Police training site protest has national reach

Ballistic analysis confirms projectile in trooper’s wound matches slain activist’s handgun, GBI says
Demonstrators took the streets to protest in the heart of Little Five Points during a candlelight vigil responding to the killing of a forest protester who exchanged gunfire with a State Trooper Wednesday morning at Atlanta’s planned public safety training center. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Demonstrators took the streets to protest in the heart of Little Five Points during a candlelight vigil responding to the killing of a forest protester who exchanged gunfire with a State Trooper Wednesday morning at Atlanta’s planned public safety training center. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

From North Carolina to Seattle, the police shooting of a protester at the site of a planned public safety training center in Atlanta on Wednesday has reverberated across a wide swath of left-wing activist groups.

The reaction to the death of 26-year-old activist Manuel Teran among groups ranging from environmental activists, radical anarchists and Black revolutionaries in cities around the nation demonstrates the “Stop Cop City” movement has become a symbol of a larger fight on the far left.

Michael Logan, a criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University who studies the far left, said the training center project, planned for a portion of a 300-acre stretch of the South River Forest in DeKalb County, is a unique target for protesters.

“What’s so interesting about this is it combines so many elements of the far left. If you were building a Publix right there, you’d get some environmentalists but not those who are anti-police,” he said. “Because it’s a police training center, you are getting a wider array of individuals.”

That nexus of radical politics and left-wing issues has made the training center a focus of leftist activists from around the country for more than a year now.

The training center has attracted protesters organized around environmental protection as well as those concerned with police violence. Anti-capitalists have targeted private companies working as contractors for the project. Others concerned with the rights of indigenous peoples refer to the site as the Weelaunee Forest, a reference to its historical significance to the Muscogee Creek nation.

Demonstrators have occupied the forest in south DeKalb County for months, building encampments and opposing incursions by police and contractors and stalling the development, often by vandalizing construction equipment. Online, hashtags supporting the movement have come from groups across the nation and internationally, and many of the protesters who have been arrested at the site are from outside the state, including Teran, who was known as “Tortuguita.”

Teran was killed during a police sweep Wednesday in what the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said was an exchange of gunfire with police that wounded a state trooper. The trooper, whose name has not been released, was taken to a local hospital for surgery and is reported to be in stable condition.

The GBI said Teran was inside a tent and fired on police first. A handgun and spent shell casings were recovered from the scene, according to the statement.

Friday evening, the GBI released a photo of the handgun that the agency says was in “Teran’s possession when a Georgia State Patrol trooper was shot.” Officials added that “ballistic analysis has confirmed that the projectile recovered from the trooper’s wound matches Teran’s handgun.”

The handgun the GBI said was in Manuel Teran’s possession is described as a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm.

Credit: GBI

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Credit: GBI

Activist groups associated with the protesters have disputed the police account, and their suspicions have grown after the GBI confirmed, as first reported by WABE-FM, that troopers involved with the shooting were not equipped with body cameras.

The reaction to Teran’s death has revealed how closely left-wing activists are following the protests in Atlanta.

In Portland, Oregon, a city with a history of fringe left-wing activism, protesters held a candlelight vigil for Teran Wednesday night just hours after the shooting. The city already had conspicuous “Stop Cop City” graffiti in support of the Atlanta protesters before Wednesday’s violence.

“The Stop Cop City + the Atlanta Forest occupation is one of the most important resistance actions currently happening in the United States,” an anarchist activist based there tweeted Thursday.

Other vigils were held Friday in Los Angeles; Seattle; Charlotte, North Carolina; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Atlanta.

A group in Austin, Texas, opposed to police sweeps of homeless encampments there has planned a vigil in Teran’s memory Saturday “to connect it to the struggle against police violence here in Austin and across the country,” the group said in a statement posted to Twitter.

A memorial surrounded by candles and flowers pays respect to activist Manuel Teran, who died Wednesday in an incident involving law enforcement officers. Dozens gathered at Weelaunee People’s Park in Atlanta to remember the activist Friday evening, January 20, 2023. (Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Logan said the broader protest movement of the far left is very local and decentralized, so the solidarity shown over the building of a public safety training facility in Atlanta is significant. What happens next could depend on what the public learns about the shooting, he said.

“We typically don’t associate gun use with the far-left movement,” he said.

However, Logan said the left is generally reactive and groups have shown a willingness to meet violence with violence: “If you bring a bat, they’ll bring a bat.”

The prospect of armed radicals ensconced in a wooded area near DeKalb neighborhoods could tip the balance of broader public support, he said.

There have been some online calls for violent retaliation against police in response to the shooting. One Twitter account associated with the Atlanta Forest protesters called for a “night of rage.”

Sean Wolters, a veteran of Atlanta leftist activism, said Teran’s death won’t “break the movement.”

“I think in a lot of ways it will harden their resolve,” he said. ”This issue means so much to people. The solution is so simple: Just cancel the project and it’s all over. Otherwise, I don’t think the movement will stop.”

Kamau Franklin is founder of Community Movement Builders, a southwest Atlanta-based social justice organization that’s taken on one of the more public-facing roles in the fight against the training facility. He said Wednesday’s incident has seemed to drive more interest in the movement, helped it reach “a whole new level of getting to people’s consciousness.”

”We don’t think allowing Tortuguita to sort of die in vain is what needs to happen,” Franklin said.

The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.