Belkis Terán spoke to her son Manuel almost daily via WhatsApp from their home in Panama City, Panama. She also had the names and numbers of some of Manuel’s friends in case she didn’t hear from the 26-year-old, who was protesting “Cop City,” a proposed giant training facility being built in a wooded area near Atlanta, Georgia.
In the middle of the week, having had no word from Atlanta since Monday, she began to worry. Around noon on Thursday, a friend of Manuel’s sent her a message of condolences. “I’m so sorry,” they wrote. “For what?” She asked.
Terán eventually discovered that around 9:04 a.m. Wednesday, an unnamed officer or officers shot and killed her son. The shooting occurred during an operation involving dozens of officers from the Atlanta Police Department, Dekalb County Police, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.
The murder has stunned and shocked not only Manuel’s family and friends, but also the environmental and social justice movement in Georgia and across the United States. The circumstances of the incident are still unclear and a thorough investigation into the murder and its possible origins is called for.
Police apparently found Manuel in a tent in the South River Forest, southeast of Atlanta, where he was now in his second year attending a protest against plans to build a $90 million police and fire training facility on the land and separately Film studio.
Officials say Manuel fired first at a state police officer “without warning” and one or more officers returned fire, but they have provided no evidence to support the claim. The soldier was described as stable and in hospital on Thursday.
The shooting is “unprecedented” in the history of US environmental activism, experts say.
The GBI, which operates under the orders of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, has released scant information, telling the Guardian Thursday night that no bodycam footage of the shooting exists. At least half a dozen other protesters who were in the forest at the time have told other activists that a single gunshot was heard. They believe the state trooper could have been shot by another officer or by his own firearm.
Meanwhile, both Terán and local activists are considering legal action, and Manuel’s mother told the Guardian: “I will go to the US to defend Manuel’s memory… I am convinced he was murdered in cold blood.”
The incident was the latest in a spike in law enforcement raids on the forest in recent months.
The protests had started in late 2021 after then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans for the training center. The forest had been named on city plans four years earlier as a key element in efforts to preserve Atlanta’s famous treetops as a buffer against global warming and create the metro area’s largest park.
Most of the residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the forest are black, and city planning has neglected the area for decades. Plans to preserve the forest and make it a historical public feature were approved in 2017 as part of the Atlanta City Charter, or Constitution. But the Atlanta City Council approved the training center anyway, and a “Stop Cop City” movement began in response.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the region’s largest daily newspaper, began a series of editorials and news articles berating the activists. At least a dozen articles over the past year and more have failed to mention that Alex Taylor, CEO of the newspaper’s owner Cox Enterprises, was also raising funds on behalf of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the main agency behind the training center.
At some point, Kemp and other citizen leaders began labeling the protesters “terrorists” in response to acts of vandalism such as burning construction vehicles or spraying down company offices related to the project.
In an interview with this reporter last fall, Manuel discussed how some people in Muscogee, Creek, who are also interested in protecting the forest, felt leaving a burned vehicle at one of its entrances was not a good thing Idea and an alienating presence in nature. The activist was understanding for both sides and critical of violence.
“Some of us [forest defenders] are rowdy gringos,” said Manuel. “They are simply against the state. Still, I don’t know how you can connect to anything if that’s your entire political analysis.”
Police raids on the forest intensified until Dec. 14, when half a dozen “forest defenders” were arrested and charged under state law with “domestic terrorism” — another unprecedented development in U.S. environmental activism, said Lauren Regan, founder of Civil Liberties Defense Center, who has a quarter-century of experience defending environmental protesters charged with federal terrorism, sentencing amends, and others.
Seven other activists were arrested on the day of Manuel’s killing and faced the same charges.
Regan and Keith Woodhouse, a history professor at Northwestern University and author of The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, both said there had never been a case in which law enforcement shot an environmental activist who was attempting to protect a forest being demolished and expanded will.
“In other countries, like Brazil, Honduras, Nigeria, state killings of environmental activists are depressingly commonplace,” Woodhouse said. “But that’s never happened in the US.”
Manuel’s older brother, Daniel Esteban Paez, found himself in the midst of that unfortunate historic moment on Thursday. “They killed my sibling,” he said on the phone. “I’m in a whole new world now.”
Paez, 31, was the only family member who spoke at length with GBI officers after calling them Thursday for answers about the incidents. As of Thursday afternoon, no one representing Georgia law enforcement had contacted Belkis. “I found out quickly that they’re not investigating Manuel’s death — they’re investigating Manuel,” Paez said.
Paez, a Navy veteran, said the GBI officer asked him questions such as “Does Manuel often carry guns?” and “Has Manuel protested in the past?”
The family is of Venezuelan origin but now resides in the United States and Panama, Paez said. Less than 24 hours after discovering his sibling’s death, Paez also said he had “no idea Manuel was so viewed and loved by so many.” He was referring to events and messages ranging from a candlelight vigil in Atlanta on Wednesday night Messages of solidarity being broadcast on social media from the US and around the world.
Meanwhile, Belkis Terán is trying to get an emergency appointment at the US Embassy in Panama to renew her tourist visa, which expired in November. “I will clear Manuel’s name. They killed him… like they tear down trees in the forest – a forest that Manuel loved passionately.”