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The Killing of a Forest Defender and the 1st Amendment

The Killing of a Forest Defender and the 1st Amendment

On January 18th, an activist who went by Tortuguita was shot and killed by Georgia State Police. Tortuguita, or Tort, was killed while in the Weelaunee Forest in Atlanta, as part of long-term efforts to protect said forest and prevent the construction of a police training facility on the land. We haven't talked much–if at all–about this subject though it has been ongoing and been on my mind.

Manuel Teran–Forest name Tortuguita–was a beloved and thoughtful activist who spent much of their time working to improve the lot of others, and to defend the Weelaunee Forest. While this is not the first time police raids in the area turned violent, it is the first time in a long time that an environmental activist has been killed by the state. Tort was an avowed pacifist, and the police narrative that Tort shot first is one upon which we should push back.

The murder of an activist like Tortuguita is enough reason for alarm, but it underscores an ongoing movement in this country by police and the state ever rightward and toward a more authoritarian apparatus. In another raid just days before the one that killed Tort, six forest defenders were arrested and have been charged with domestic terrorism. To be clear–these people were not fighting back against the police, they were simply engaged (at the moment) in passive occupation of the Weelaunee. And they are not the only ones who have had such charges levied against them. In a protest that followed Tort's murder, six more activists were arrested–seemingly at random and without evidence–related to property damage and the combustion of a police vehicle during said protest. All six were also charged with domestic terror and a slate of charges related to supposed crimes that had occurred that day, whether they committed them or not.

Cop City

In the wake of the George Floyd uprising and its calls for the defunding and abolition of police, the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center was proposed. It's an innocuous name for a nefarious place; called "Cop City" by activists, the 85-acre facility is to be set in the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, which is as bad as it sounds, in the middle of the Weelaunee (or South River) Forest. It earned the moniker Cop City due to the proposed inclusion of a mock cityscape, meant to help train police officers in urban combat. The center also includes an explosive testing area, a helicopter pad, multiple shooting ranges, and a stretch of road for high speed chase simulations.

Activists suspect–I think rightly so–that Cop City will be a training facility for cops from around the country to learn how to fight the future battles of a militarized police force; principally against organized protests. Why else would police, who have no need to serve warrants to multiple building occupants at a time, need a replica cityscape? Do they expect to fight an entire cartel down Main Street? No. I mean, they might–cops are not smart and generally frightened of things. But no.

The increased militarization of police, and the construction of Cop City in particular, furthers the notion we already know to be true: the police are an occupying force in this country. But that's not where the problem ends. Cop City is more than enough reason to be mad, and the killing of Tortuguita is certainly an outrage and a tragedy, but all these things are indicative of something more, in my opinion.

By charging protesters with domestic terrorism, by passing laws that remove civil liability for striking protesters with vehicles, by choosing to ignore the provocations of the far right while attacking and arresting protesters on the left, the United States (and particular states moreso) is choosing to suffocate an extremely important part of the 1st Amendment. The story, of course, does not begin or end in the Weelaunee Forest. It began quite a long time ago, but it's expressed these days every time someone like Biden says that violence has no place in protest. Now, I think asking for a national definition of the word violence is probably a bridge too far, but when the media and politicians define violence as broken windows while cops murder people with impunity, we have reached an impasse.

The state, even in the hands of the so-called left, will make moves to encroach on our right to protest. Governor Kemp, of Georgia–a supposedly reasonable member of the GOP–called for a state of emergency days after the protest that saw the burning of a police vehicle and other property damage. 1,000 National Guard troops have been activated. Woven into this decision is, more than likely, worry over further protests following the brutal beating and murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, video of which is expected to be released soon at the time of this writing. I won't go into detail on this matter here, as it's simply disrespectful to append it so.

But choosing to enact a state of emergency days after a protest–one that follows months of police interactions, other protests, and actions by activists and the state alike–is a power play, not a move to increase safety. When I saw the National Guard on my streets following the heaviest days of the George Floyd uprising here in Ohio, I did not feel safer. I did not feel as though those soldiers were there for my protection. And they aren't there for the safety of Georgians, either.

Charging protesters and activists with domestic terrorism on the backs of simple misdemeanors is an open flex of power, meant only to chill further protests and acts of free speech. The grand total of those arrested and charged with terrorism up to this point, by the way, is nineteen, and if you were to look into the actions these forest defenders and other activists have taken, you would be hard pressed to squint and find anything remotely like terrorism. Some of the warrants delineate crimes that are terrorism as "sitting in a tree," "sleeping in the forest," and, most disturbingly, being "known members" of a "prison abolition movement." This is not meant to hold up in court–though some charges may, given the state of our courts–only to arrest the movement in the literal sense.

If we can be told to go home, coerced into fleeing, arrested, beaten, killed, and charged with terrorism for protesting, then we don't really have the right to protest. We have the government's temporary approval to protest, to be revoked at any time. In much the same way that a citizen–so often Black–can lawfully carry a firearm in this country and be murdered for doing so signifies we don't truly have a 2nd Amendment, this is indicative of a push to strike the 1st.