- Interview by
- Tadhg Larabee
On January 18, Georgia State Patrol troopers murdered Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a nonbinary Afro-Venezuelan activist who went by the name “Tortuguita.” An independent autopsy concluded that Tortuguita had been shot more than a dozen times while they were sitting cross-legged with their hands up and their palms facing their body. Months later, the state’s autopsy established the precise number of shots, fifty-seven, and confirmed another key finding from the independent autopsy: Tortuguita had not fired a gun, as officers claimed. Their death was ruled a homicide.
Tortuguita’s killing is the most horrifying event to come out of the state’s suppression of the Stop Cop City movement, which has occupied the Weelaunee Forest in southeast Atlanta since late 2021 to protest a $90 million police training facility and a new movie studio, Blackhall, the city plans to build there. The facility earned the nickname “Cop City” because it is set to include a mock city block, where police could hone militarized tactics to deploy against a city that activists say is already the nation’s most surveilled.
As of this summer, the state has charged forty-two protesters with domestic terrorism and three Atlanta Solidarity Fund organizers with money laundering. In most cases, the evidence was comically flimsy: the protesters had mud on their clothes, apparently proof that they had vandalized construction equipment, and the solidarity fund had provided reimbursements for “totes,” “forest cleanup,” and “yard signs,” supposedly code for unspecified illegal items.
In April, Stop Cop City activist Charley Tennenbaum was distributing flyers in the neighborhood of Jonathan Salcedo, an officer involved in Tortuguita’s murder. When police stopped Tennenbaum (who is nonbinary), they say they had no idea that they were about to be thrown in jail, interviewed by the FBI, and charged with felony intimidation of a police officer and stalking — all for putting up flyers.
After a two-and-a-half-month incarceration that included stretches in twenty-four-hour isolation, Tennenbaum is currently out of jail and spoke to Jacobin assistant editor Tadhg Larabee about disenfranchisement in Atlanta, fighting back against the climate crisis, the free speech implications of their case, and the potential for them to serve up to twenty years in prison if convicted.
What drew you to the Stop Cop City movement?
Atlanta has been my home for the last decade. When this movement was beginning, it interested me because I saw just how many intersecting institutions and issues were coming together to create this perfect storm. You have stolen Muscogee land that was then a plantation, and that was then the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. And now they’re trying to make that into Cop City and Blackhall Studios.
These two megaprojects are threatening this area of land, which was recognized through city government and the parks and recreation department as a green space that was supposed to remain dedicated as such. It’s land that is immediately surrounded by a historically black, poor, and working-class neighborhood. Because this area is in unincorporated DeKalb County, it’s not represented on the city council. They don’t even get to have a say in this.
With climate change, the Weelaunee Forest is also essential ecological infrastructure. That area floods badly already. If the trees are removed, it will flood even more. If you look at future climate change migration models, Atlanta is one of the main places in the South where people are going to go. So what we do now really matters not just right now, but for the future of Atlanta.
What do you think that this massive investment in policing, if completed, would mean for the residents of the surrounding area and Atlanta more broadly?
This police training facility, otherwise known as Cop City, will have a fake apartment complex, a fake grocery store, a fake convenience store, a fake gas station — replicas of the spaces where many of us live and interact with each other in the city and on the streets. And this facility is designed to meet people who are trying to exercise their right to those streets in a way that is increasingly militarized and threatening, with police brutality already on the rise.
Cop City is a couple miles south of a university. And it’s in an extremely black lower- and middle-income area. That’s who they’re targeting with this immediate presence.
If you look at Atlanta more broadly, this is very connected with what’s happening in Buckhead in north Atlanta, a much higher-income neighborhood. In the past, when there were people on the streets demanding change, the people of Buckhead got scared, and so they’ve been threatening to secede from Atlanta. Part of Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens’s motivation to push for Cop City is to convince Buckhead to stay in Atlanta, because Buckhead residents are worried about crime and are incredibly important to the tax base.
So the project is not only doubling down on oppression, but also serving the interests of the higher class. At the same time, it serves private interests, as you see with the Atlanta Police Foundation, a powerful nonprofit that supports the Atlanta Police Department with donations from Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, and other large corporate sponsors. The Stop Cop City movement and the broader Defend Weelaunee Forest movement have really exposed the major forces that decide how we live together in cities — I think it’s important that we continue winning, because so much is at stake in Atlanta.
Talk about the specific circumstances of your arrest. What happened?
On April 28, two friends and I were on our way to go camping, and we had flyers to put in Jonathan Salcedo’s neighborhood to try to raise awareness for what he did on January 18, when he was involved in killing Tortuguita.
We were avoiding confrontation. My friend was driving, I was flyering, and our other friend chose nonparticipation. It was the middle of the day, we weren’t hiding, and I was doing my best to not break the law. Opening a mailbox is a felony, but putting things on the exterior of a mailbox is not illegal — so we did not open any mailboxes. We committed no acts of aggression. We had a fun time. We were just riding around, singing songs. It was a beautiful day.
When we were leaving town, an officer recognized our van, and we were detained for about an hour. The cops were on the fence about what action they wanted to take with us; one cop was like, I can understand how it’s [protected by the] First Amendment to speak about things like this, but you can’t do that in a neighborhood. I think that’s false — you can exercise your First Amendment rights in a neighborhood.
Then, one of the police officers got off the phone and said that the FBI wanted to talk to us, so we were being arrested. It was the FBI’s decision ultimately to bring us in.
We went through the intake process. We tried to settle in for what we knew was about to begin, but you can never really know. After we were held separately for a long time, I was asked to come to this other room where there was an FBI and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent. They did not identify themselves until I asked who they were. They wanted an interview with me.
The FBI agent tried to be intimidating, saying that I was facing serious charges. He would not explain what those charges were. And then he asked for my consent for an interview. I pointed out that I had no lawyer there, so I absolutely had zero interest in an interview. And then it was over.
At that point, it was unclear what was going to happen. We were still hopeful that it was going to be a quick turnaround.
Then I was brought to an isolation room, and it was not explained why. It was around midnight at this point; we were arrested around 4:30 p.m. When I woke up the next morning, it sunk in that I was in isolation. Normal isolation is twenty-three-hour lockdown with one hour of access to a kiosk, a phone, and socialization. But for some reason I was put in double isolation, which is twenty-four-hour lockdown, with twenty-four-hour lights. At no point did I resist arrest, and I complied with the medical intake requirements. I felt very targeted. As the days went by, no one would really give me information.
I was trying to file a grievance, because the Bartow County Jail’s inmate handbook says that if an inmate is in an area without access to a kiosk, then the inmate can request a paper grievance form from the guard on shift. When I asked for this form, the guard said she didn’t have to do that. After I went to medical, because I was having some health problems while I was in isolation, the guard took pity on me and looked it up and there was nothing entered in the system as to the reason for my being put in isolation. Isn’t that funny?
That Monday was our bond hearing, and we were all denied bond very quickly. The grounds for being granted bond were not even discussed; the magistrate judge just kicked the case up to the superior court level. I got sent back to isolation, with no information about when I would be getting released from there, if at all, which was very hard.
Eventually, I was brought into the general population. That meant that I had access to not only my support crew on the outside, but to people on the inside and much better living conditions, which made my time there more endurable. I did end up submitting a grievance on the kiosk asking why I was put in double isolation. Here’s what I was told: “The deputies were told to keep you separate from your codefendants. We were waiting until we were told it was all clear for you and your codefendants to be populated out of administrative segregation. They were just following orders.”
Administrative segregation is typically only for inmates who have done something violent; we could have all been put in the general population and kept separate. I will be bringing that up in my countersuit, because I think that that is cruel and unusual punishment, and there’s no justification that they can provide for why that was at all necessary.
The second bond hearing at the superior court level was then held on May 17, and my two codefendants were granted bond. I was not. State prosecutor John Fowler seemed very motivated to make me into a boogeyman, talking about the “dark web” and how I got reimbursed for some art supplies, which they portrayed as very dangerous.
In the state of Georgia, the rules of evidence don’t apply to bond hearings. So prosecutors can say things that are verifiably not true, as long as they string together a scary-sounding story. In particular, they claimed that Defend the Atlanta Forest is designated by the Department of Homeland Security as a domestic violent extremist organization. But the Department of Homeland Security has said — on paper, twice — that they’ve not designated it in any way.
That was the same claim cited in the warrant to raid the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which led to three arrests, right?
Exactly right. This lie is still being passed around in a lot of the legal dealings that the state uses to bring politically motivated oppression down on the movement, which does not give me confidence in funding [the state’s law enforcement] more. This sort of behavior is exactly why we don’t want to fund Cop City.
Its budget, which was originally going to be $60 million, is now apparently going to be $97 million. That could be going toward providing housing, access to food, better education, job security, and medical care. There are so many alternatives that we could be funding with that money.
The charge they eventually brought against you was “felony intimidation of an officer of the state.” What do you think the free speech implications are of construing flyering as felony intimidation?
It’s sort of funny, because at first the charge was “felony, statute pending.” They wanted to get me with something, but they didn’t know what. And then it was “felony intimidation of an officer of the court.” But Salcedo is not a court officer; he’s a Georgia State Patrol trooper. They had filed under the wrong statute. So they landed on what it is now, which is “intimidation of a police officer.” That carries a twenty-year maximum prison sentence.
To me, this is an attempt to criminalize something that should undeniably be a right: raising awareness about things that we believe are wrong and deserve to be handled in a more public forum, so that we have a better chance of getting justice.
When you are close to police brutality, it motivates you to fight, because you know that it could happen to anyone. And this violence is, of course, falling along classic lines of oppression. Tortuguita was Afro-Venezuelan. If an increasingly militarized police state can commit acts of brutality like they did on January 18 and it goes unchallenged, then that kind of oppression grows. This is a time, not just for Atlanta, but for anyone who stands to benefit or be harmed by these institutions, to act.
The Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan clearly allows for public, heated debate concerning government officials. I strongly believe that I’m entirely within my First Amendment rights to be critiquing what those state patrol troopers did. It’s ironic that I am raising awareness about an injustice — murder — and yet I’m now the one facing twenty years in prison.
I’d also like to talk about the domestic terrorism charges that forty-two other protesters are facing. In effect, they criminalize certain actions simply because they occurred at a protest, which seems to raise obvious free speech issues.
Georgia expanded its domestic terrorism law in 2017, after Dylann Roof murdered nine members of a black church in South Carolina. And now, what was originally designed with the outwardly facing intention of protecting marginalized people is being used to further oppress marginalized people.
Look at who’s facing these domestic terrorism charges: by and large, we’re the kind of people who live on the margins. A lot of us are queer, a lot of us are trans, a lot of us are coming from different communities of color.
We all are aware that we live in one of the most important times in human history, and the choices that we make can change that path that we’re on. Climate collapse is happening right now. Some people have succumbed to not just climate denial, but climate nihilism: the belief that we can’t change anything. I don’t think that’s the case. Our movement is trying to build something different, and we need to be able to use our freedom of speech when we disagree with the state’s actions.
My protest was perfectly legal. What I’m wondering — and what I’d like to ask Prosecutor Fowler or anyone in the FBI — is how I’m supposed to engage in my civil duty to disagree with my elected officials if exercising my legal rights is going to be treated as illegal.
I have been a registered voter in Atlanta since 2014, and I think that it’s in the state’s interest to recognize that freedom of speech is absolutely to be protected and defended.
Right now, the citizens of Atlanta are organizing a petition to put a referendum on the next election’s ballot about whether Cop City should go forward. It seems like the state is trying to preemptively shut that down with a federal court filing that refers to the referendum campaign as “invalid.” How do you think that fits into their broader strategy of repression?
The strategy of repression is the phrase here. Whenever there’s been an arrest, the only thing more absurd than it is the next thing that happens — for example, going from charges of criminal trespassing in a public park to allegations of domestic terrorism in the span of half a year. Now, forty-two people are facing domestic terrorism charges and upward of sixty or seventy are facing other charges.
The referendum campaign has been really wild. Originally, they asked for seventy thousand signatures from people who were registered as Atlanta voters during the previous election cycle. If they weren’t registered but could qualify as a voter, their signatures didn’t count. In addition to that, because Cop City and the Weelaunee Forest are surrounded by unincorporated DeKalb County, local residents don’t get to participate in the City of Atlanta referendum. There are many layers of exclusion.
The figure of seventy thousand signatures represents 15 percent of Atlanta registered voters. When Andre Dickens was elected mayor during the 2021 election cycle, he still only got the votes of around 11 percent of Atlanta registered voters. Before our referendum can even get on the ballot, we need to get the support of more people than he did. Seeing those numbers relative to each other shows that this is an extremely absurd standard in addition to being exclusionary of DeKalb [County].
Federal courts have granted us a deadline extension and ruled that DeKalb County residents should be able to collect signatures, although the city is fighting both these decisions in court. It seems like even if we hit the seventy thousand threshold, the city will try to stop the referendum from appearing on the ballot.
Again, the question is, how are we supposed to engage in protected civil dissent when this is how it is treated?
What’s next for your defense?
Of course, I want the charges to be dropped. But if I am indicted and go to trial, I believe that we would win. And that would be a wild gift — an opportunity to contribute to the modern case law around exercising First Amendment rights.
I enjoy witnessing the state disagreeing with itself as to how these charges are being handled — watching the DeKalb County [district attorney] drop out of their portion of the forty-two domestic terrorism charges and say that all the domestic terrorism charges should be dropped. On the same day, the head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped down. That’s powerful.
It would be great if my charges were dropped, but if I go to trial, then I’ll win. In either case, I’m countersuing.