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Deadly ‘Cop City’ Shooting Divides Residents, Activists, and Law Enforcement

Latest confrontation over proposed police training facility is the latest in a "dangerous" trend, community says.

A “Cop City” protester was shot and killed during an altercation with law enforcement doing a sweep of the area. (Madeline Thigpen/Capital B)

Marcus Hunter bought a home near South River Forest in 2013. The IT consultant said he and many of his neighbors have become numb to hearing about the conflicts between protesters and law enforcement officers at the future site of a massive public safety training facility, dubbed “Cop City” by activists. 

“Everybody kinda saw it escalating, and we have been sounding the alarm because we thought it was going to spiral out of control,” Hunter said.

Hostility between law enforcement and protesters who have taken up residence in the South River Forest is higher than ever after a deadly shooting around 9 a.m. Wednesday. Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a protester living in the forest, was shot and died at the scene. A Georgia State Patrol trooper was shot and taken to Grady Hospital, where he is expected to make a full recovery.

According to law enforcement, they were doing a sweep of the area to clear people out. It was during this operation that the shooting occurred. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, they arrested seven people living in the forest Wednesday morning and charged them with aggravated assault and domestic terrorism. All seven were from states outside of Georgia.

In a statement, GBI Director Michael Register said officers approached Teran, who was in a tent. “Officers gave verbal commands to the man, who did not comply and shot a Georgia State Patrol Trooper. Other law enforcement officers returned fire, hitting the man. Law enforcement evacuated the Trooper to a safe area,” according to Register’s statement.

This shooting is an escalation from previous confrontations between law enforcement and demonstrators, known as the “Forest Defenders,” who since late 2021 have lived in tree houses on the land where the city wants to build the site. In May 2022, demonstrators allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at police, and eight were arrested. In a December clash, five protesters were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism after a clash with law enforcement doing a sweep of the area.

Activists and law enforcement have said they will not back down from this fight. Residents who live near the site have previously voiced their concerns over the environmental implications, and now they are growing frustrated with the clashes between the two groups that have now turned deadly.

Two sides of the story

The city has agreed to lease roughly 400 acres of the forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation. In return, the foundation wants to build a $90 million training facility for the Atlanta Police Department and firefighters. About $30 million of the project, which will be one of the country’s most expensive training facilities, will be funded by taxpayers. 

At the time, more than 1,100 Atlanta residents called the City Council to voice their concerns. Out of those calls, 70% expressed opposition to Cop City. The city owns the land where the facility will be built, though the site is located in unincorporated DeKalb County. Those residents do not have representation on the City Council. The site is about 1 mile outside the city limits.

The investigation into the shooting is being conducted by a joint task force consisting of the FBI, the GBI, Georgia attorney general’s office, DeKalb district attorney’s office, Atlanta and DeKalb police, Georgia State Patrol, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. 

“These individuals and groups have attempted to disguise their activities as being protests against the building of this facility. The GBI and all law enforcement agencies here embrace the citizens’ right to protest,” Register said. “But law enforcement can’t stand by while serious criminal acts are being committed that jeopardize the safety of the citizens we’re sworn to protect.”

Defend the Atlanta Forest, a grassroots activist group, has contradicted the GBI narrative. It tweeted that its members heard around 12 shots at once and suggested the trooper was hit by friendly fire.

In a statement made by a coalition of nonprofits and social justice groups, including Community Movement Builders, Abolitionist Teaching Network, and The Ruckus Society, organizers were leery of GBI’s timeline of events. 

“We will wait to believe these words and demand the unedited body cam footage is released to the public by Saturday, January 21st,” the statement said. The Georgia State Patrol has said there is no body camera footage of the incident.

Even in recent years as they have gained in popularity, Georgia does not regularly issue body cameras to its troopers, drawing criticism from those who say it is a crucial tool for the public to hold law enforcement accountable.

In the activists’ statement, they described Teran as a volunteer medic who was a “sweet, warm, very smart and caring person,” and was someone who “remained calm and cool headed in stressful situations.” 

“A person was killed by the Georgia State Patrol just hours ago and rather than using air time to explain how a trained officer could kill an individual in the absence of due process, we have observed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, State & City Police, and the Georgia governor immediately lean into a centuries long tradition of claiming self defense,” the statement continues.

Earlier this month, Gov. Brian Kemp said “swift and exact justice” would be used to deal with alleged crimes committed by the people living in the forest. The tough talk came after an anonymous activist in Oregon set fire to a bank in a show of support for the South River Forest demonstrators.

Following the shooting, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens shared his concern for the investigation and health of the trooper.

“My team and APD are providing full support to our state and county partners as they secure the site in DeKalb County and investigate the incident,” Dickens tweeted. “Our prayers of a speedy and full recovery are with this Trooper.”

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond responded to the incident in a statement. 

“DeKalb County Government offers its thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery for the Georgia State Patrol officer shot today in DeKalb County,” he said. “DeKalb County will continue to cooperate with and provide support to the multijurisdictional law enforcement task force charged with maintaining peace and security.”

‘We just want it to be over with’

At a vigil held for Teran in Little Five Points on a rainy Wednesday night, activists spoke out against police brutality, and others performed songs in their memory. One of the people in attendance was Q Johnson, an artist and organizer from Mozley Park.

Johnson stressed the environmental importance of the South River Forest site. Johnson did not know Teran personally, but met and had conversations with others living in the forest. He supports the Forest Defenders, but is hurt by the news of Teran’s death.

“There’s just this overwhelming sense of sadness,” he said.

For Hunter and his fellow residents living near the site, there is understandable feeling of frustration. Hunter was working from home when the latest altercation occurred, but he and his neighbors are very tapped into and following all the latest developments.

“People feel that it has morphed from nonviolent protest into something more dangerous,” he said.

Hunter urged the public outside his community not to get caught up in the social media hype or political spin following the shooting. Personally, he and his neighbors are tired of it.

“We just want it to be over with,” he said about the community’s reaction to the conflict between police and protesters.

This story has been updated to note the Georgia State Patrol saying there is no body camera footage from Wednesday’s shooting.