The family of an environmental activist killed by police three weeks ago at the site of Atlanta’s new public safety training center is demanding answers about what happened, and calling on authorities to be more transparent.
The mother of Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Teran choked back tears as she remembered the 26-year-old, who was shot 13 times on the site — a forested property in southern DeKalb County.
“I never thought that taking care of a park could be so dangerous,” Belkis Teran said Monday at a news conference in Decatur. “All Manuel wanted to do was protect the forest.”
Teran’s family described the Venezuelan native as someone who cared deeply about the environment and did all they could to help those in need.
Authorities said Georgia state troopers and several other agencies were conducting a Jan. 18 “clearing operation” near the training center site when they came across Teran and other activists camped in the woods.
Teran is accused of shooting at officers “without warning,” and wounding a trooper before several other officers returned fire.
Credit: Courtesy photo
Credit: Courtesy photo
The GBI, which is leading the investigation into the police shooting, says it has tied the bullet that struck the trooper to a gun found at the scene, and provided documents showing Teran purchased the same gun in Sept. 2020.
There is no body camera footage of the shooting, something about which attorneys for Teran’s family are incredulous.
Civil rights attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits said they have requested a meeting with GBI Director Mike Register, and are calling on the state agency to release any video, audio or drone footage from the scene that might shed light on the incident.
“Whatever happened in the forest, this family deserves to know,” Filipovits said.
The attorneys also questioned law enforcement’s decision to charge other activists with domestic terrorism, saying it creates a dangerous precedent that could be used to silence future protesters across the country.
Filipovits read from police affidavits, which described fellow activists sleeping in hammocks, occupying treehouses and refusing to climb down when asked to leave the site.
“We used to call that a sit-in protest,” he said. “Now it’s domestic terrorism.”
He also criticized law enforcement’s use of the term “outside agitators” to describe the activists, many of whom are not from Georgia.
Supporters say last month’s police shooting marks the first time an environmental activist in the United States has been killed by the government.
GBI officials issued a press release Monday afternoon saying the agency is investigating the actions of “all individuals connected to this incident, including Teran and law enforcement.”
“We are not releasing any videos currently because agents are continuing to conduct key interviews and want to maintain the integrity of the investigation,” the GBI press release says. “We ask for your patience while we go through the processes needed to complete the investigation. At that time, our case file will be given to a special prosecutor.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement was out en masse at the training center site Monday morning, clearing the woods in anticipation of construction of the controversial facility beginning in earnest.
SWAT teams from the Atlanta and DeKalb police departments were on scene with GSP troopers and representatives from other agencies. Construction contractors were also seen bringing heavy equipment onto the site.
The operation began several days after officials announced that initial land disturbance permits had been approved for the $90-million facility, which will be used as training center for Atlanta’s police and firefighters.
Amid the beeping of trucks backing up and the clanging of heavy equipment off Key Road, construction workers busily prepared the site with a backhoe and a bulldozer. Police officers in olive green uniforms patrolled the area atop all-terrain vehicles.
There were no protesters in sight, and no arrests were made. But Margaret Mason Tate, who lives nearby in East Atlanta, complained to reporters about the frequent police presence, adding the noise makes it difficult for her to homeschool her young son. A helicopter hovered above the construction site as she spoke.
“I don’t know a neighbor of mine who is excited about this project. And I know I am not,” she said. “I want to invest my tax dollars into the city of Atlanta and not cop city. There is absolutely no way I can adequately express how distressing it is to feel like I live in a war zone because it sounds like this all the time. And it is going to keep sounding like that.”
Back at the press conference, Teran’s father, Joel Paez, said his child was “a special human being,” even if the two didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
“From my point of view, (Manuel) needed to get a formal life, a formal job, settle down and have a family,” he said. “I told him, ‘Manuel, you cannot worry about the whole world ... You are not Greta Thunberg.’
“I was wrong.”
Guided by ideals, Paez said Teran was able to accomplish a great deal in their short life and died standing up for a belief.
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