In what is believed to be the first case of a land defender killed in the U.S. for their activism, a Georgia State Patrol trooper killed 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Páez Terán on Jan. 18. But Páez Terán wasn’t known as Manuel to most people; their chosen name was Tortuguita, or Tort, which translates to Little Turtle in Spanish.
Tortuguita was one forest guardian among many in efforts to protect the South River Forest, which sits south of Atlanta and pre-colonial Indigenous groups knew as Weelaunee Forest, the name activists now use. The green space is being threatened by a proposed training facility for the state’s law enforcement. The state-of-the-art $90 million facility would require tearing down 85 acres of the forest, which serves as a getaway for Atlanta city residents. Opponents have dubbed the project Cop City.
That’s why Tortuguita was there: to stop Cop City and to defend the land, rich with history. A coalition of folks has been occupying the forest in treehouses since December 2021. Though clashes with police have grown tense over the last year, Tortuguita’s was the first deadly encounter. Authorities claim Tortuguita shot an officer first, but their fellow activists and family members denounce that narrative.
Instead, words of remembrance have poured in, calling Tortuguita “one of the softest and most generous people in the woods,” “sweet, kind,” and “kinda crazy, kinda genius.” Writer David Peisner, who has reported on the movement and spoken extensively to Tortuguita, described them as a “strategic thinker.” He shared Tortuguita’s words, reminding us all of who they were before the police tragically ended their life too short.
“The right kind of resistance is peaceful because that’s where we win,” they told Peisner. “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.”
And yet, Tortuguita knew the risks. How could they not? They also told Peisner this: “Am I scared of the state? Pretty silly not to be. I’m a Brown person. I might be killed by the police for existing in certain spaces.”
Indeed, the number of people police killed in the U.S. last year hit a record high: at least 1,186 people. Black people were three times more likely to be killed than white people. Native Americans and Latines don’t trail too far behind.
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Despite the cries in 2020 to defund the police and address the crisis of police violence in the U.S., state and cities have doubled down and actually increased funding to police departments in many instances. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has made clear his stance on law enforcement: “We need to fund police who walk the beat, know the neighborhood, are accountable to those they are sworn to serve, and build community trust and safety,” reads a statement from his pro-police plan announced last year.
The thing is there’s no climate and environmental justice without police abolition, as Green New Deal mastermind Rhiana Gunn-Wright shared with me in 2021. That remains true today. Back then, she said: “Policing is not a system that can be reformed. We have to follow the lead of abolitionists and find a different way of creating and maintaining public safety because this isn’t working.”
A big part of this argument is recognizing that the dollars going toward police departments to respond to crime can go toward other social services to actually prevent crime. Those same investments—in mental health services, adequate and affordable housing, public schools—can go hand in hand with environmental policy. Climate grief is real, and people will need more access to mental health counseling. People who are unhoused face disproportionate risk from climate disasters. Public schools can become a place to foster the environmental leaders of tomorrow.
There are other connections between police violence and environmental justice, too. Dr. Julie Sze, a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, has written about the death of Eric Garner, whom New York City police officers killed in 2014. His last words—”I can’t breathe”—became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. In his case, the asthma he developed from the city’s poor air quality exacerbated the impact of the chokehold his killers used. He faced years of slow violence at the hands of air pollution to, then, die by direct violence from the police.
Sze also pointed to the 2016 Standing Rock movement in North Dakota as another example of how these issues relate. There, Indigenous activists were fighting to stop the construction of an oil pipeline on their sacred lands. They and their allies regularly faced standoffs with police who were there not to protect the people at risk—but the property of a private energy company. National media turned its attention to the situation only after police sicced dogs on water protectors.
“The right kind of resistance is peaceful because that’s where we win.”
“It’s shocking to me that nobody was killed at Standing Rock,” Sze said. “It was random luck that it didn’t happen, but it obviously could have.”
Across the globe, environmentalists are regularly killed—sometimes, at the hands of the state. Now, this tragic pattern has come to mark U.S. soil, too.
Police exist primarily to protect existing structures and institutions. They are deployed to defend the exploitation of the land’s resources—like what is happening in Atlanta. When people attempt to tear down the status quo and defend the land, the state rolls out its police force to shut resistance down. This isn’t new; this is the norm.
In 2020, many environmental groups issued statements of solidarity with those calling to defund, reform, or abolish the police. In the aftermath of Tortuguita’s death, environmental groups focused on climate and environmental justice (such as the Climate Justice Alliance, Hip Hop Caucus, and Honor the Earth) have spoken out, but only a handful of mainstream environmental groups (also known as the Big Greens) have done the same.
“We join the cries of solidarity with Tortuguita and others who have been killed while standing up to climate destruction and police violence,” said in a statement Ebony Twilley Martin, Greenpeace USA co-executive director. “Defending our environmental rights should never end with getting killed by those very police who have been sent to protect us.”
The Sunrise Movement tweeted out: “We deserve peace, safety, and justice. That means stopping cop city and defunding the police.” The Center for Biological Diversity called Tortuguita’s death “an unprecedented attack on the U.S. environmental movement.” Rainforest Action Network also has spoken out that it stands “in solidarity” with activists on the ground. “We must strive together to stop violence against the earth and people living on it,” read a statement from Food and Water Watch. The Climate Action Network, Rising Tide North America, and Natural Resources Defense Council have also responded in support of the Atlanta activists.
More locally, the Georgia Sierra Club chapter spoke out, too. “A protester who was dedicated to defending a forest that is critical to the health of our communities has been killed,” read a tweet attributed to Interim Director Gina Webber. “Shame on our leaders for letting this happen. The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter remains steadfastly opposed to this project.”
A number of other groups—like 350.org and Extinction Rebellion—have endorsed a statement from local organizers with Defend the Atlanta Forest. Some key groups remain missing as of publishing time, however, including The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, and World Wildlife Fund.
The environmental movement is made up of dozens of groups. Their silence is deafening. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri has called for an independent investigation, but where is everyone else? Where is the public outcry? Why aren’t people more upset? Where is justice for Tortuguita?
Their family has set up a GoFundMe you can donate to here.