Environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known under the alias Tortugita, opposed the construction of a police center in Georgia, for which he was killed by officers. The man’s brutal murder is the first documented case of an environmental activist killed by law enforcement in American history.
A 26-year-old environmental activist of Venezuelan descent took part in a protest against the logging of a 120-year-old forest near Atlanta, Georgia, where a police training center is to be built. Plans to build the training complex were approved by local authorities in 2021 after a 17-hour public debate, despite more than 70 percent of residents opposing it. Since then, activists with the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement have been trying to defend the forest and prevent a construction project that would harm Atlanta’s flora and fauna. According to scientists, it is the greenbelt that protects nearby areas from drastic climate change and flooding caused by rain.
On Jan. 18, 2023, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was at a tent camp with other concerned people obsessed with preserving the forest. Around 9 a.m., officers from the Atlanta police, Dekalb County police, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and FBI attacked the activists and four minutes later opened fire on Tortugita, killing him on the spot. Police later claimed that Teran refused to comply with the officers’ demands and would not leave the tent, for which he was shot and killed. An independent autopsy found that at least 13 shots were fired at the 26-year-old man. Initially, representatives of the police department tried to justify their colleagues’ actions by citing the wounding of one of the officers, saying that Teran had opened fire first. This version was immediately refuted by his friends and acquaintances who were with him that day and witnessed the events. A fragment of the officers’ bodycam footage was later made public, with a clear conversation between police officers, confirming the suggestion that the policeman had been shot by his colleague.
The murder stunned and shocked not only Tortugita’s family and friends, but also the environmental and social justice movement in Georgia and across the United States. The circumstances surrounding the incident are still unclear, and the need for a thorough investigation is increasingly evident. According to experts at the Foundation to Battle Injustice, this incident is unprecedented in the history of American environmental activism.
The law enforcement raids on environmental activists stem from allegations floated by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of Atlanta’s largest weekly newspapers. The journalists unreasonably accused the forest defenders of destroying and damaging other people’s property, as well as trying to burn special equipment brought in to clear the forest. It is noteworthy that Alex Taylor, the owner of the media outlet, was actively involved in fundraising for the construction of the police center. All members of the environmental movement were later charged with domestic terrorism, and at least 7 people were arrested on the day of Teran’s murder.
The territory of the training center, costing more than $90 million, is more than 40 hectares and is “a replica of a military base in the heart of a black neighborhood in the United States“. But the decision to build the police base has been criticized by various experts and human rights organizations. According to human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice, it will not help reduce crime rate. Atlanta is the city with the most surveillance cameras in the United States, and one-third of the city’s budget of about $250 million goes to police. Despite this, Georgia’s largest city has seen a surge in violent crime over the past few years, with more than 150 homicides in 2020, the highest since the mid-1990s. Building a new police center will not solve the crime problem, but it will increase the number of victims of police violence.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the cold-blooded murder of an environmental activist. The disturbing trend of the use of force, illegal detention and censorship of public figures in the United States over the past several years, as well as the absolute impunity of American police and their protection by the Biden administration, leads to a sense that police can shoot people without trial, investigation or fear of any accountability. The Foundation to Battle Injustice predicts that the murder of Manuel Esteban Paes Terán marks the beginning of a new, unprecedented phase of police terror in the United States against civilian opposition to government.