One of the big questions of the crackdown on the “Cop City” protests in Atlanta is what exactly happened to Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, possibly the first environmental activist ever killed by US police. After police in January raided the encampments of protesters who had spent nearly a year battling a $90 million police training center planned in what’s meant to be preserved forest, Terán was found dead, with law enforcement claiming Terán had fired a gun at them, forcing them to shoot back in self-defense.
But new evidence has challenged that narrative over the past month or so, with the results of the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s autopsy of Terán released last week revealing their body had been riddled with at least fifty-seven gunshot wounds. The autopsy also revealed no gunpowder residue on Terán’s hands. While gunshot residue is absent on the shooter in a minority of cases and doesn’t by itself disprove the police’s claims, it casts further doubt on law enforcement’s version of events.
These doubts were already present after the March release of a second, independent autopsy report commissioned by Terán’s family. While making no conclusion about whether or not they were holding a firearm at any point, that autopsy did conclude Terán had likely been sitting cross-legged when they were shot, and that at some point they’d raised their arms up and in front of themself, palms facing their body, all of which clashed further with law enforcement’s version of events.
That version, outlined in use of force incident reports, contends that as police were clearing the tents of the “protesters/domestic terrorists” — as one officer referred to the activists — an individual inside one of the tents refused to leave. The police shot pepper balls into the tent, goes law enforcement’s version of events, prompting a volley of gunfire from inside of the tent striking one officer, leading police to open fire, killing Terán. Officers said they found a handgun in Terán’s tent whose bullets they matched up to the one that hit the officer, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation later released transaction records showing Terán had legally bought the gun.
But from the start, activists who were there during the incident have said they only heard one set of shots. The officers responsible for the shooting weren’t wearing body cameras, while the bodycam footage that has been released, from police who weren’t involved in the incident, has also cast doubt on the police narrative. One officer mutters that “you fucked your own officer up,” while another asks, “Did they shoot their own man?” When the shooting starts, an officer asks if “they’re shooting at us,” while another replies, “Nah, that sounded like suppressed gunfire” — meaning, it was the police shooting.
Meanwhile, the autopsy reports give a disturbingly visceral outline of just how violent the officers’ shooting spree was. The DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s report on Terán describes a body riddled with bullets, with gunshot wounds in their head, chest, both arms, hands, thighs, and legs, as well as their hip, pelvis, and scrotum. The independent autopsy report stated that it was next to impossible to accurately distinguish every distinct wound, since “many of the wound tracks within his body converge, coalesce and intersect.” The case has now been transferred to the Mountain Judicial Circuit district attorney, who was named as the special prosecutor.
Terán’s death is just one controversy in a saga full of them. At least just as alarming as the possibility of the extrajudicial killing of a nonviolent protester is the treatment of dozens of Cop City activists, by both the Georgian state government and federal bodies like the FBI, as “terrorists.” Twenty-three of the protesters are being charged under the state’s domestic terrorism statute, facing thirty-five years’ jail time if they’re convicted, with eight of them denied bond. Twenty-one of them don’t even live in Georgia.
Chillingly, they’re facing these charges despite the fact that, excluding the trooper allegedly shot by the now-deceased Terán, police themselves don’t claim there was any human bodily harm that resulted from the protests — just damage to windows and construction equipment. But that doesn’t matter, since Georgia’s domestic terrorism law was changed in 2017 from encompassing crimes “intended or reasonably likely to injure or kill not less than ten individuals” to crimes intended to harm or kill people or destroy “critical infrastructure” as a way of forcing political change. This change was made following the mass murder of black churchgoers by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015 over the objections of civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which warned, prophetically it seems, that it would be used to suppress law-abiding Americans’ First Amendment rights.
Despite this, the ongoing campaign to bring the disastrous “war on terror” home to the domestic front is continuing — and it’s being pushed by misguided liberals as much as by the Right. Ostensibly aiming to target far-right and anti-government militia groups in the state, Democrats in Oregon have been pushing a bill alarmingly similar to Georgia’s broadly repressive domestic terrorism law. The Oregon bill defines domestic terrorism as, among other things, intending to cause “the disruption of services provided by critical infrastructure” — a term that explicitly encompasses roads and fossil fuel pipelines — by destroying or “substantially” damaging it. Once again, rights groups, environmentalists, and others are warning that such a law could easily be used against law-abiding protesters and left-wing groups, but it’s not clear yet if these alarm bells will make any more difference than they did in Georgia.
We’ll have to wait and see to find out what comes of the investigation into Terán’s death. But if things stay as they are — with little progress on police accountability under a Democratic government, the steady march of the criminalization of protest, and nonexistent liberal pushback against a new war on terror that’s now sold as a counterweight to the far right — the events in Atlanta may well be less of an exception and more a sign of things to come.