Communities across the US and Canada are mobilising during the week of February 19-26 in solidarity with the Atlanta-based Stop Cop City Solidarity week. Protests erupted in late January after Tortuguita, a nonbinary Indigenous Venezuelan land defender, was murdered by the Georgia State Patrol on January 18.
Tortuguita was shot and killed early Wednesday morning during a military style raid conducted against land defenders at Welaunee Forrest, in Atlanta, Georgia. Activists have been fighting the past couple years to protect the Weelaunee Forest from a 90 million dollar development project so-called ‘Cop City’. The Atlanta Police in partnership with developer Brasfield & Gorrie have been planning to plough 300 acres of land to build a police training compound which would include facilities for high-speed chase practice, a helicopter pad and a model size residential area to train for ‘crowd management’. At the time of their death, Tortuguita had been living in the forest for about six months, holed up in treehouses and later tents alongside other land defenders.
A caring leader and community builder
Local community members describe Tortuguita as an approachable community builder and fierce protector of the forest. While living in Weelaunee forest they built strong bonds with other land defenders who supported each other through mutual aid. The past six months had been increasingly difficult as their group was under constant police surveillance and experienced multiple raids. Still, Tortuguita had helped host events to celebrate trans joy and deliver medic training for community members to help keep each other safe. They had even reached out to build ties with community members in nearby neighbourhoods, helping to train and educate their neighbours on petitioning and outreach. Organizing efforts like these were one of the reasons that over 70 percent of community members opposed the construction of Cop City which nevertheless passed in Atlanta city council 10-4.
While Tortuguita was a strong advocate for strategic civil disobedience, their comrades report they were also a proponent of nonviolence. “We’re not going to beat them at violence. They’re very, very good at violence.” Tortuguita said, referring to state police. “We win through nonviolence. That’s really the only way we can win.” They knew that their movement would only gain traction with a broad base of support from both their community and solidarity movements across the country. The Georgia State Police have claimed that Tortuguita was shot after they failed to emerge from their tent on commands and later claimed that they initiated shots from the tent, injuring an officer. This claim has been challenged by Tortuguita’s family. Body camera footage from later in the raid gives possible evidence the officer was hit by friendly fire. However, comrades of Tortuguita have also shared that they want to respect and honour Tortuguita’s final act of self defence, whatever it may have been.
Escalating police violence
To get ahead of the narrative the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is pushing hard to define any Stop Cop City activism as domestic terrorism. Four activists arrested at an Atlanta protest directly following Tortuguita’s murder have been charged with domestic terrorism without any direct proof of illegal activity other than trespassing. Two of these activists were denied bail while two had bail set at 355,000 dollars each. These charges mark an alarming trend of increased use of the legal system to suppress environmentalists’ free speech. Meanwhile, use of the legal system to challenge private corporations violating environmental rights is slow, costly, and often ineffective leading many to see active land defence as the only viable option.
The Atlanta Police Department’s pattern of escalating violence against land defenders is consistent with trends internationally. A 2021 report cited 2020 as the worst year on record for attacks on environmental defenders resulting in over 200 killed. This report warned that “as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting their land and our planet also increases. It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders.”
Linking environmental and racial Justice
While mainstream environmentalism in the west is often narrowed down to whitewashed protection of natural environments for tourist enjoyment, Stop Cop City clearly connects the movement to the US’s history of environmental racism and land dispossession. State sanctioned violence against racial minorities has historically been used to forward the interests of extractive industries. The land on Weelaunee park is the traditional territory of the Muscogee Nation who was displaced to Oklahoma in the 1830’s as a part of the Trail of Tears. Local residents of the primarily Black community worry about the environmental and health implications of destroying one of the most extensive tree canopies in the region. The forest provides a natural source of cooling, air filtration and to combat disproportionately high rates of asthma and moderate future heat waves and flooding.
Stop Cop City solidarity week
As of January 31 permits have been approved to start construction. Organizers in Atlanta are calling on supporters everywhere to take action and put pressure on the private corporate donors, who are covering 80 percent of the costs of construction. Investors include Delta, Waffle House, the Home Depot, Georgia Pacific, Equifax, Carter, Accenture, Wells Fargo and UPS. There is a Toronto action in solidarity on Friday February 24 at 5pm in front of The Bank of America, one major donor. They hope to honour the passing of Tortuguita, a fiercely kind and dedicated comrade while continuing ongoing public movement building around defunding and abolishing the Toronto police.
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