The old saying is that the truth will come out. The state may lie and try and bury evidence. It may use brute force to cover up its tracks, but eventually, the truth will come out.
On January 18th this year, the U.S. Police fatally shot a twenty-six-year-old activist Manuel Paez Terán, known as “Tortuguita,” or Tort, who used they/them pronouns. Tortuguita was shot not once but over a dozen times.
When they were shot, Tort was helping defend 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. The proposed Police Department is known as “Cop City”.
Tort and fellow activists had been camped in the woods trying to prevent “Cop City “from being built for months. Located within Atlanta’s city limits, the destruction of the Weelaunee Forest would remove crucial buffers to mitigate runoff and flooding for neighboring communities, burdening residents in a city already facing worsening heat waves and flooding events as a result of the climate crisis.
Tort’s death caused shock waves around the world. They join a growing list of environmental activists and land defenders who have been attacked, brutalized, or beaten up by the Police, whilst participating in peaceful, non-violent direct action.
Their death happened in circumstances still disputed by the Police and protesters, and the victim’s family. The Police maintain that an officer was shot by Tort, although there is no independent evidence for this. And on the contrary, the Police were not wearing body cameras, and there are also accusations that the wounded Police officer was hit by so-called “friendly fire”.
For such a high-profile and controversial death, it would have been prudent for the authorities to undertake an autopsy as soon as possible and release the findings publicly.
But Tort’s family disclosed to the Guardian newspaper “that a local Georgia medical examiner’s office has still not completed an autopsy” nearly two months after Tort was shot. The autopsy is not expected to be completed for several weeks. Meanwhile, the family has also requested evidence from the Police about crucial details concerning Tort’s murder, but they have received no reply.
And so Tort’s family has undertaken their own autopsy and what they have concluded is shocking. The autopsy contends that: Tort was “crossed-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg,” with their palms up and facing inward. Tort had been sitting peacefully with their hands in the air.
Earlier this week, Tort’s family held a news conference in Decatur to announce the findings. They also announced that they were filing an open-records lawsuit to force Atlanta police to release more evidence about the killing.
The family’s lawyer and civil rights advocate Brian Spears said, “Manuel was looking death in the face, hands raised when killed. We do not stand here today telling you that we know what happened. The second autopsy is a snapshot of what happened, but it is not the whole story. What we want is simple: GBI, [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] meet with the family and release the investigative report.”
The family’s autopsy report added that “many of the wound tracks” within Tort’s body “converge, coalesce and intersect, rendering the ability to accurately determine each and every individual wound track very limited, if even impossible”.
The findings come as the activists and forest defenders fighting Cop City face greater intimidation and repression. Earlier this month, after a raid on the protest camp, 35 people were detained. According to Truthout, 23 of the 35 were charged with “domestic terrorism by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, “a felony that carries up to 35 years in prison.” Protesters charged with these offenses were targeted “simply for being from out of state.”
Since then, further defenders have also been charged with “domestic terrorism”, bringing the total to 41. Others have been repeatedly harassed by the Police, even when just walking on the sidewalk in Atlanta.
This is precisely what was predicted would happen. The defenders had warned that the Police might use domestic terrorism charges against them. In December last year, Defend the Atlanta Forest said, “The usage of terrorist enhancement laws against protestors is a calculated political maneuver to silence widespread opposition to the Cop City project”.
The intimidation includes slashing the tents belonging to medical teams and removing medical supplies. After one raid, an activist said simply: “If Cop City gets built, this fear and destruction … will only become more commonplace.”
Despite the ongoing risk to land defenders and activists in the Weelaunee Forest, the global movement to stop Cop City only continues to grow, as the Police’s tactics fuel outrage across the globe.
Some sixty-nine environmental, human rights, and civil liberties organizations have now called on Georgia prosecutors to drop the domestic terrorism charges against the forest protesters. The letter argues that the charges are “an escalatory intimidation tactic and a draconian step that seems intended to chill First Amendment protected activity.”
The STOP Cop City campaign is also currently organizing a petition calling on corporations involved in the project to pull out. This states “Black communities will be especially harmed by the police expansion and militarization that Cop City represents. Studies have shown that police with more military equipment kill more civilians, prevent less crime, and make residents feel less safe”. You can sign the petition here.