In the evening of January 21, 2023 riots began in Atlanta as part of an orchestrated revenge by left-wing extremists following the death of a like-minded protester shot by police earlier in the week. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), police were forced to shoot 26-year old Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, AKA “Tort” or “Tortuguita,” in self defense after he shot a state trooper as they attempted to conduct a “clearing operation” to remove him and his fellow protesters from a self-erected “autonomous zone” they have long been occupying illegally to stop progress on a development project they oppose. Needless to say, protesters disagree with the claims of the police about what happened during the shooting. They have since worked to portray “Tortuguita” as a martyr in their propaganda and have used his death as justification to further their malicious activity. As of this writing, the investigation into his death is ongoing. Over the last several months many such individuals have been arrested in connection with these protests and face “domestic terrorism” charges, among others, for their activities.
Upon reviewing the facts and circumstances of these incidents and the protests upon which they are a part, it becomes clear that there is hardly a shred of validity to any of their claims. Nearly all of their concerns and practical positions that rise above the threshold of pure personal desire and ideological principle have been addressed in a sufficient, reasonable manner by a multitude of sources. These protests are the erroneous escalation of ignorance. “Tortuguita,” whatever his motives, died for a distorted lost cause. Out-of-state professional rabblerousers are capitalizing off this death to further larger ideological goals and there are real life consequences to this that do not benefit the local activists in the movement or their communities at all. Those that are continuing to perpetuate the misinformation regarding the construction of the new City of Atlanta Public Safety Training Center (AKA “Cop City”) and use “Tortuguita” to justify harmful acts are complicit. The mainstream media is leaving too much to the imagination regarding the merits of these protests and this is causing national sympathy where it is not deserved.
Incident and Protest History Summary
In the morning of January 18, 2023 a Manuel Esteban Paez Teran was killed by police at the site of ongoing protests over development of a wooded parcel of land just outside of Atlanta. The incident occurred as law enforcement officers were attempting to clear protesters from the site (owned by the City of Atlanta). Other protesters were arrested as well and were charged with various offenses, including domestic terrorism.
The proposed development being protested will include a $90 million public safety training center. The facility will include mock city buildings that allow law enforcement personnel to practice breaches, house clearing, and other urban operations. Protesters oppose the destruction of the forest for any purpose, but they specifically oppose the construction of the training facility, which they have dubbed “Cop City.” They see it as an investment in a militarized police force that oppresses the people of the community. Some of the protesters also allege the deal is illegal, procedures to approve it were not properly followed, and there is corruption involved.
According to the GBI, Teran, who also goes by the nicknames “Tort” and “Tortuguita,” was killed after a Georgia state trooper was shot in the abdomen and other officers returned fire. Teran died at the scene and the unidentified trooper was taken to the hospital to undergo surgery. The trooper’s condition is currently listed as stable.
Authorities are calling their actions at the site a “clearing operation” and they describe the use of force during the operation as self defense. Protesters have since challenged these claims and have called for a more independent investigation. While a lack of body camera footage from police at the scene has hampered the investigation, it does appear Teran owned the Smith & Wesson pistol used to allegedly shoot the trooper at the scene. He acquired it in 2020 according to recovered purchase records.
More of an occupation than just a protest site, protesters have over time erected tents and structures, including tree forts, throughout the area. This is not the first time police have clashed with protesters at this site. In May and December of 2022 several people were also arrested and charged with various crimes including domestic terrorism. According to authorities, protesters have been illegally occupying the site and blocking access to it. Protesters are also said to have committed several criminal acts including arson, setting explosives and booby traps, assaulting others, and responding violently to police presence. Many protesters deny these allegations and accuse authorities of fabricating them to harm their cause.
The protests against the project gained steam in 2021 but the plans for a new training facility for Atlanta police and first responders were revealed by the Atlanta Police Foundation as far back as 2017. According to protesters, the surrounding community has largely been opposed to the plans but officials have been acting in a biased manner to keep proceeding despite the opposition. Legal challenges to the development of the area have been initiated concurrent with the protests but have been ineffective in stopping its progress.
One of the primary groups chronicling the actions of the protesters, Defend Atlanta Forests, provides timely updates and can be found on social media including Instagram. Additionally, bloggers like Gloria Tatum posting on the Streets of Atlanta blog offer insight from the protester’s perspective. Her articles detail past protests and community opposition to the project (here) as well as address reactions to the recent fatal incident (here). Sophie Hirsh has another good summary of the movement posted on the Green Matters website. The South River Forest Coalition is a primary environmental group opposing the development due to their competing vision for the area. Support for the protests comes primarily from left-leaning organizations including those focusing on environmental protection, racial/social justice, anti-police positions, and even anti-capitalist worldviews. Left-leaning media outlets like Democracy Now and The Appeal polish up and promote these perspectives.
Some Conservative media outlets and journalists have picked up on this story, reporting it mostly from a mainstream law and order perspective but with a specific focus on the personalities and beliefs of the arrested protesters and the criminal actions that have occurred. Blogger Andy Ngo has been chronicling these protests from such a perspective extensively, such as in this article about the recent killing, another regarding the December operation, and this article about previous arrests in May. Right-leaning media outlets such as Gateway Pundit and Daily Mail feature articles that focus on this perspective. One of the big takeaways from their coverage is the point that many of those that are causing the violence are from out of state and allegedly have connections to Antifa and other extremist groups.
Mainstream coverage predicably and primarily mirrors GBI press releases and other official sources. Since they must be more careful not to report inaccurately, larger media outlets tend to wait for an authority to confirm information. Aside from the inherent dangers that come from over-reliance on “official sources” (in a Herman/Chomsky “Manufacturing Consent” sort of way) there is also the possibility of normalcy bias or unintended omission of important information or perspectives skewing the completeness of the reporting to consider. There are time, money, and interest restraints that may cause concerns. Mainstream national articles often focus on what happened and by whom, leaving the “why” more ambiguous and open to the prejudiced judgments of the audience. The local news outlet that has provided the most comprehensive coverage of the training center proposal and the protests is probably The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Breakdown of the protesters’ arguments
Considering the information communicated from the protesters themselves, they have three main categories of complaints that can be considered in detail.
- Opposition to the perceived negative environmental impact of the project, especially cutting down trees at the site.
- Opposition to the construction of the Public Safety Training Center due to a perceived increase in police militarization that will cause more police abuse, especially in minority communities.
- Opposition to the approval of the project and its legality because of perceived procedural violations, questionable decision-making authority, and disregard for voices in the community.
Let’s consider these arguments one by one.
1. Opposition to cutting down trees/environmental impact on site
The “Forest Defenders” first and foremost present themselves as protectors of the environment and the cultural heritage of the area. They refer to the area of concern as part of the Weelaunee Forest and reference Native American history in the area to capitalize off of people’s sympathy for natural beauty and reverence for past cultures. Most people rightly wish to preserve forests and give consideration to areas of historical importance to cultural groups. This would be all well and good if it at all applied to the site as it is today. In reality, the 380-acre City of Atlanta-owned site (the proposed training center will be built upon 85 acres of it) is not in old growth forest. It is in the since-overgrown former fields of a prison farm that existed in various capacities from 1918 to 1995. The natural growth of trees in the area had been cleared out long ago, as indicated by the photograph below of the area from 1968.
According to an environmental assessment of the area, “The project area is currently a vacant forest located on a hilly terrain (Figure 2.2 and 2.3). Throughout the tract area various small trails that are person-wide and often small ATV or vehicle paths. Present on the project area on the east is the location of a vacant and degraded prison. Also, a powerline easement (Figure 2.4). with access road leading to the prison facility. There are also multiple structures and structural remains including a former residence (Figure 2.4).” Furthermore, a cultural resource assessment including an archeological survey of the area found no historic artifacts, ruins, or burial sites of cultural value on the proposed development site.
The state of the site is far from the image presented to the public by the “Forest Defenders” of a pristine, isolated wilderness of sacred importance to indigenous cultures. The site is a wooded area of new growth trees and scrub brush surrounded by residential neighborhoods, commercial centers, and industrial activity. The vacant, dilapidated concrete structures existing throughout are covered in graffiti and vagrant trash. Large piles of junk are dumped throughout the area, some being identified as possible sources of contamination that must be disposed of properly. The alternative is a cleaner, managed greenspace. The Public Safety Training Center will exist in a campus-like setting with wooded trails throughout. A wooded park, much larger than the training center campus, will also be established from existing woodlands, protected, and better utilized than the area is now. Previous city planning for the South River Forest region, as proposed in the 2017 City Design Plan, can still largely occur as well, despite the worries of protesters. The South River Forest area surrounding the development site is much larger and includes countless other developments already existing within the proposed borders of the identified focus area of that effort.
In short, an environmental argument in opposition to this development is no stronger than it would be applied to any other development in the greater-Atlanta area. General opposition to modernity and community improvement to protect trees in all circumstances is unreasonable and not helpful to finding sustainable compromises and solutions to meet the needs of large metropolitan areas. Given that the decision to proceed has already been made (more on this below) the window of opportunity to present alternative uses for the site has passed. Overall, with the clean up that will take place to prepare for the new development, environmental quality at the site will actually improve, as will services and access to the community.
Below are some more images of the site to get an idea of the mess that must be addressed in addition to consideration of the forest:
2. Opposition to the police training center
Whether one approves of current police performance, or one wants to severely reform or even reduce their role, it must be acknowledged that as they exist today and will exist in the future, they will need a place to conduct training. The debate over police abuse of power and “systemic racism” in society rages on, but it alone cannot stand in for an argument against any specific project intended to facilitate improvements in current operations. Pro-choice and anti-police voices have been debating the police budget and scope vigorously in Atlanta recently. Would police training at a new facility change this? Hardly. The police and the fire departments had long been conducting training at the site until the 1990s when they were moved elsewhere temporarily while a location for a new permanent training center was found. According to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the departments have never actually ceased conducting certain training at the site however, so it is not unreasonable to propose the site become a permanent center for training that occurs already.
Financially, the proposal makes sense for taxpayers. They will spend about the same amount per year towards the operation of this new center over the next 30 years as they are currently spending per year for maintainence and operation at the temporary training locations. In addition, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) is covering the cost of building the center and, along with agreed upon private and philanthropic donations, will contribute two-thirds of operating costs over the next 30 years (about $1 million per year according to the APF). This agreement is authorized by legislation. Atlanta spends less money per resident for police than many other major cities. The new center will neither be the biggest, nor the most expensive in the United States and is more of a needed upgrade for a major metropolitan area than an expansion beyond the norm. Given that the vast majority of the city budget going to the police department is used for salaries and pensions, additional training money coming directly from other sources can have a big effect on the quantity and quality of training.
The concern that this training center will increase levels of police militarization/abuse in the community is unsupported. It does not quite logically follow that creating a better training facility for police will somehow result in more police shootings/abuse of power/misconduct in the community when “lack of proper training” is often identified as a cause of those problems. The 2021 Atlanta PD Use of Force Annual Report often calls for the need of more training to improve on performance; a new training center could help. For instance, one of the proposed features of the facility that the protesters oppose the most is the mock town that police and first responders will use to practice tactics in response to common urban emergency scenarios – the exact type of situations where lack of training may result in police shootings or fatal errors. Creating a size and scope for a police force and a policy for them to follow is important work and can be debated vigorously without denying the reality for the need of better training facilities. Ironically, the violent actions of this small group of protesters in response to this project will do more to justify an increaingly “militarized” police force than a neutral proposed training center ever could in the minds of the public and the relevant decision-makers. Contrary to the image the protesters propagate, polls consistently show the public, including minority communities, support the police at steady rates. Where data shows reforms are desired, it usually includes more training at better quality, not less, as the public wants its police to be competent, ready, and in their neighborhoods to serve the community and deter crime.
3. Opposition to the decision-making procedure/legitimacy of the project
This point may not be the most marketable for the protesters in terms of firing up support from their base, but it is essential for their argument because in order to justify their continued resistance and violent actions, they must delegitimize the process that lead to the decision. Democratic decision-making, afterall, is still a supposed value of the Left and this type of decision does legitimately fall within the purview of the city council and mayor for approval. Unlike legal decisions that directly violate the rights of individuals such as racial segregation, medical coerion, etc, this issue, after all, is not inherently one that is arguably of this nature in itself. If things are functioning properly, even if one disagrees with the final decision, one ought to respect it and not attempt to disrupt proceedings afterwards if one values the democratic process. Did things function properly during the proposal and approval process? Not according to the protesters as indicated in the attached articles above. Upon reading their complaints and reviewing the process that occurred leading to ultimate approval, it is apparent the protesters are again failing to consider the whole picture and are obscuring the truth for selfish gain.
One of the main points protesters bring up is that the training center plan essentially contradicts a promise of conservation made in the 2017 Atlanta “City Design Plan” and reaffirmed in 2020 that would have seen the property in question become greenspace and part of a bigger project to protect the South River Forest Basin throughout the area. While the protesters may favor stricter adherence to the natural preservation principles of this plan, it must be acknowledged that it is a clearly only a nonbinding, open-ended, outline for the area. The relevant decision-makers simply decided against the interests of certain groups when presented with an alternative and they had the authority to do so, making the existence of the City Design Plan vision hardly a point worthy of justifying violence today.
Contrary to the claims of the protesters, there were plenty of meetings between police, the community, City Design advocates, and elected representatives prior to the opening of public comment for consideration that they refer to when they say the window of opportunity for public input was short. This issue is connected to the larger discussion of City Design Plan A and there were many meetings and public comment opportunities during those proceedings as well. Input from the community and concern from lawmakers was reflected in the plans, as several revisions and concessions were made to accommodate the requests of these groups over time. There were several meetings held by the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee specifically regarding the topic of the police training facility. Several studies and surveys were performed to ensure the plans were legal, environmentally/culturally responsible, and met the needs/desires of the community. The final city council vote for approval (10-4) was conducted according to procedure and signed by the mayor. The entire process spanned years and underwent several phases.
Reflecting on these protests
It is often said, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In this case, with the authorities labelling these protesters “terrorists,” they may see themselves as the “freedom fighters.” There is usually some truth to the statement above because in many conflicts the opposing sides are usually not in a “one side is completely right, the other is completely wrong” dichotomy and people’s values and needs vary considerably. The spirit of protest and civil disobedience is also extremely valuable and praiseworthy in itself; even regarding efforts with which one disagrees, admiration is usually warranted in some way for the passion of the participants. The operative word in those sentences being “usually.” The extreme fringe of these “Forest Defenders” are not only deploying disgustingly unjustified tactics to achieve their preferred ends, but also their specified ends are ignorant and based on illogical reasoning. If they truly wish to protect the environment and promote justice in the community, their efforts would be much better spent elsewhere. They are rampaging in the name of justice but really they are making a mockery of it. The burning police cars and smashed storefront windows in Atlanta are the latest testament to the rotten fruit their stunted seeds bear. How many more “Torts” will die for this type of nonsense? Mainstream media accounts of these protests have so far been too lenient on the perpetrators of these crimes and of this cause, for they have no redeeming value whatsoever. Good people everywhere should seek to see through their misguided propaganda and reject them.