On the morning of January 18, agents from nine agencies, including the FBI and its local counterpart, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, descended on a section of Atlanta’s South River Forest occupied by activists. For the past two years, hundreds had lived in the section of the Weelaunee forest, in tents and treehouses, in order to block its planned conversion into a police training facility—a “Cop City” complete with a mock village, firing ranges, and a Black Hawk landing pad. That morning, the agents were under orders to “eliminate the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center of criminal activity.”
It is still unclear why the task force opened fire. But after 12 shots rang out, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita (or “Little Turtle”), a young, nonbinary forest defender of Afro-Venezuelan and Indigenous ancestry, had been hit and killed.
Terán’s death marks the fifth protest fatality at the hands of US law enforcement since the start of the George Floyd rebellion in May 2020: David “Ya Ya” McAtee was killed by a National Guardsman’s bullet in Louisville, Ky., on June 1, 2020; Sean Monterrosa was gunned down by undercover police in Vallejo, Calif., the very next day. Michael Reinoehl and Winston “Boogie” Smith Jr., both antifascists, were hunted down and “neutralized” by US Marshals within months of each other. And it’s not just protesters: In the past month, the police have killed Terán, Tyre Nichols, and Keenan Anderson
This latest wave of police killings comes on the heels of the most lethal year on record for police-civilian encounters. Yet the response of the political class has been to capitulate to right-wing scare tactics and inflated claims of a crime wave, effectively writing a blank check for police violence.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between centrist and conservative talking points: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution can read like the lurid headlines of the New York Post, with their condemnation of “police abolitionists, environmental extremists, and anarchists.” Talking heads at Fox News, in between segments like “Antifa Is Ravaging America,” have been using leading Democrats to make their point that the tree-sit protests amount to acts of terror. All of this has made strange bedfellows of centrist Democrats and MAGA Republicans who, in a rare show of unity, have been loudly calling for a clampdown on “out-of-control crime” and beating the drum for “law and order.”
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Right-wing talking points notwithstanding, the current landscape for protest policing is one that’s been shaped by the legacy of segregation, Southern lynch law, and centuries of slavery. As such, it is structurally skewed in favor of the police—and, according to multiple studies, systematically biased against Black Lives Matter and the political left. The bias is so extreme that officers are fully “three times more likely to use force on left-wing protesters than on right-wing ones.”
And when it comes to deadly force, the doctrine of qualified immunity, recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, means that an officer can effectively shoot to kill without consequences. In a context of renewed protest and possible civil unrest, current US law enforcement strategy, as we saw in Terán’s fatal shooting, makes escalation almost inevitable, de-escalation unthinkable, and lethal outcomes ever more likely for those at the receiving end of state violence.
But several mechanisms work together to create these conditions. The first is a military-style chain of command that sees itself at war with enemies domestic and foreign. This hierarchy leaves little room for ambiguity as to who was responsible for the killing of Terán: the commanding officers who gave the orders, the agencies that employed them, and the elected officials who deployed them against the forest defenders. Governor Brian Kemp has been leading the charge, vowing to “bring the full force of state and local law enforcement down on those trying to bring about a radical agenda” and calling for “swift and exact justice” aimed at “ending their activities.”
Georgia’s governor has since gone one step further, declaring a state of emergency and calling up to 1,000 members of the National Guard, who, according to the declaration, “shall have the same powers of arrest and apprehension as do law enforcement officers.” A similar state of exception was in effect when David McAtee and Sean Monterrosa were executed by a National Guardsman and an undercover policeman, respectively, in June 2020.
Another link in the chain is the pipeline between the military and the police, whereby the tools, tactics, technologies, and advanced weaponry from America’s counterinsurgency wars overseas are imported, requisitioned, and reinvented for use on civilian populations here at home. The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which has experienced something of a revival under the Trump and Biden administrations, is partly responsible for this military supply chain, equipping local law enforcement with a seemingly limitless supply of “less-lethal” munitions, high-powered rifles, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, and full-spectrum battle equipment. Cop City itself represents a prime example of this failed approach to public safety.
Other military tools and tactics are brought to the police by way of programs like the private-sector Law Enforcement Charitable Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative, or the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, headquartered in Glynco, Ga. And yet studies now show that while militarization increases the risk of loss of life, it has little to no observable effect on measures of crime or safety.
And it’s not just a matter of surplus supply. It is also a question of political demand: Who has an interest in building Cop City, in the process displacing DeKalb County’s Black communities, and empowering the police to use deadly force to evict the forest defenders and end the protests? It’s not the people of Atlanta. During a public comment period after the mayor announced the plan to build the training facility, nearly 70 percent of the 1,166 responders expressed opposition to it.
All signs point to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF): a private-public partnership that’s been a driving force behind Cop City and a major player in local politics. Its executive board is a veritable who’s who of corporate power and inherited wealth. Last year, the foundation expended large sums of its donors’ money lobbying for police expansion.
Another leading partner in the land grab is Ryan Millsap, the former owner of Blackhall Studios (now Shadowbox Studios) and real estate tycoon who is “ideologically” aligned with the project because of his “deep respect for private property.” Millsap and the corporation Blackhall Real Estate Phase II, LLC, plans to turn another 40 acres of the forest into what demonstrators have called a “Hollywood dystopia.” Millsap has likened the protests to “organized crime,” while APF (formerly Coca-Cola) spokesman Rob Baskin has called them a “fringe group” that has “routinely resorted to violence and intimidation” against “police officers [and] executives from construction companies.” Between Blackhall and the Fortune 500 firms that make up the board of the APF, the donor class has been unabashed in its incessant demand for a heavier hand.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security appears to be engaged in Georgia in a similar strategy, conflating tree-sits with terrorist acts, local activists with “outside agitators,” and environmentalism with “homegrown extremism.” It doesn’t appear to matter whether the persons of interest are armed or unarmed, sitting in a treehouse or sowing chaos in the streets: As the domestic terrorism charges against the Atlanta 19 reveal, the treatment is effectively one and the same. Atlanta’s assistant police chief, Carven Tyus, has admitted in private meetings with his advisory council, “Can we prove they did it? No. Do we know they did it? Yes.”
We do not know exactly how or under what pretext the task force opened fire. One of the tactical officers involved was injured during the raid, but in the absence of body camera footage—or of any independent inquiry whatsoever—we may never learn the full story of what went down that day. But we are obliged to name the shooting of Terán for what it was: an extrajudicial execution, carried out by hired men armed with military assault weapons, paramilitary training, and qualified immunity from prosecution—in other words, a death squad in all but the name.