The spirit of Tortuguita lives on during the Block Cop City week of action.

By Ricci Sergienko

Editors note: this piece was originally written in November and was never published. In honor of Tortuguita’s angelversary and what activists are calling today the ‘Day of the Forest Defender’, we have decided to publish this in the memory of Tort. 

First and foremost – VIVA VIVA TORTUGUITA! Justice for Manuel Esteban Paez Terán! 


Please excuse my extended introduction but let me explain why I was drawn to the forest in November by the memory of Tortuguita (“Tort”). I, and many others, have believed the effort to stop cop city to be one of the most important social justice struggles of our modern time. And that was before the state turned it up a notch in January of this year, when Tort was shot 57 times by Georgia State Patrol SWAT troopers during a raid in the Wauleene Forest. An autopsy showed Tort was shot while sitting in their tent with their hands up.

After the murder of Tortuguita, the city of Atlanta and state of Georgia immediately began the cover up. The cops friendly fire’d themselves & used that as justification for killing Tort. It was announced in early October that the cops who killed Tortuguita would not face criminal charges.

The cover up has continued to evolve. 61 Stop Cop City protestors are facing RICO charges and 42 separate domestic terrorism charges, raising serious concerns about overreach among legal experts . Three activists are facing charges of felony intimidation for distributing flyers about Tortuguita’s killing.

As Kamau Franklin, long-time organizer and founder of Community Movement Builders, said on Democracy Now the other day, “what we are witnessing in Atlanta is a rebirth of the COINTELPRO movement to stamp out organizers, to scare people into not speaking up and participating in movements… People involved in acts of civil disobedience are now facing domestic terrorism and RICO charges.”

After Tort’s death, their partner and friend said in a interview with Unicorn Riot, “Tortuguita read Revolutionary Death [could be Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton’s autobiography or Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission] last summer. They knew it was very possible that they would have this revolutionary death. They were prepared and unfortunately they paid the ultimate price. They were a true revolutionary and gave their all to this movement. Now it’s our job to take up that banner and carry on their name.”

The struggle to Stop Cop City has steadily escalated for the past few years. In short, the City of Atlanta has leased 381-acres of Weelaunee Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for a police training facility funded by corporations. The project will cost over $100 million, destroy parts of forest and disproportionately impact residents of the nearby majority-Black neighborhood. For a primer on all that has happened, read Micah Hershkind’s piece in SCALAWAG:

Block Cop City

Fast forward to Monday, November 13th, when nearly 500 people gathered in Atlanta for a mass nonviolent direct action to “Block Cop City.

I must first say it is beautiful how wide and vast this movement to stop cop city is – from abolitionists, to climate activists, to Indigenous groups, to religious leaders, to voting rights activists, and of course anarchists. I’ve long admired the diversity of tactics in the Stop Cop City movement. There is a lot to learn from this action and I hope organizers and activists can take things away from this piece. This thread from Defend the Atlanta Forest on Twitter is required reading.

Brave stop cop city activists have remained vocal and active in the face of one of the strongest state repression campaigns in recent history. The cops shot and killed Tortuguita earlier this year, 60+ people are facing RICO charges, and people still showed up to say STOP COP CITY!

The march began with a festive gathering in Gresham Park where participants adopted an explicit commitment to nonviolence and heard from a few speakers, including Joel Paez (father of Tortuguita) and Kamau Franklin (long time organizer, founder of Community Movement Builders). The stated goal of the demonstration was to shut down construction for the day.

The spirit of Tortuguita was alive and well in the forest, Tort’s father said “we are going to continue defending the forest. We are going to continue defending the legacy of Tortuguita. We are family. You are my family.”

Reminding folks what it means to step up and challenge state power, Franklin said “Now is not a time for cowardice. You are either with the oppressed or with the oppressors. You are either with the people or the pigs. You cannot stand in the middle. You cannot be on both sides. You cannot close your eyes to the terror of policing that happens in this world.”

Among the things activists can learn from this action is from how it looked. It was beautiful! Banners and flags and giant puppets. Drummers and a brass band. Wambli Ska Society drum circle. Green thumbs ready to plant trees. Matching overalls! The energy was phenomenal. Imagine standing in the street and seeing THIS march at you!

As the march began towards the training site, riot police staged at one of the tunnel entrances, which they believed to be the route of the protest. However, the protestors took a turn into the neighborhood and then began to march down Constitution Road. Once on the four lane public road, the police began to instigate the protestors by riding next to them with their loud sirens on.

The police began to make a line about 100 yards in front of the protest. I would like all of you to take a moment and look at these pictures of how the cops showed up to this protest:

The cops showed up looking like they were wanting and ready for war. There were lots of photojournalists out this day, and one was able to capture this amazing shot:

They brought out a tank nicknamed “The Beast.” The police looked like an occupying army, which makes sense considering they train with the IDF.

I just want to say before moving forward that the police absolutely cannot come out into the middle of a public street and attempt to quash a protest just because they do not like the protest’s message. There was no dispersal order given. The protestors were well within their First Amendment rights to march in the streets.

The protest marched down the street towards the police line. The cops confronted  the protestors and launch themselves and their shields into the banners that were at the head of the march. This RootsAction tweet showing the initial confrontation has received over 3.5 million views.

Within about 30 seconds, the cops set off the first tear gas canister in the direction of the left side of the protest, next to where the press was documenting. Then a few seconds later, another tear gas canister was thrown into the middle of the protest. Additional rounds of tear gas were thrown into the crowd and even into the woods, where it could have started a fire.

So much was happening in so little time but this shouldn’t get lost in the mix – the treatment of the press. The police seemingly threw one of the first tear gas canisters in the direction of the press gaggle. Then the police pushed the press down the street and continuously threatened press with arrest if they didn’t obey. In the pictures attached you can clearly see press was still on a public road.

I spoke with Carlos Berrios Polanco, one of the journalists who was tear gassed, pushed by the police and threatened with arrest. He told me, “I believe that was a clear attack on journalists. We’re seeing it in Gaza right now. Journalists are prime targets for people with power to attack because they are the people who can get what’s happening on the ground then get eyes on it around the world as fast as possible…Though I do not think I am on the same level as journalists in Gaza, I started reporting on things because shit was fucked up and I want it to change and that’s not possible if journalists are getting attacked as we were yesterday.” The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has published a report on this incident.

Atlanta police’s treatment of the press and the comparison to Israel should come as no surprise. This isn’t discussed much in the mainstream but the IDF may become a component of the proposed Cop City, thanks to the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE). Read about the activists trying to shut the program down:

(Side note: I saw this wonderful graphic on Instagram with a drawing of Tortuguita and Gaza journalist Plestia Alaqad that said “From Cop City to Palestine, question who the state labels a terrorist.”)

After the march, organizers claimed victory. Their goal of shutting down construction for the day was successful! Organizers said, “Despite the violent response by police, activists minimized arrests and harm through careful planning, extensive preparation, and close attention to lessons learned from generations of revolutionary struggles against repression and authoritarianism.” You can read the Block Cop City press release here. There was one arrest reported off-site. The person was eventually let go.

At a police press conference later in the day, Atlanta Police Department Chief Darin Schierbaum alleged protesters brought “makeshift weapons.” He was referencing the little shovels protestors brought to plant trees in the forest, as seen here. The police had trouble maintaining control of the narrative, considering the whole world had seen their abrupt violence unfold on social media.

I think organizers would consider the whole week a success, as it was reported last Friday, November 17th, that there had been no active construction on the proposed site all week! It was also reported that one of the contractors behind the project recently dropped out, just days after several construction trucks were sabotaged.

Being around Tortuguita’s mother and father this weekend in Atlanta was powerful. Tort’s passion burns as fire in my soul. We will never stop telling your story!

The hope remains – COP CITY WILL NEVER BE BUILT! Solidarity with everyone taking action right now. VIVA VIVA TORTUGUITA!

Ricci Sergienko is an organizer based in Los Angeles, interested in the growing people’s movement around the world. You’ll find him on the internet, somewhere.