For decades, the U.S. authorities have tried to discredit social justice, civil rights, peace and environmental activists as domestic terrorists, as the enemy within.
Often those targeted are engaged in peaceful, non-violent direct action. Concurrently, the state has used violence against these activists while labelling the victim as a threat.
There are decades of evidence of the FBI and Police acting with brutal impunity. But now the Police have crossed a deadly line. Last month saw the first police killing of a protestor in the history of the U.S. environmental movement.
For months now, tensions around the City of Atlanta have been rising, where the authorities want to clear eighty-five acres of the South River Forest, known to the Muscogee (Creek) peoples as the Weelaunee Forest, to build a $90 million “Urban Warfare Training Center” for their police department. A group of activists has been trying to stop “Cop City”, as it is called and has been camped out in the woods for months.
The fight trying to stop the development has been intersectional: some activists have been there to prevent the forest from being cut, and for others, it is the issue of Police brutality that is of concern.
Keith Woodhouse, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, who has studied the environmental movement, told NBC news: “The issue of policing in the United States, the militarization of police forces, Black Lives Matter, all those issues are bound up with protection of this forest for these activists.”
On January 18th, the Police crossed a line that no one has crossed in an environmental protest in the US. It fatally shot one activist, a twenty-six-year-old known as “Tortuguita,” or Tort (Spanish for little turtle). Tortuguita had not been shot once, but over a dozen times. This was not a mistake or a stray bullet, but deliberate murder.
The Police were not alone that day. According to a report in the Guardian on the matter: “Dozens of officers from the Atlanta police department, the Dekalb county police, the Georgia state patrol, the Georgia bureau of investigation and the FBI swept through the camp.” Once again, the state had colluded to crush and kill.
The disputed circumstances surrounding Tortuguita’s death are now subject to an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The Police say they were fired on, a claim entirely refuted by the activists themselves. Lawyers acting for Tortuguita’s family also question the Police’s account of the shooting.
We need to see Tortuguita’s death in the broader picture. As they were shot, other activists were violently evicted. Their murder fits into a pattern of intimidation. In December and January, 19 opponents of “Cop City” were charged with felonies under Georgia’s rarely used 2017 domestic terrorism law.
A review by Grist 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”.
Speaking to Democracy Now, the Grist reporter Alleen Brown, says the “flimsy” domestic terrorism charges appear to be part of a strategy to undermine the protest movement rather than respond to an actual threat to public safety.
Brown said: “These charges may not be meant to stick. Perhaps instead it’s meant to send a message that this is a criminal group, these are terrorists.” Brown added that “in that sense, it creates a sort of public relations message that perhaps does make it easier to go in and evict people and escalate to something like what we saw on January 18th with Tortuguita.”
In the book Green Backlash, which documented the backlash against the green movement in the US and elsewhere in the 90s, I wrote that by reframing the environmental movement as “criminal subversives and terrorists”, there will “only be one result – violence against the environmentalists.”
And this is what has happened. Tortuguita’s death fits into increasing violence against environmental defenders worldwide. We should not allow this to happen.
Some 1,300 civil society and climate justice groups, including Oil Change International, have now called for a genuinely independent investigation into the police murder and also the resignation of the Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens, who has refused to condemn the killing.
But the struggle being plaid out in an Atlanta forest is more than just protecting a few trees. It is about justice and climate change, and what kind of peaceful rather than militarised society we live in. It is about who we are and the values we hold within us. It is intersectional and fundamental.
As a solidarity statement says: The struggle that is playing out in Atlanta is a contest for the future. As the catastrophic effects of climate change hammer our communities with hurricanes, heat waves, and forest fires, the stakes of this contest are clearer than ever. It will determine whether those who come after us inherit an inhabitable Earth or a police state nightmare. It is up to us to create a peaceful society that does not treat human life as expendable.”
It also resonates with other ongoing climate justice fights in the US, such as Mountain Valley Pipeline.
For now, though, we need justice. We need you to spread the word. We need you to get involved. This week there is a solidarity action week, and in March, there will be Mass Mobilisation in Atlanta to #StopCopCity. As the solidarity statement says, life is not expendable. And justice should not be denied.
In response to the murder of Tortuguita and the approval of Cop City’s final permit, Atlanta organizers are calling for a distributed week of action until February 26 and a large-scale mobilization in Atlanta from March 4-11.