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They gave their life to Stop Cop City

Tortuguita Vive! La Lucha Sigue!

Tempest member Leandro Herrera speaks with an Atlanta Forest defender about Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (aka Tortuguita), a beloved activist part of the Stop Cop City campaign who was murdered by police in January.

On January 18, a Georgia State Trooper murdered Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a Venezuelan environmental activist and non-binary eco-anarchist during a police raid on an encampment in the Atlanta Forest. Leandro Herrera speaks with a forest defender about Tortuguita and the campaign to Stop Cop City, the growing national movement to which Tortuguita gave their life.

Leandro Herrera: Can you tell our readers a little about how Cop City got started? Who or what has been driving and funding this project? Who are the power players behind this?

Hummingbird: Yeah. So I think it’s important to actually take another step back to talk about the land.
It’s stolen Muscogee land. It was stolen 202 years ago at this point. And then it was turned into a plantation, and then it was turned into the old Atlanta prison farm. And then that got shut down in 1990 because people were dying at suspiciously high rates. Then that became an abandoned structure. The land was given to a local Atlanta person who made an agreement with the city that the land was supposed to remain open to the use of the public—that was in the lease.

That person passed on, and then Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms helped orchestrate two mega projects that are now threatening the land that we call Weelaunee, which is the Muscogee name for the land. One of the projects is Black Hall Studios, which is now known as Shadow Box. The main player behind this is Ryan Millsap, who is in real estate. What a petty, petty, greedy, vicious, rich fucker.

Then there’s this other forty acres of land that he got, and they were gonna expand their project there. They bulldozed it, and then they were like, actually it’s not good enough for us. And then they wanted to swap with the forty acres inside of Weelaunee, which is publicly known as Intrenchment Creek Park. The original terms of the lease stated that Dekalb County must keep the land as “public land in perpetuity.” The lease was retroactively changed in 2021 by the Arthur Blank Foundation (Blank is a co-founder of Home Depot and the current owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons) allowing the land swap to occur.

That’s the parking lot area going over to the RC field, which is remote-controlled, where they fly little tiny drones and other like-minded devices, and this expands north to those 40 acres. The other major project, which you’ve named, is Cop City. The history there begins at the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), which is the corporate backing behind the Atlanta Police Department. Major banking institutions, like Bank of America, and large corporations make up the list of donors behind the $90 million, that is where Cop City gets its funds.

It’s like $30 million in public taxes and then $60 million in private funds. It’s worthwhile pointing out that in the fall, in the wake of Tort’s (Manuel Paez Terán) murder, there have been noticeable backroom conversations about how donors are becoming more and more wary of their investments.

In particular, just before the raids this last December, there was an investor meeting, and investors were expressing misgivings about remaining in the project. I think that Tort would be really happy if their death can play a role in the funders behind Cop City being like, yeah, we don’t want to be a part of this.

So Cop City land, which is the old Atlanta prison farmland, which was supposed to remain for public use. The lease that was approved by the city council in September of 2021 passed by ten to four, with one abstaining despite there being 17 hours of public commentary. The percentage of folks who were against it that had called in was like 72 percent. So the public does not want this.

There’s a context here because now we’ve got Buckhead, which is considered to be a richer area of Atlanta. They were really unhappy with how the protests in the summer of 2020 went down. They didn’t even really have a lot happen there, but enough is enough to make people clutch their pearls and demand that they should either get more cops or secede from the city. And so right now with the new mayor, Andre Dickens, he’s really trying to appease these very rich interests.

About 10 people are walking down a street as part of a larger march. One person carries a sign that reads ‘STOP COP CITY.’ Two people hold up a large banner, as tall or taller than them, that reads ‘WE FIGHT LIKE HELL FOR THE DEAD & LIVING - #STOPCOPCITY.’ Another large banner is behind the first one, but most of its language is cut off - the viewer can only see the words ‘NO JUSTICE…’ All are wearing hats and coats in the chilly weather, and you can see some snow along the sidewalk. A lit up storefront, or library, with many shelves of books, stands in the background.
Protesters marching in Minneapolis in remembrance of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (aka Tortuguita). Photo Credit: Chad Davis.

That’s playing a role in why Buckhead has been such a loud and obnoxious voice for supporting Cop City being built. In that lease, they get to have it for $10 a year. It’s just super fucked up that they got 381 acres, 84 of which they’re claiming will be bulldozed for the development of this police training facility, which is an urban tactical warfare training center. So it’s not 84 acres under threat from the Cop City lease, which is some misinformation that is going around that the APF and their affiliates are trying to spread. So people are like, “Oh, it’s not that many trees,” but if the lease is for more, then, you know, they’ll just continue to block it off—take down trees, fuck up some of the last remaining essential ecological infrastructure that we have in South Atlanta, which is a historically Black and poor area.

It’s important to also note that the residential area surrounding this land is unincorporated in DeKalb County. And because it’s unincorporated, it’s actually not represented on the Atlanta City Council [90 percent of Atlanta is located in Fulton County, and 10 percent is in DeKalb County]. So it’s classic disenfranchisement. There’s no way for, you know, “legitimate” political protests to take place for the neighbors.

In doing canvassing efforts, a lot of people didn’t know about it, and still don’t know about it because they weren’t really included in this process. I think that really speaks to why it’s so important to have people come together, because this is not just a local fight. What Cop City is trying to do is not just oppress people in Atlanta, but oppress people in every other city, every other town, and every other fucked up nation-state. They want to be training people from afar to come here to then go back and use these practices.

And there’s history here, right? So following the “race riots” in the 1960s, a bunch of “riotsvilles” were built all over the U.S. I think there’s like six or seven in total. Where they would build fake downtowns and hire people to act as you know, protestors, outside agitators.

They would create narratives of, “Oh, well it’s gonna be these Black Panther people coming in and using the people who are anti-war protestors to instigate a riot.” Or there would be an active shooter and we gotta kill them. So that was the narrative being built around the riotsvilles.

And of course, when people train under those conditions, they just see things through that, right? When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. It’s important to note that increasing police funding doesn’t help anyone learn how to practice de-escalation. It only increases the propensity to reach toward violence, which we saw happen. The SWAT came into the forest with their guns drawn. They were looking to murder. They claim it was a clearing campaign. They were just wanting to clear people out. But looking at the escalation on their side it’s clear that police reform is just a fucking joke.

There is no reforming an institution that is born out of slave catchers. There’s no reforming an institution that exists to be class-interest enforcers. And that’s why abolition is the move here. And I know Tort would speak to this point much more eloquently than I ever could, or that I can’t at this moment, I shouldn’t say could, because Tort would want us all to become better through this process.

They were just so passionate and well-read and connected and involved and earnest. Yeah, they always knew how to bring the right amount of humor. And like real sadness and just really cutthroat kinds of analysis.

LH: Can you say more about Tort and how they fit into the community resistance aspect to all this? Because right now we’ve focused primarily on who’s driving this whole initiative. But I’m also curious as to how the community has responded and what that has looked like since the beginning of the struggle.

H: Defend the Atlanta Forest as a movement started about a year and a half ago, in April of 2021. It’s a distributed network of autonomous non-hierarchical agents acting within their affinity groups and as individuals doing different things. This can mean being a part of the camp, or it can be ground support, like water, food, laundry, showers, and charging.

It can be campaigning to pressure our city and county commissioners and city council. It can be doing media outreach. It can be marching in the streets. It can be public art installations. There’ve been a lot of things happening here in Atlanta and also solidarity across Turtle Island and across the world, which is really, really awesome.

I mean there was even a video that came out recently from that one forest in Germany [Lützerath], speaking in solidarity with our forest and for Tort. The movement is just so broad that it’s hard to really capture everything. And I think that’s part of the point, to make people feel like they’re empowered to be a part of it in whatever capacity they have.

Tort really represented the best of us when it comes to stuff like that. They would always just show up and help with whatever the project was. They were always wanting to learn new skills and immediately put them to use. They got trained as an Atlanta Resistance Medic and just wanted to know how to help people who were ever in need.

They helped organize a mutual aid fundraising group called Brown Cat Mutual Aid in 2020, focusing on raising funds for comrades in need, but more specifically for Black and Brown people. And it’s great to have a mutual aid project that’s run by people of color and for people of color.

They had very legitimate critiques of white anarchy which is one of the reasons why they would often self-describe as a communalist. They were always just so okay with evolving and becoming a better version of themselves as often as they could and changing.

They were just a lovely queer trans, an Afro-Venezuelan, they even practiced Aikido in the forest with people. They were adamant that if we’re gonna win this fight so that we have a world that is without police, it would be done by not fighting on the cops’ terms.

So building community and living together is really important. We have these flashpoints, where in the forest at one point, Ryan Millsap came out and he had hired some construction company to bring out an excavator, and they tried to take down the gazebo. It was a pretty important structure in the main parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park—Intrenchment Creek Park.

And as described in that one Rolling Stone article—which is wild that the Rolling Stone is doing this shit—people fought back. The truck that was carrying the excavator got burned out and people loved that. That truck became a feature, like a memorial of what we have lost, what we could lose, what we’ve won, and what we could still continue to win.

But Tort was adamant that, yes, those moments are great. And so was living there. It was the, you know what, this can be a place for people who feel extremely marginalized by this like late stage capitalism hellscape, that we’re trying to maybe not just survive, but maybe find a way to thrive.
That this was a place that reminded me of maroon towns, if you’re familiar with that history.

LH: Yeah. I’ve been reading Black Reconstruction, so I’ve been getting a sense of that.

H: Right on. I just finished reading Intimate Direct Democracy by Modibo Kadalie, who’s a really great organizer—has been for a really fucking long time—and is connected with Atlanta, actually.

They’re in the process of trying to start up a radical bookstore out in Stone Mountain, which is really important, given that’s sacred land that then got defaced and is covered in Confederate “heroes.” So it’s important to create these strongholds, right? Whether it’s a bookstore or it’s a community of marginalized people trying to help each other and exit capitalism in as many ways as possible.

LH: To that point, I’m wondering about these decentralized community committees and how they involve groups and people beyond themselves. I’m assuming there’s some coordinating activity between them or some coordinated decision-making so they can know how to respond.

H: It’s not coordinated. By design, people who have networks will come together and decide what they want to do together. A lot of times, it’s signal chats.

Someone will make a flier for a thing and it’ll get spread around. A lot of it is things like Instagram, things like Twitter, and then of course also word of mouth. Generally or historically, one of the really successful ways to bring together groups that might otherwise be considered non-coordinated is when we have these weeks of actions where we gather and try to come up with things that we can do together so that we can meet, so that we can know each other, so we can trust each other so that we can do more things together so that we can solve problems together. Whether it’s the mundane, but super important stuff like hauling in water or it’s the work parties, or building barricades.

It could be, let’s think about a march or do a banner drop. Whatever it is that needs to be done, really it comes down to trust. Trust can be a hard thing to build in a world of security culture. I think that’s a challenge worth trying to perpetually figure out.

Because there is no one size fits all answer for that kind of thing. But, Tort was super funny about OPSEC [operations security]. They would be always in camo and adamant about being blocked up and if they were out doing a thing and really good about their phone security.

Two photos show structures high up in tall trees. The left photo shows a large banner draped across the higher part of a tree that reads ‘STOP DESTROYING EARTH’, and sits slightly under a structure that looks like a tent. Surrounding this tree and structure is a robust and alive forest that is overwhelmingly green. The right photo shows a wooden structure that looks like a little cabin sitting high up in a tree. Surrounding the structure are barren trees with few to no leaves and thus looks like it is a colder month.
Tree-sits used by forest defenders to prevent the cutting of trees in Cop City. Photo Credit: (Left) Crowina. (Right) Defend the Atlanta Forest.

And when they were in the pirate ship, which is one of the tree-sits that was built in Weelaunee People’s Park and destroyed in the January raid, the police were pointing an acoustic cannon right at the tree-sit. But thankfully comrades had built it so well that it was pretty insulated and not so bad. And so in return, Tort was just playing music, like “Bella Ciao” (an English version, an Italian version) really fucking loud, back at the cops. Of course, they were live-streaming this shit too. They were such an unabashed zoomer.

It was really just the amount of sheer confidence and force of will that they would just always bring to everything. It’s just really awe-inspiring, you know?

LH: You mentioned work parties. What are those?

H: Well, I want to be careful here. Work parties can be something in the forest where people will gather and get work done and I don’t wanna say too much, but in effect, it’s a way for people to get together and to help facilitate accomplishing a project, whether it’s for building a structure or whatever.

LH: Have there been conversations or even conceptualization of getting broader numbers of people involved?

H: Always, always. Ultimately we have the numbers. More of us hate the police than love the police. And I think the key to victory—there’s a couple of keys here. One is a small number of dedicated people. There’s three percent, that is what it takes to tip off a revolution, a kind of figure that gets thrown around when looking at these kinds of histories.

But then also broad general support is important. So getting people who care about these causes to come to Atlanta and join is huge. Getting people who care about these causes to do solidarity actions in their own localities is huge. Making people feel like they can act autonomously is so essential for this movement to really take root in us as individuals, as friends, and as people involved in various communities.

I think that looking at how many solidarity actions have happened recently, following Tort’s death, of course, but also more broadly, has been uplifting. I mean, people in Greece at one point, in Palestine, in major cities across Turtle Island have done things.

I think that getting people involved more broadly has been a significant focus. People play different roles and do different things. We also need to raise campaign funds so that cash can be in hand, and that is really important to keep us growing.

LH: I’m also thinking about groups in Atlanta itself. Are there other groups getting involved beyond just the decentralized committees?

H: No one would use the word committees, let’s maybe get a little clearer about that.

Yeah, I mean there are lots of groups. I think it’s really cool to look to Community Movement Builders (CMB), which is a Black-only group based out of the Atlanta neighborhood of Pittsburgh. They do a lot with housing and food justice and things that are more broad, like mutual aid and legal defense. But the CMB has been really involved in marches, of course, but then also getting on the radio. I think they’re a really good group to point towards.
If you look at some of the flyers, sometimes there’ll just be a lot of groups that come out.

There’s the Weelaunee Coalition, which helps bring local children out for walks and plans events around food, music, and celebration. And remember, this is stolen Muscogee land. It’s important to do what is necessary in pursuit of the goal of Land Back because it’s important to prefigure what winning looks like, and Land Back is the only thing that makes sense.

That means making this a place where sacred lands can be returned to the stewards and doing that in a way where people feel like they’re welcomed, have housing, have access to a food forest, practicing controlled burns because the land has a lot of standing, dead loblolly pine, because they got planted as the prison farm was closing down. It’s very, very thick. And there’s a lot of privets [an invasive shrub], so a lot of non-native species management is important.

The Weelaunee Coalition has been involved with the Muscogee Tribal Council in Oklahoma, which is where the Muscogee people ended up at the end of the Trail of Tears —with about 13,000 members, a loss of as many as 8,000 after their forcible removal from the South.

And that became the Oklahoma reservation. So the Weelaunee Coalition is an array of people—Latinx, Indigenous, Black, and white—and other comrades as well, working with Muscogee elders and youth to bring people back to the land. And that’s been really cool. Maybe you’ve seen the large stomp dance that happened in late November of 2021. Are you familiar with what stomp dances are?

LH:No, I don’t know what those are, actually.

H: A stomp dance is an Indigenous cultural tradition where a gathering will come together and there’ll oftentimes be a sacred fire. Elders will take turns leading dances in a circle and use that to share stories both in dance and in between the dances.
Oftentimes this is just a way for language to be shared, and for people to realize commonalities in worldviews, in stories. So it was a really big deal because that was the first time that there was an official Muscogee delegation that returned to the lands since the Trail of Tears.

And so—pretty big deal. Yeah. The delegation included a couple of micos, if you’re familiar with that word. It would be something like an elder who has earned the respect of their community and functions as a spokesperson and as a visionary for plans.

Oftentimes in the West, this will be translated as chief, but because of the way that power works in the Western mind, a chief is someone who orders people around. That’s not what a mico is. A mico is someone who guides and helps people together to come up with what it is that makes sense to do.

It’s more about helping aid action rather than directing action. But it’s been really cool, too, especially because our movements are supposed to be non-hierarchical, and that’s a challenge because of the way that we’ve been trained to default into oppressive systems.

It’s really important to turn to the deep past that humanity does have where non-hierarchy has been practiced. And I think that’s one of the really great benefits that turning to Indigenous people is really helpful because there are ways to be together that we can remember how to do differently and better, and be okay with it being messy, as long as we’re working towards practicing the values that we really care about and being vigilant about hierarchies, not defaulting into our modes of relating.

LH: Right on. To get back to the local communities, how are other communities in Atlanta responding to this? You mentioned earlier Buckhead and how they’re responding by and large, but how are other sections responding? Is there any talk of getting labor unions involved?

H:  That’s an interesting question. I know that some labor organizers are involved in the movement, and so there’s been at least some conversations.

I know that Tort would want that, because Tort was really into the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and you know how Wobblies are. Tort would oftentimes say things like, “I’m in the IWW! I think that nobody should work!” and so they were really mindful of how class solidarity should extend past where we are as workers or not, to include being disabled or wanting to live in a world where nobody’s coerced into work. I mean that was a really important thing about camp, that it was an anti-workspace. That doesn’t mean no one does anything. It means you do what you’re called to do and you try to figure out how to help others feel like they have the capacity to help in the ways they feel good to them.

And if it gets done, great. If it doesn’t get done, you know, I guess it didn’t need to in some way, being sort of a practice of acceptance. Just things would always just take new forms. But yeah, I think that getting more labor unions to join in the statement that’s being passed around right now. There’s a really, really long list of people who have signed on to the statement. I think that is a good way to look at how broad the movement has grown.

I think it’s important to also remember that a while ago, It’s Going Down and their Twitter followers got put out on a list, and then a bunch of those groups were then banned from Twitter. So it’s always a fine balance between putting oneself or one’s group out there and knowing that we have safety in numbers.

And so when things are big, we all benefit from it, which I think is really important.

LH: Has there been any sense or discussion of what it’s gonna take to actually win, to get rid of Cop City and get them to back out? What’s the strategy or vision that people are thinking about?

H:  Yeah. I think it’s important to look at the Stop Reeves Young campaign [Reeves Young is a major construction contracting company]. This is following the SHAC [Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty] model, where you target a group that’s doing the thing that you’re against, in this case, the construction of Cop City. And not just target them, but target people and companies that are above them.

Basically, those who employ them, and then the people and companies below them. Who they have contracts with, such as subcontractors and so forth. In this model, this was the idea behind the Stop Reeves Young Campaign. In April of last year, we had a very noticeable and really important marker in this fight where Reeves Young announced that they were done surveying the land and that they were exiting.

They were saving face. They were not hired just to survey the land. They were hired to do the construction, but they were just so fed up that their offices were being targeted for direct action. People would go in and disrupt. People would spray paint, people would hold banners. People would be chanting out front.

Reeves Young ended up pulling out. And now that’s why Brasfield & Gorrie, the new contractor that’s behind the construction, is the new target. It’s why Atlas has been getting a lot of attention so that they can put pressure on Brasfield & Gorrie.

The goal is to stop construction before it even starts. We’ve just hit the eighth-month mark of when construction was supposed to begin and it has been successfully delayed. It’s a war of attrition.

We’re also targeting the funders behind Cop City. The funders behind Cop City are not surprising. As I mentioned before, it’s the banks. It’s also very obvious capital interests like Norfolk Southern Corporation—they are a really large cargo shipping company. They’re the horse that you see on the sides of train cars (Norfolk Southern Railway is a subsidiary of the company).

It’s also educational institutions, maybe not surprisingly. It’s Georgia State University. It’s Georgia Tech. But maybe somewhat surprisingly, it’s historic Black colleges too, like Spelman and Morehouse.

LH: I wonder what’s the thinking there? Why would colleges and universities invest in this initiative?

H: Good question. It’s important to understand how race and class intersect. Atlanta has historically been one of the few places where middle-class Black people were able to grab onto some of the breadcrumbs that capitalism offers as security.

Atlanta used to have this place that was known as the Wall Street of the South. That got burned down and bulldozed after fighting for a while, and that got turned into a highway.

I think at the end of the day, for both really desperate people and for just bad actors—and these are sometimes the same and but oftentimes not—the desire for safety and security is so strong that people will turn against the people that they actually have more in common with. And so we see this with a lot of the leadership in Atlanta. With our former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, with our current mayor Andre Dickens, with the makeup of the city council, and with the police force. It’s a lot of people not being aware or awake to the harms that are caused by giving up on the larger calls for solidarity, just for the sake of gaining something to be successful in these capitalist systems.

LH:  Yeah, it’s just interesting to me to see that banks want to be involved in this project, in addition to educational institutions because it seems like it’s almost as if they’re preparing for something larger. That they are training all these cops and plan to export them all around the country. What value do they see in that?

H:  Well, I think that has to do with the history of universities and students more generally consistently showing up in public movements. The land that’s being allocated for Cop City is about 15 minutes away from Georgia State University. And Georgia State is a very diverse but predominantly Black university.

It means having a police presence that is ready to be deployed at Georgia State or in the downtown area. It’s near the gold dome [of the capitol building] and everything. And of course throughout all that are various houseless encampments, but you know, those are just “sore spots.” The city does not care about poor people. You can see that in how our warming shelters don’t exist… I could go on about that.

LH: That’s a really good point about the state finding ways to suppress student protests and involvement. And it kind of seems, with the climate crises becoming greater and greater and with the economy being where it is and where it’s headed. It does seem like there’s going to be more unrest, and more pressure from below for something to change, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole Cop City initiative was anticipating that.

H: Absolutely. Currently, the Atlanta Police Department uses a rented-out facility for their training, and they have done a really excellent and hilarious job at portraying how poor their facilities are. Like, “Some of the sinks don’t work,” and, “Some of the ceiling tiles aren’t in place.” So that’s why they need a $90 million dollar new facility for them to have a good old boys club.

It’s important to remember that following the summer of 2020, a lot of police quit the force following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black man who was jogging in his neighborhood in Atlanta and was basically hunted and then murdered by that retired cop, his son, and their neighbor. The ex-cop and the other two people were found guilty, and a lot of police quit the force after that. Cop City is trying to fix that, and this is not just suspicion. This is in their documents. It’s supposed to be part of their larger strategy for recruitment. Like, don’t you wanna be hanging out with all these cool guys driving tactical go-karts and running around with guns and, you know, practicing how to move in formation and how to wear all this gear and how to drive tanks?

They’re trying to create a culture of policing and showing people that if you’re poor, you’ll get a signing bonus if you join. Part of the school-to-prison pipeline is saying, “If you don’t wanna be in the prison pipeline, you could be in the police pipeline instead” so scaring people into turning against their own self-interest. Because what comes to mind is the land, the Weelaunee Forest. There is a kiddie prison—it’s a juvenile detention facility. A couple of months ago it was just covered in signs saying, “To work here is to be a hero,” or, “Now hiring, now hiring, now hiring!” There were like twenty signs just in a row of that. They were just desperate for people to come work there, because people don’t wanna fucking work there. It’s terrible. It’s a sickness that infects anyone who would be benefiting materially from these systems of callous harm and imprisonment.

I think that the class interests and class enforcers that are the police are very aware that there is public discontent, that people can palpably taste how fucked everything is. COVID-19 was a grand revealer. And even though now because we’re in the year 2020 Part Three, it sometimes it is hard to remember just how much we’re all going through.

Then you add to that climate collapse. It’s just a matter of time. And the time is now for people who want a better, different world to work towards steering things in that direction.

There’s a phrase in Atlanta that Atlanta is the city that’s too busy to hate. I think that a lot of us would agree that that’s bullshit. Atlanta’s too busy to notice the hate. One of the things, that’s really fucked up is that there’s a point system for the Atlanta Police Department for what kind of things you do. A fellow Black organizer was telling me this the other night at one of Tort’s vigils. If a police officer handles a call, it’s a quarter of a point. If they, on the other hand, arrest a juvenile, it’s four points.

LH: What do they do with the points? Is that just for bonuses?

H: It’s for bonuses and promotions. It’s an incentive structure system. Not every city has a point system, but Atlanta does. And when you look at these numbers, you really see just how slanted it is. They’re not here to protect and serve. It’s disgusting how ironic it is that that’s the phrase, right?

But there’ve been major court decisions that have come out showing that the police are not actually required to protect and they’re not actually required to serve. As soon as people realize this, they’ll realize they’re not gonna come and help.

Even if you really need help, would you want it from someone who might just show up and shoot you? This is why we have to be able to take care of each other and create systems of alternatives. I think this is part of the idea behind dual power. How can we simultaneously build up the institutions that are legitimate alternatives so that they’re able to sustain people who are choosing to exit capitalism, and also how can we tear down institutions that are oppressive? And doing both at the same time is really important.

Dual power also includes other things like using the levers that exist within our political machines to divert funds away from continuing the military state. But that’s always a gamble, because once someone’s a politician, you can’t really trust them.

And that’s been a battle out here because there are some people who’ve been involved in the movement who are now on the city council.

LH: Did they vote for approving the leasing of the land to Cop City?

H: Because that vote was in September of 2021, and there has since been a new council election, the people aren’t necessarily the same. There was an election following all that and there was a major change. Liliana [Bakhtiari] is one of the people who a lot of people are turning to, being like, “We’re looking to you. Are you gonna actually live up to your promise and help?” I think that she’s under pressure—and could be under more—to act in a way that reflects what people in Atlanta really want.

LH: Yeah, it’s hard when you don’t have any sort of concrete accountability mechanisms. Certainly, our city councils don’t have any sort of accountability beyond the next election cycle, which is bullshit. They should always be accountable.

H: Yeah, it’s a farce. One of the things that are really important to think about is that if we have a security theater where we think, “Oh, we do all these things to keep the world safe. This is why we need police.”

This is why you can’t bring a water bottle through the TSA, but you can bring ice. That makes sense. If we have enough of a culture of fear, then people become so in need of breadcrumbs that it’s hard to find the capacity to do something different.

LH: What’s the story with Tort and Marxist Leninism that you wanted to bring up?

H: Tort was always really funny. At one point there was a conflict resolution workshop weekend thing, and people wanted to come up with a conflict to practice working through. Tort suggested we do a Marxist Leninist versus Anarchist as an age-old skirmish, if you will. That was just so on point for them to just be very hilarious and to the point at the same time. It was a good time had by all, empowering.
Now back to security theater, if we have this culture of fear, then we don’t know how to live otherwise, and if we are so trapped into thinking, well, this [the police] is what I know might be able to help me, and if we can’t even imagine something different, then we lose a game that is already rigged. Changing what’s possible by creating alternative worlds, which is what Weelaunee has become and will be again, I think is the important vision to keep here.

LH: Totally. Do you have any last things you wanted to communicate to people, like ways to get involved, solidarity asks, or parting thoughts?

H: A couple of things come to mind. I think first and foremost, Tort really just embodied so many of the things that are the best of us—their kindness, their passion, their dedication, their communal support, and their unabashed individualism as well. They would sometimes just disappear for hours, for days, and recharge alone. So often in movement spaces, we can just be non-stop and not know to take time for ourselves.

Tort knew how to do that. Tort was always really good about welcoming people, a good point of contact to have if you were coming to the forest, and would show people around. They would show people where the kitchen was, the gathering area, the free store, the supply tent, and where an empty tent was.

They would show others how to hang up a tarp, or offer to take their laundry and wash it. They were always thinking about others and themselves, and doing both just to the elevens. I think that’s one of the important things that we would all benefit from practicing more of in Tort’s honor.

But I think that if people want to get involved there are a number of ways to do that. It can be someone meeting up with one other person wherever they live and starting to figure out what it would take to send a delegation in the next couple of months. Because when people come down to Atlanta for big things and we’re all here together, we can see just how big this movement is, and how well affinity can be nurtured, not in spite of but because of how hard it is to survive in this world—that’s really powerful.

So that can look like organizing travel funds, doing banner drops, or targeting one of the companies associated with the Cop City construction. There’s also pressuring people in one’s area to make statements, whether they’re elected or non-elected, or sending down supply shipments. It can also look like making art and distributing it.

A shrine of bouquets of flowers, candles, and other offerings encircle the base of a lamppost. A person holds a lit candle in their left hand, and kneels as they use their right hand to put down a bouquet of flowers to join the shrine. About thirty people stand behind the shrine. They hold lit candles as well as a large banner that reads in a graffiti style, ‘TREES GIVE LIFE. POLICE TAKE IT.’ It is night and it is either raining or recently rained. A 76 gas station with strong lights stands in the background, along with various lit-up store signs sprinkling areas further back.
A shrine in the streets of Atlanta to commemorate the killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (aka Tortuguita). Photo Credit: Tatsoi.

There’s a lot of art that’s coming out of Tort’s murder—being Tortuguita, there’s been a lot of turtle art. Their forest name was Tortuguita, which means Little Turtle, and Tort was a really important anti-colonialist indigenous fighter. They also changed their name to Cami shortly before their murder, in honor of Camilo Cienfuegos, who was a Cuban revolutionary. They would just want everyone to be comfortable with lifting from history which helps us shed the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to carry forward.

Back to ways to get involved, there’s also helping with reproductive labor, like cooking, cleaning, and helping with food and water, all of which are essential. People can make tinctures and send them out. That’s been a really, really cool thing. It’s cool how much herbal medicine is growing in awareness within the communities out here. One of the Atlanta Resistance Medics made a giant box of these amazing tinctures, and it was a really cute thing because they were all really well labeled and had adorable names, like “Grandma’s Hands” [also a Bill Withers song] as a soothing, calming tincture. A lot of really wonderful medicine is on the land out there, from Usnea [beard lichens] to Lion’s Mane [an edible mushroom] and so many more.

Aid and involvement can take a lot of forms. It can even just be thinking about the movement and about its history and about our future and trying to prefigure and setting those intentions.

I think it’s important for people to make sure that they check in with themselves and not romanticize what it means to be in movement. I know that right now Tort did die a revolutionary death. They were committed and they gave their all. I also know that they strongly believed that to win, we cannot fight on cops’ terms. They have more weapons of violence and a willingness to use them, whereas the values that we embody are caring for each other and Tort strongly believed that nonviolence is essential for this diversity of tactics to be successful. Not non-violent direct action only, but knowing that it’s really central for how Tort would practice their values and inspire others to do similar.

That’s how we know this investigation into Tort’s death is just so full of bullshit. At first, they said that it was an ambush and then they said they approached the shooter, and then they said the shooter approached them, and then they said they approached a tent, but then the photo showed a hammock. Friendly fire happens a lot, and then cops lie about it. That’s why an independent investigation is so essential to really understand. People are in the process of filing a wrongful death suit. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the person who murdered Tort is a Georgia State Patrol officer. [The law firm representing the family of Tort has stated that an independent autopsy was conducted and it shows that Tort was shot at least 12 times from multiple firearms].

The Georgia State Patrol is not required to wear body cams, so they just use vehicle cameras. So it’s unclear if there was any body cam footage of this murder, [body cam footage has since been released from four officers who were not involved in the shooting] which means that it’s in the cops’ interest to just come up with a story that makes them say, oh, it was self-defense, and not have pushback against that. I think that it’s important, especially given that at this point there are 14 people who are facing domestic terrorism charges. Anything that the police and people who are supporting Cop City can do to make it seem like the movement is a bunch of violent domestic extremists, as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would have one believe—they want to sell that, and they’re trying to sell that so hard. But if you come out here, you see that it is just people trying to care for each other with as much love as possible. Now the narrative that the cops are trying to push is that Tort was instigating violence, and it’s just so disgusting.

LH: From what you’ve described about Tort, it doesn’t make any sense.

H: It doesn’t make any sense. I want to be careful with what I say because the wrongful death suit is in process, but what is clear is that from the cops’ position, just saying that this person was violent helps police then justify why the domestic terrorism charges are what they are.

Again, if you look at the 2017 and 2020 codes, those are totally different from what is being used in the courts right now for domestic terrorism. They’re saying things like graffiti counts as domestic terrorism. The chief of police is on record having said, following the raids of December, that domestic terrorism is using violence to try to change public policy.

But if we think that the destruction of property is violence, then anything counts. It’s such a blanket way of approaching this, a very scary thing. That just shows that they want to label those of us who are fighting for a better world as people who don’t deserve to be respected and listened to and taken seriously.

This is how propaganda works. First, they ignore you, then they laugh, and then they try to lie about you, and then they kill you. And we see where we are on this line, but the next step is that you win.

Tortuguita vive! La lucha sigue!

Featured Image credit: Chad Davis; modified by Tempest.

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Leandro Herrera View All

Leandro Herrera is an antifascist and abolitionist activist based in the Northeast U.S.