Belkis Terán spoke with his son, Manuel, almost daily via WhatsApp from his home in Panama City, Panama. She also had the names and numbers of some of Manuel’s friends, in case she hadn’t heard from the 26-year-old who was protesting “Cop City,” a massive training facility planned to be built in a wooded area near Atlanta, Georgia. .
Then, midweek, when she hadn’t had a text from Atlanta since Monday, she started to worry. On Thursday, around noon, a friend of Manuel’s sent him a message of condolence. “I’m sorry,” they wrote. “For what?” she asked.
Terán eventually discovered that on Wednesday, around 9:04 am, an as-yet-unidentified police officer or officers shot and killed his son. The shooting took place in an operation involving dozens of officers from the Atlanta Police, Dekalb County Police, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.
The murder surprised and shocked not only Manuel’s family and friends, but also the environmental and social justice movement in Georgia and the United States. Circumstances surrounding the incident remain unclear and there are demands for a full investigation into the murder and how it could have happened.
Police apparently found Manuel in a tent in the South River Forest, southeast of Atlanta, participating in a protest now in its second year against plans to build a $90 million police and fire training facility and , separately, a film studio.
Authorities say Manuel first shot a state trooper “without warning” and an officer or officers returned fire, but have not produced evidence for the allegation. The officer was described as stable and in hospital on Thursday.
The shooting is “unprecedented” in the history of US environmental activism, experts said.
The GBI, which operates under Republican Governor Brian Kemp, has released little information and on Thursday night told the Guardian that no body footage of the shooting exists. At least half a dozen other protesters who were in the forest at the time reported to other activists that a single series of gunshots could be heard. They believe the state trooper could have been shot by another officer or by his own firearm.
Meanwhile, Terán and local activists are taking legal action, and Manuel’s mother told the Guardian: “I will go to the United States to defend Manuel’s memory… I am convinced he was murdered in cold blood.”
The incident was the latest in an increase in police raids on the forest in recent months.
Protests began in late 2021 after then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans for the training facility. The forest had been named in city plans four years earlier as a key part of efforts to maintain Atlanta’s famous tree canopy as a buffer against global warming and to create what would have been the largest park in the metro area.
Most of the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the forest are black, and municipal planning has neglected the area for decades. Plans to preserve the forest and make it a historic public amenity were adopted in 2017 as part of the city of Atlanta’s constitution. But Atlanta’s city council ended up approving the training facility anyway, and a movement to “Stop Cop City” began in response.
A series of editorials and stories criticizing the activists began in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the area’s largest daily newspaper. At least a dozen articles last year failed to mention that Alex Taylor, CEO of newspaper owner Cox Enterprises, was also raising funds on behalf of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the main agency behind the training center.
At some point, Kemp and other civic leaders began referring to protesters as “terrorists,” in response to acts of vandalism such as burning construction vehicles or spray-painting corporate offices connected to the project.
In an interview with this reporter last fall, Manuel was discussing how some Muscogee (Creek) people interested in protecting the forest also felt that leaving a burnt-out vehicle in one of their driveways was not a good idea and was an alienating presence in the wild. . . The activist seemed to understand both sides and was critical of the violence.
“Some of us [forest defenders] they are messy gringos”, said Manuel. “They are just against the state. Still, I don’t know how you can connect to anything if that’s all your political analysis.
Police raids on the forest intensified until Dec. 14, when half a dozen “forest defenders” were arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism” under state law – another unprecedented development in US environmental activism, Lauren Regan said. , founder of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, which has a quarter-century of experience defending environmental protesters accused of increased federal penalties for terrorism and others.
Seven more activists were arrested and given the same charges the day Manuel was killed.
Regan and Keith Woodhouse, professor of history at Northwestern University and author of The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, said there was never a case where police shot and killed an environmental activist involved in an attempt to protect a forest from being ravaged and developed.
“State killings of environmental activists are extremely common in other countries such as Brazil, Honduras and Nigeria,” Woodhouse said. “But that never happened in the US.”
Manuel’s older brother, Daniel Esteban Paez, found himself in the middle of this unfortunate historical moment on Thursday. “They killed my brother,” he said as he answered the phone. “I’m in a whole new world now.”
Paez, 31, was the only family member to speak to GBI officials at length, after calling them on Thursday in an attempt to get answers about what had happened. No one representing Georgia police had reached out to Belkis on Thursday afternoon. “I quickly found out, they are not investigating Manuel’s death – they are investigating Manuel,” Paez said.
A Navy veteran, Paez said the GBI officer asked him questions such as “Does Manuel often carry weapons?” and “Has Manuel protested in the past?”
The family is of Venezuelan origin but now lives in the United States and Panama, Paez said. Less than 24 hours after discovering his brother’s death, Paez also said he “had no idea that Manuel was so cherished and loved by so many”. He was referring to events and messages ranging from a candlelight vigil in Atlanta on Wednesday night to posts of solidarity being sent out on social media across the US and the world.
Belkis Terán, for his part, seeks an emergency appointment at the US Embassy in Panama to renew his tourist visa, which expired in November. “I will clear Manuel’s name. They killed him… like they cut down trees in the forest – a forest that Manuel loved with a passion.”
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