B.elkis Terán spoke to his son, Manuel, almost every day on WhatsApp from his home in Panama City, Panama. He also had the names and numbers of some of Manuel’s friends, in case he didn’t know about the 26-year-old who was protesting “Cop City,” a planned gigantic training center being built in a wooded area near Atlanta Georgia.
Then, in the middle of the week, when she hadn’t received a message from Atlanta since Monday, she began to worry. On Thursday around noon, a friend of Manuel sent him a message of condolences. “I am so sorry,” they wrote. “So that?” she asked.
Terán ended up discovering that on Wednesday around 9:04 a.m., an as-yet-unidentified officer or officers had shot and killed her son. The shooting occurred in an operation that involved dozens of officers from the Atlanta police, Dekalb County police, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.
The murder has stunned and shocked not only Manuel’s family and friends, but also the movement for environmental and social justice in Georgia and across the United States. The circumstances surrounding the incident are still unclear and a full investigation into the murder and how it could have happened is demanded.
Police apparently found Manuel in a tent in the South River Woods, southeast of Atlanta, participating in a protest now in its second year, against plans to build a $90 police and fire training center. million on the ground and, separately, a movie studio
Authorities say Manuel fired first at a state trooper “without warning” and an officer or officers returned fire, but have not produced evidence for the claim. The officer was described as stable and in the hospital on Thursday.
The shooting is “unprecedented” in the history of US environmental activism, according to experts.
The GBI, which operates under Republican Governor Brian Kemp, has released little information, telling The Guardian on Thursday night that no body camera footage of the shooting exists. At least half a dozen other protesters who were in the woods at the time have told other activists that a single series of shots could be heard. They believe the state trooper might have been shot by another officer or from his own firearm.
Meanwhile, both Terán and local activists are investigating legal action, with Manuel’s mother telling The Guardian: “I will go to the United States to defend the memory of Manuel… I am convinced that he was murdered in cold blood.”
The incident was the latest in a surge in police raids in the forest in recent months.
The protests began in late 2021, after then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans for the training center. The forest had been named in city plans four years earlier as a key part of efforts to maintain Atlanta’s famed tree canopy as a buffer against global warming and to create what would have been the area’s largest park. metropolitan.
Most of the residents in the neighborhoods around the forest are black, and municipal planning has neglected the area for decades. Plans to preserve the forest and turn it into a historic public amenity were adopted in 2017 as part of Atlanta’s city charter. But the Atlanta city council ended up approving the training center anyway, and a movement to “Stop Cop City” began in response.
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the largest newspaper in the area, a series of editorials and news items critical of the activists began. At least a dozen articles in the past year or more failed to mention that Alex Taylor, CEO of the newspaper’s owner, Cox Enterprises, was also fundraising on behalf of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the lead agency behind the training center.
At some point, Kemp and other civic leaders began referring to the protesters as “terrorists,” in response to acts of vandalism such as burning construction vehicles or spray-painting corporate offices linked 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 on one of their driveways was not a good idea and was an alienating presence on the street. nature. . The activist was sympathetic to both sides and critical of the violence.
“Some of us [forest defenders] they are rowdy gringos,” Manuel said. “They are just against the state. Still, I don’t know how you can connect with anything if that’s all your political analysis.”
Police raids on the forest intensified until December 14, when half a dozen “defenders of the forest” were arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism” under state law, another unprecedented development in environmental activism from USA, said Lauren Regan, founder of Civil Liberties Defense. Center, who has a quarter-century of experience defending environmental protesters accused of increased sentences for federal terrorism and others.
Seven more activists were arrested on 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 has never been a case where law enforcement has shot and killed an environmental activist involved in a attempt to protect a forest from being bulldozed and developed.
“State killings of environmental activists are depressingly common in other countries, like Brazil, Honduras, Nigeria,” Woodhouse said. “But this has never happened in the United States.”
Manuel’s older brother, Daniel Esteban Paez, found himself in the middle of this unfortunate historic moment on Thursday. “My brother was killed,” he said when answering the phone. “I’m in a whole new world now.”
Paez, 31, was the only family member to speak at length with GBI officials, after calling them Thursday in an attempt to get answers about what happened. No one representing Georgia law enforcement had contacted Belkis as of Thursday afternoon. “I quickly found out that they are not investigating Manuel’s death, they are investigating Manuel,” Páez said.
A Navy veteran, Paez said the GBI officer asked him questions like “Does Manuel carry guns often?” and “Has Manuel protested in the past?”
The family is of Venezuelan origin, but now lives in the United States and Panama, Páez said. Less than 24 hours after discovering the death of his brother, Páez also said that he “had no idea that Manuel was so highly regarded and loved by so many.” He was referring to events and messages ranging from a candlelight vigil in Atlanta on Wednesday night to messages of solidarity that is sent in the social networks of all the United States and the world.
Belkis Terán, for her part, is trying to get an emergency appointment at the US Embassy in Panama to renew her tourist visa, which expired in November. “I am going to clear Manuel’s name. They killed him… as they cut down trees in the forest, a forest that Manuel loved passionately”.