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A protester was shot dead while opposing a $90m Atlanta ‘Cop City’ training centre. What went wrong?

Police haven’t released body camera footage of slaying, writes Josh Marcus

Monday 23 January 2023 23:29 GMT

Activists across Atlanta held vigils and other events throughout the weekend in honour of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, 26, a protester who was fatally shot by police on Wednesday during an operation evicting demonstrators protesting the construction of a $90m police training centre in an area forest.

The killing was the latest escalation in a long-simmering protest movement that has exposed deep divisions within the city on questions of policing, protest, and race.

Terán, known by fellow activists as Tortuguita, was killed in Wednesday, as a multi-agency task force moved into the South River Forest to clear out the encampments of protesters who have been fighting the so-called “Cop City” project since 2021.

The forest protester “was a kind, passionate, and loving person, cherished by their community,” according to a Twitter post from the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a local group.

“They spent their time between Atlanta, defending the forest from destruction and coordinating mutual aid for the movement and Florida, where they helped build housing in low income communities hit hardest by the hurricane,” the group added.

Georgia officials say Terán fired unprovoked on officers after failing to comply with commands, while many in the community say this account is false or questionable.

Belkis Terán, the slain activist’s mother, said her child was a peaceful person.

“He was not a violent person. He was a pacifist. He would tell me that all the time … He wouldn’t even kill an animal,” she told CNN on Sunday. “I want to stand up. I want to raise his voice. I’d like to help the conservationists to find a way to stop Cop City.”

Locals say they have reason to doubt the official police version of events.

“We have reason to believe the officer shot today was hit by ‘friendly fire’ and not by the protester who was killed,” Defend the Atlanta Forest wrote on Twitter following the incident.

“To our knowledge so far, we find it less than likely that the police version of events is what really happened,” local organiser Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders told Democracy Now!. “The idea that he was sitting in a tent and fired out of the tent at basically a SWAT team.”

“Resident say they hear a blast off gunshots all at once, not one blast then a return of fire,” Mr Kamau continued.

Activist groups have called for officials to release the name of the officers involved in the shooting, as well as body camera footage of what happened.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, whose officers were involved in the taskforce raid where the shooting took place, will investigate the death of the activist, Fox 5 Atlanta reports.

Seven others were arrrested on Wednesday on domestic terrorism charges in the raid that killed Terán, Fox 5 reports: Geoffrey Parsons, 20, of Maryland; Spencer Bernard Liberto, 29, of Pennsylvania; Matthew Ernest Macar, 30, of Pennsylvania; Timothy Murphy, 25, of Maine; Christopher Reynolds, 31, of Ohio; Teresa Shen, 31, of New York; and Sarah Wasilewski, 35, of Pennsylvania.

"They were arrested on bogus charges of domestic terrorism just for being in the woods," an anonymous demonstrator told the network at protests occuring outside the jail where the seven were being held last week. Terán was "the only Black or brown person in the forest. The cops killed the only Black or brown person in the forest. They arrested the people who were not Black of brown. This is racism in action here." 

The $90m Atlanta Public Safety Training Center project, slated to open later this year, is paid for jointly by the city of Atlanta and the private Atlanta Police Foundation, which counts as donors and board members major corporations like Amazon, Chick-fil-A, and Delta Airlines.

The facility, which is expected to feature a “mock village” with a full fake nightclub and convenience store for training scenarios, has attracted widespread local opposition, from groups ranging from civil rights protesters and environmentalists to native groups, who argue the facility is the latest reminder of how the Muscogee Creek were violently pushed off the forest land in the 1800s.

The city began developing plans for the site, near a former prison labour farm, without much community consultation, according to urbanist Ryan Gravel, who helped develop the city’s iconic BeltLine.

“Nobody in the public knew about it,” Mr Gravel told Atlanta magazine. “There was no process.”

The shooting has reminded some local residents of the long history of police violence against people of colour in the city.

Atlanta’s population is about half Black and half white, but over 85 per cent of the people killed by police in the city since 2013 have been Black, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.

“I was born and raised in Atlanta, and I lived in Lakewood when Rayshard Brooks was killed,” a protester who goes by the pseudonym Bunny told Rolling Stone. “For Tortuguita to be killed not even three years later just rips open healing wounds.”

Brooks, 27, was shot in the summer of 2020 in the parking lot of a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, not long after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd.

Like the Floyd case, Brooks’s death was caught on video, and showed officer Garrett Rolfe fire his handgun three times into Brooks’s back as he ran away from a routine police check about a suspicious vehicle.

Both killings helped fuel the nationwide racial justice protests that summer, setting the stage for the ongoing Defend the Atlanta Forest movement.

Five others were arrested late last year for their participation in the forest movement.

And the tension looks set to continue in the city.

On Saturday evening, six people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, arson, criminal damage, and interference with government property, following protests about the shooting.

In addition to numerous people who turned out in peaceful protest, a police car was reportedly set on fire during the demonstrations.

“It was peaceful, but there were some individuals within that crowd that meant violence,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said following the arrests. “We love to support people when they’re doing right, peaceful protests are part of the American freedoms. But when you are violent, we will make sure that you get held accountable.”

Sean Wolters, part of the Defend the Atlanta Forest coalition, told CNN some property damage paled in comparison to “a level of extreme escalation by the police.”

“Why are we even talking about a few windows really, when we should be focused on the life of (Terán) and what he stood for and investigating what happened to him independently?” Mr Wolters told CNN.

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