A queer environmental activist, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was shot to death by police in Atlanta last week.
Terán, 26, who went by the name “Tortuguita,” or “Little Turtle,” was part of a group of protesters encamped in a forested area to take a stand against a police training center under construction there, The Guardian reports.
Georgia authorities say Terán shot and wounded a Georgia State Patrol officer, who returned fire, killing the activist. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Georgia attorney general, and a special prosecutor are investigating the incident, which took place on January 18. Seven other activists were arrested on the same day.
But Terán’s mother, Belkis Terán, told The Guardian, “I’m convinced that he was assassinated in cold blood.” (Some news reports describe Terán as nonbinary, but members of the activist’s family used male pronouns.)
The GBI says the bullet taken from the officer’s body came from a gun possessed by Terán. But the activist’s family and fellow protesters are not convinced. “They believe the state trooper could have been shot by another officer, or by his own firearm,” The Guardian reports. There is no bodycam footage of the shooting.
Protests against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center have been going on since late 2021, shortly after the project was announced. Earlier, there had been a plan to make the area a public park “as a key part of efforts to maintain Atlanta’s renowned tree canopy as a buffer against global warming,” The Guardian reports.
“Most of the residents in neighborhoods around the forest are Black and municipal planning has neglected the area for decades,” the paper notes. “The plans to preserve the forest and make it a historic public amenity were adopted in 2017 as part of Atlanta’s city charter, or constitution. But the Atlanta city council wound up approving the training center anyway, and a movement to ‘Stop Cop City’ began in response.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has called the protesters domestic terrorists. A half-dozen of them were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism in December, and those arrested the day of Terán’s death face the same charges.
There had been incidents of vandalism around the construction site, but Terán had objected to those acts. “Some of us are rowdy gringos,” Terán told The Guardian last year. “They’re just against the state. Still, I don’t know how you can connect to anything if that’s your entire political analysis.”
Dekalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston has recused herself and her staff from the investigation of Terán’s death. Her office would normally review the findings by the GBI and the other agencies, but instead a special prosecutor will do so.
“I hope that what this instills with protesters on the ground is that this will get a full, fair, impartial, and independent look — which I think is important for our community and everyone that is mourning,” Boston said, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting.