extremely loving, caring member of the “Stop Cop City” community. Speakers said Tortuguita had taken a 20-hour medic course in order to serve as a medic for fellow forest defenders.

Atlanta: protesting murder of Tortuguita and building of "cop city."


In Atlanta, people protest murder of Tortuguita and the building of "cop city."    Photo: AP

Cop City, which will include a shooting range, mock city and burn building, has been met with fierce resistance, many seeing it as a response to the 2020 uprising against the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The area being seized has been critical in stopping stormwater flooding, and environmentalists and community advocates have been trying to create an area called the South River Forest, which would be Atlanta's largest protected green space. Instead, Atlanta's Black Democratic mayor has given full support to the plan to destroy the park and pour money into a facility protesters say will be used to practice "urban warfare."

Opponents of the proposed 85-acre police “training center” have been protesting since late 2021 by building platforms in surrounding trees and camping out at the site. Police, troopers, and others have repeatedly, violently attacked the occupation. Since June 6, 2022, activists and community members fighting to defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City had been demanding that officers stop bringing weapons into the forest after the Atlanta PD pointed their weapons at peaceful protestors. The killing of Tortuguita was but the next step in the ramping-up of police attacks on the forest defenders—who those in power have branded “terrorists.” 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) said they killed Tortuguita in the course of a raid to remove about 25 protest campsites on Wednesday. Seven forest defenders—aged 20 to 34—were arrested during the raid and charged with domestic terrorism and criminal trespass.

There are demands for a thorough, independent investigation into the killing—which many are calling a murder—and how it could have happened. The GBI did not report any guns being found after searching the campsites after the raid. Yet they claim they were returning fire on Tortuguita after a state trooper was shot and injured “without warning.” They say there is no bodycam footage of the killing. Now they have made public the photo of a gun they claim they found near Tortuguita's body.

At least a half-dozen other protesters who were in the forest at the time have told other activists that a single series of shots could be heard. They believe the state trooper could have been shot by another officer, or by his own firearm. On Friday, Democracy Now! played an audio statement sent by an anonymous Atlanta forest defender describing what happened on Wednesday:

Multiple police departments descended upon Weelaunee People’s Park in unprecedented numbers and force. They blocked access to the park on both roads and bike trails. Some people were arrested for attempting to document police actions... Gunfire was heard at 9:04 a.m., about a dozen shots fired in rapid succession, followed by a loud boom a minute later. For hours after the murder of Tortuguita, police continued to hunt, assault and arrest our brave forest defenders. Those defenders in trees were targeted with pepper bullets.... Other forest defenders were chased by police dogs. These defenders had to hide and flee for their lives, all the while with the nauseating knowing that their dear comrade had been murdered...

Tortuguita's killing has stunned and shocked the environmental and social justice movements in Georgia and across the country. There have been vigils for Tortuguita from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to Charlotte to Chicago. Experts say the shooting is “unprecedented” in the history of U.S. environmental activism. A site has been established where people can leave tributes to Tortuguita. One tribute reads:

I remember Tortuguita as one of the softest and most generous people in the woods, a perpetually positive presence, ready with a smile and anything else they could offer to brighten your day. They were an optimist, assuming the best of people and demonstrating through their own actions just how good humans can be. I miss them already. Condolences and solidarity to all their family, friends, and comrades. We lost one of our best.

Manuel’s mother, speaking from Panamá City, Panamá, said, “He was not a violent person. He was a pacifist. He would tell me that all the time. ‘I am a pacifist.’ He wouldn’t even kill an animal. I will go to the U.S. to defend Manuel’s memory … I’m convinced that he was assassinated in cold blood.”

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