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The Atlanta Police Shooting Is a Warning Sign for the Safety of Environmental Activists

Environmental defenders get killed at appalling rates in other countries. Could that trend come to the U.S.?

A police cruiser burns in front of a Chase bank.
Elijah Nouvelage/The Washington Post/Getty
A police cruiser burns as demonstrators protest the death of environmental activist Tortuguita on January 21, in Atlanta.

Last week, a Georgia State Patrol officer shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was camped out in the South Woods Forest to block the construction there of a sprawling, $90 million police and fire training facility known as “Cop City.” Terán—who was nonbinary and went by the name Tortuguita—is the first known forest defender, as these environmental activists are often called, killed by U.S. police. Authorities have argued that Terán failed to comply with demands during a “clearing operation” and fired first, injuring an officer, but as yet have provided the public with no evidence to back that up. There is no body camera footage of the incident.

The snowballing militarization of police in the United States has coincided with a heightened criminalization of protests. Both efforts share the generous backing of corporate funders. If both phenomena continue to proceed apace, it’s easy to imagine more protesters may soon, like Terán, be hurt or killed.

Police killings of environmental defenders are much more common in other countries with major extractive industries, including Brazil, Honduras, and Nigeria: Research released last year from Global Witness found that an environmental defender was killed every two days over the last decade. While Terán’s shooting is the first known police killing of a forest defender in the U.S., a drumbeat of recent bills have increasingly depicted those protesting major development projects as public enemy number one. If the post-9/11 security state has a mantra, it’s that it’s easier to get away with killing someone if you can call them a terrorist. And the South Woods Forest case seems, tragically, to illustrate that principle: Seven of the forest defenders swept up in last week’s raid have now been charged with domestic terrorism, on top of the six Stop Cop City activists charged with domestic terrorism and a host of other felony and misdemeanor charges last month.

In the years since demonstrations against fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines gained notoriety, 39 states have *debated* bills to further criminalize protests near oil and gas pipelines and other “critical infrastructure.” Such measures have passed in 18 states. Part of this wave was Georgia’s Senate Bill 1. Introduced in 2017 and eventually voted down, the measure sought to lower the threshold for slapping protesters with domestic terrorism charges, including actions by any one individual against critical infrastructure defined as “public or private systems, functions or assets, whether physical or virtual, vital to the security, governance, public health and safety, economy, or morale of this state or the United States.”* Actions intended to further “any ideology or belief” would also be vulnerable to such charges. Like other such bills, S.B. 1 resembled model policy promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the technically nonpartisan group that has blanketed state legislatures with carbon copies of right-wing priorities like right-to-work and Stand Your Ground laws. As Alleen Brown reported for The Intercept, drawing on research from Greenpeace, fossil fuel companies have been instrumental in pushing for those bills both as ALEC members and through state-level lobbying efforts. 

The 85-acre project the activists in the South Woods Forest were trying to prevent is backed by the Atlanta Police Foundation, one of a number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to funneling corporate money toward police departments. It’s pledged $60 million toward the facility, slated to feature a “mock city for real world training” featuring a fake night club and convenience store—all on land leased to the APF for $10 a year by the City of Atlanta. Residents would be tasked with paying the remaining $30 million it’s projected to cost. As Timothy Pratt reported for Atlanta magazine, public input into the APF’s plans has been sparse. While a majority of comments filed about the facility oppose it, City Council voted 10–4 to move ahead. 

While there are now police foundations in nearly every major city, Atlanta’s stands out. Atlanta is the thirty-eighth-largest city in the country. Its police foundation is the second largest after New York. According to a 2021 report from Color of Change and the watchdog group LittleSis, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s revenue increased by 45 percent between 2018 and 2019. Policing accounted for a third of the city’s $700 million budget in 2022; in 2019, the Atlanta Police Foundation gave the department $11 million. It has purchased 11,000 surveillance cameras, as well as SWAT team equipment.  Less than a week after police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in the summer of 2020—when the chief of police resigned and two of the officers involved were indicted on felony charges—the Atlanta Police Foundation gave every officer in the city a $500 bonus

Police foundation funders nationwide, Color of Change and LittleSis report, include the country’s largest companies and firms that have at one point been private-sector members of ALEC. Among those backers too are the fossil fuel companies that have pushed through protest-criminalization bills, including Marathon Petroleum. The Atlanta-based logistics giant UPS has people in leadership positions in both ALEC and the APF. The APF board of directors, for instance, includes UPS Chief Legal and Compliance Officer Norman Brothers Jr., as well as former UPS Senior Vice President of U.S. Operations Calvin Darden. UPS President of Government Affairs Mike Kiely serves on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council. 

The same interests looking to criminalize protests against fossil fuel infrastructure are also looking to build out an ever more muscular police force capable of enforcing those laws—including against developments like Cop City. The broader logic here isn’t hard to interpret: If protecting corporate profits and priorities is the goal, nothing should be able to get in the way—no matter the cost in human life.

* This article originally misstated that Georgia’s Senate Bill 1 had passed.