Environmentalist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán’s death is part of a disturbing trend

Steven Donziger

What happened in Atlanta is clearly part of a dangerous trend of US law enforcement attacking climate leaders

Thu 2 Feb 2023 06.11 EST

M anuel Esteban Paez Terán, a brave environmentalist known as Tortuguita was shot and killed by the police on January 18 as he encamped in a forest he and other activists have been trying to defend from being razed and turned into an enormous $90m “urban warfare” style police academy. This tragedy is an obscene escalation in the decades long war the United States has been waging on climate activists.

What’s even more troubling is the lack of contrition exhibited by the state that is responsible for his death. Since Tortuguita’s murder, the governor of Georgia, the police, and their allies, the pro-corporate courts, have doubled down. Seven of the surviving protesters from Atlanta have been arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism” following the fatal shooting of their comrade by the police.

This terrifying escalation lays bare the opposition between the violent corporate-backed police and those who attempt to curb their takeover of our planet. The $90m facility on 85 acres is funded with the help of The Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit that helps fund policing through partnerships with private corporations. Its board of trustees is made up of Home Depot, Delta and Wells Fargo executives.

The Georgia Police have claimed that they arrived in the forest to “clear” the protesters and “returned fire in self-defense” when someone “without warning shot a Georgia State Patrol Trooper.” Though the police who stormed the area were wearing body cams there is no footage to be shared. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said that “although we have bodycam footage from the day of the operation, we do not have bodycam footage of the shooting incident. The law enforcement officers wearing bodycam were not close enough to the shooting itself to capture it.” Local organizers who knew the Tortuguita and were at the site of the shooting have called the police story of events into question, and reject the idea that there was a back-and-forth of shots, having heard all the shots at once coming from the same direction.

This terrifying escalation lays bare the conflict between the corporate-backed police and those who are trying to save a precious forest

Teran’s tragic death could easily have been avoided. Dozens of militarized police with armored vehicles akin to tanks invaded the forest searching for people they had been told were “terrorists”. In reality, the people in the forest were camping out in hammocks and tents as acts of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is how our nation was founded. Even if one does believe the police’s version of events, at a minimum, the overwhelmingly armed, militarized, and menacing Swat team that showed up to clear the area of protesters provoked the very reaction the police could then cite to justify this completely unnecessary escalatory operation.

What happened in Atlanta is clearly part of a dangerous trend of wholesale escalation and violence by US law enforcement, courts, and the fossil fuel industry to attack leaders of the climate movement. What starts with a private prosecution of climate lawyers, grows to “domestic terrorism” charges leveled against peaceful protestors like Water Protector Jessica Reznicek who is serving a draconian 8-year sentence for “terrorism” after vandalizing a pipeline. The FBI terrorism task force turned its attention toward protesters protesting against the Standing Rock pipeline. Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry is lining the coffers of police departments, as in the payment of millions to police agencies in Minnesota by oil company Enbridge, which helped fund the arrest of protestors at the company’s Line 3 pipeline.

In Atlanta we have seven people in the US charged with “terrorism” for peacefully engaging in the great American tradition of civil disobedience. The charges against them go to elaborate lengths to tie the group Defend the Atlanta Forest to minor acts of so-called violence (possessing a pellet gun) that harmed no person and are highly questionable. Police affidavits submitted in court in DeKalb County claim one activist committed “domestic terrorism” because he was “occupying a tree house” in the forest while posting videos on social media. This all feels like the House Un-American Activities Committee of Joe McCarthy as applied to the climate movement.

Global Witness recently reported that 1,700 climate activists around the world have been murdered in the last 10 years; nobody ever thought such a thing could happen in the US. I hope that’s not what happened.

We must watch this closely, grieve for the fallen, support those facing over-hyped “terrorism” charges, and support the Atlanta campaign to save the forest and stop the police training complex.

  • Steven Donziger is a human rights and environmental lawyer. He is also a Guardian US columnist.

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