February 27, 2024

At a gathering Thursday, the mother of an activist killed by police had a clear message on the first anniversary of their death: “I have news for you. Manuel is alive. Tortuguita vive!”

It was a message of celebration for the life of Manuel Paez Terán, also known as “Tortuguita”, that was being made in Atlanta and more than 30 cities across the US, a sign of the slain activist’s enduring impact on several movements, observers said.

Police killed Tortuguita 18 January of last year while the activist was sleeping in a forested public park south-east of Atlanta, in protest against the building of a police and fire department training center nearby known as “Cop City”. It was the first such incident in US history.

On Thursday, there were vigils, panels, film screenings, church services and altars built under trees at sunset, in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Tucson and other cities. Many of the events were billed as “Day of the Forest Defender”.

Paez Terán’s mother, Belkis Terán, came from Panama to speak at two ceremonies in Atlanta. “I know there are more people celebrating in many places. We are celebrating his life,” she said.

Atlanta mourners repeatedly referred to those who could not be there due to the chilling effect of felony Rico, or conspiracy, charges leveled against 61 people in connection with opposition to the training center. The case is historic for the sheer number of activists accused of belonging to a criminal conspiracy. The movement is motivated by concerns about police use of force and consolidation of power, and protection of forests in an era of climate change, among other issues.

The number and range of events dedicated to remembering Tortuguita on Thursday suggest that the activist, who was 26, has “become a symbol not only for the fight against Cop City, but in the fight against police violence in general, and for the environmental movement”, said Dan Berger, a historian of social movements.

Tortuguita was one of less than two dozen activists camped last year in Intrenchment Creek Park, about a mile from the City of Atlanta-owned Cop City site, as part of an attempt to defend the forest from the and from plans to turn over part of the park to a private developer.

The number of “forest defenders” had been greatly reduced in the weeks before the January raid carried out by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, due in part to a previous raid in December, and to the winter weather. Georgia state troopers came upon Tortuguita’s tent and wound up shooting at least 14 bullets, leaving 57 gunshot wounds and killing Paez Terán almost instantly, according to government and private autopsies.

The state subsequently claimed that the activist fired a gun, and concluded in early October that the Georgia state troopers who killed Tortuguita were not at fault. The troopers were not wearing body cameras, but officers from other agencies who were nearby did record sounds and images. Only some of those videos have been released, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation refuses to release the others and the rest of their investigative file, claiming the file must remain closed while the Rico case proceeds.

people embrace behind poster of smiling man
Family members of Paez Terán embrace at a news conference in March in Decatur, Georgia. Photograph: Alex Slitz/AP

Meanwhile, the movement against Cop City has continued, now in its fourth year, and has included such efforts as gathering more than 100,000 signatures on a petition to let Atlanta voters decide if they want at least $67m in taxpayer funds spent on the project. The city has refrained from counting and validating the signatures due to an ongoing court case. Historic numbers of residents have attended Atlanta city council meetings in opposition to the project, with one drawing nearly a thousand. There have also been ongoing acts of vandalism against construction equipment and companies linked to the training center.

On Thursday morning at Park Ave Baptist Church, the Rev Keyanna Jones, one of several Black preachers involved in the movement, began events in Atlanta by reminding mourners “we come here with heavy hearts – but we have hope, because the person we are here to honor had hope”.

A message was read from Victor Puertas, an Indigenous, Peruvian-born activist now facing Rico charges who is being held in Stewart detention center, an immigration prison in Georgia. “I just want to say Tortuguita is alive,” the statement read.

Another was read from a defendant who wrote that she was “more than a thousand miles away, unable to return to Georgia – one of many defendants isolated from the community by court order”. Still, she continued, “[e]ven though many of us can’t be here today to grieve, we still carry Tortuguita with us, in our hearts”.

A woman who had driven about 90 miles from Macon stood up to tell the 60 or so gathered: “Everyone here is so brave.” She spoke about her granddaughter, who was inspired by Tortuguita to became a street medic, something the activist had done. The woman’s granddaughter is now also one of one of the 61 indicted; her bond conditions also prohibited her from attending the event.

Later, around sunset, a larger crowd assembled around a pair of pine trees in a park near the forest where Tortuguita was killed. Mourners placed photos, candles, flowers and drawings at the base of the large trunks, an altar for the moment.

A musician named Matt Rivers sang an anthem he had written with the chorus: “For every tree that’s felled, there’s a cop that’s going to hell / For every martyr slain so grows the flame.”

In lower Manhattan’s historic Tompkins Square Park, mourners made their altar at the foot an elm tree, “a survivor and endangered species around which many movements have gathered”, wrote one person online.

People in Atlanta recalled how Paez Terán served as a self-appointed ambassador to the forest, welcoming many who showed up there throughout 2022, as word of the ongoing protest spread. Tortuguita, who used they as a pronoun, transmitted optimism and joy. Once, a fellow forest defender remembered, Tortuguita came upon a tree that police had knocked down to destroy a tree house. “Now I have materials to build another tree house,” they said.

Other US environmental activists have been killed before, noted Will Potter, the author of Green Is the New Red, a book about the federal government’s legal campaigns against animal rights and environmental groups such as Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front, in the 1990s and 2000s.

He mentioned David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain, part of Earth First!, who died in 1998 after a logger felled a tree on him. In the case of Tortuguita, he said, the difference has been the “media exposure, helping create a sustained momentum and organizing around Cop City to memorialize Tortuguita – to remember what they stood for, and what’s at stake, really”.

Belkis Terán spoke several times on Thursday of another aspect of Tortuguita’s legacy she hopes to create – the “Tortuguita Healing Center”, a place for “forest defenders” worldwide she plans on building in Panama, where she lives. She recently received a $30,000 donation toward buying the forested land where the center will be located.

“This would be unprecedented” in the environmental movement, Potter said. “We have seen over and over the toll defending forests takes on activists due to state repression, and this could make a big difference”.

At the end of the Atlanta vigil, a statement was read from Vienna, Tortuguita’s girlfriend. She wrote how complex Tortuguita was, both angry and silly, social and withdrawn – and how “the state wishes to vilify Tort, making them into the monster of a violent extremist that justifies their assassination and shows ‘proof’ of our anti-state tendencies”.

“Tort was my second love after the forest itself”, she continued. “They were everything and nothing that has been said”.

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