The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Atlanta, a deadly forest protest sparks debate over ‘domestic terrorism’

A photo of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, a protester shot and killed by law enforcement, is seen Saturday at a makeshift memorial in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)
14 min

ATLANTA — Manuel Esteban Paez Teran seemed to be everyone’s favorite social justice activist.

As an honors psychology student at Florida State University, Paez Teran built community gardens to feed the homeless and frequented demonstrations to support the plight of Palestinians and combat proposals by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to crack down on Black Lives Matter marches.

Then, in May, Paez Teran heard activists in Georgia’s capital were holed up in a 300-acre forest to prevent it from being developed into a massive police training facility, a proposal that has reignited tensions in Atlanta over whether the city should be spending more money on its police force.

“They just knew they had to be there,” Eric Champagne, 36, said of Paez Teran, who was nonbinary. “They saw this as a wake-up call and said they needed to go help.”

Now the 26-year-old activist is dead. Police say that Paez Teran fired a bullet that struck an officer on Jan. 18 and that police then shot and killed the Venezuela native. The death — and a violent protest in downtown Atlanta over the weekend in response — has become the latest flash point between protesters and police after Atlanta was rocked by racial justice protests in 2020.

Violent protests broke out in Atlanta on Jan. 21, demonstrating against the police after authorities killed an environmental activist days earlier. (Video: AP)

The dispute over the training facility has also sparked a heated debate over the state’s application of a relatively new law being used to charge over a dozen protesters with the crime of “domestic terrorism.” The 2017 state law can be used against those who “disable or destroy” critical infrastructure, “intimidate” civilians or “affect the conduct of the government.”

Free-speech advocates and civil liberties leaders say the law is so broad it in effect can be used to stifle even peaceful forms of dissent. It also carries a harsh penalty: a maximum sentence of 35 years behind bars.

The controversy highlights the broad mistrust that exists between conservatives and liberals in Georgia. Many states now have their own domestic terrorism laws, and critics say they could be wielded along ideological lines in places like the Peach State.

“They should not be charged with this law, because this law should not be on the books in Georgia,” said Christopher Bruce, policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “This law is overly broad, and it could actually quell political speech, which is what every American should be concerned about.”

Supporters of such laws counter they can help protect government buildings and businesses from unruly mobs or other acts of violence, especially when disturbances are carried out or orchestrated by individuals who live out of state.

Over the past week, amid mounting questions about Paez Teran’s death, environmental activists from as far as Berlin have organized vigils or protests to honor them. Environmental groups claim that Paez Teran, who also went by the nickname Tortuguita — meaning “little turtle” in Spanish — was unjustly killed and are calling for an independent investigation. They note that no body-camera footage has been released to back up officers’ claim that Paez Teran fired the first shot.

“With each passing day, this becomes more and more questionable,” said Marlon Kautz, 38, an activist with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an umbrella group that supports the forest protesters.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation says there is no body-camera footage of the alleged shooting because state patrol officers are not required to wear them. While many of Paez Teran’s friends are doubtful the protester would have fired at an officer, one person told The Washington Post they harbored harsh attitudes toward police and owned a gun. Investigators claim forest protesters were far from peaceful, throwing molotov cocktails, rocks and fireworks at officers. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) recently referred to the protesters as “militant activists.”

“While some may not take this issue seriously, I can assure I do,” said Kemp, who on Thursday declared a state of emergency and activated 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to help respond to future protests.

‘The lungs of Atlanta’

The forest at the center of dispute is one of the city’s biggest green spaces and has a storied history. During the Civil War era it served as a plantation, and in the first half of the 20th century it was home to a federal penitentiary. Eventually it was transferred to the Atlanta city government.

Gloria Tatum, a social justice and environmental activist, said city leaders initially promised the South River forest area would be transformed into a public park and bike trails that connect to other green spaces in a rapidly growing part of the region.

“These are the lungs of Atlanta,” said Tatum, 79, who noted the forest is a natural habitat for deer, coyotes, turtles, birds and trees that help cool the city. “Just like the Amazon serves as the lungs of South America, these woods are the lungs of Atlanta that help us all breathe.”

But in September 2021, over considerable objections from the community, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) pushed a proposal through the Atlanta City Council to build a 90-acre police training facility on part of the property.

At the time, Bottoms and other council members were trying to repair relations with a police force battered by resignations and early retirements following months of upheaval, protests and community outrage over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Atlanta was also rocked by weeks of demonstrations after an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in June 2020 as he attempted to run away from officers.

The proposed $90 million Public Safety Training Center — billed as one of the largest in the nation — is slated to be built with a combination of public and private money, including about $30 million from the city government.

The Atlanta Police Foundation, which is spearheading the project, says the center is needed to “improve morale, retention, recruitment and training” for officers and firefighters and ensure the city attracts well-qualified recruits.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (D) has also defended the project, telling CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that it will be “a state-of-the-art training center” that will allow for “21st-century policing.”

Advocates who have been pushing for less confrontational forms of policing aren’t convinced — noting the center is slated to include a firing range.

“We are opposed not only to its placement, but we are opposed to it based on what it represents, particularly for the Black community,” said Kamau Franklin, a veteran Atlanta organizer and founder of the Community Movement Builders.

Over a year ago, a coalition of activists took their concerns into the forest. Their goal: block construction of the training center.

Protesters pitched tents, built treestands, and hiked in water tanks and food supplies throughout a square-mile area. Some structures were made of wood and fortified against the elements — including one insulated using campaign signs for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). Protesters settled in for an extended occupation.

“Everyone was friendly and welcoming,” said Adam Brunell, 31, who attended several Jewish holiday dinners at the camp over the summer and fall. “Many people literally made this their home because they couldn’t afford rent and had been kicked out of their homes for their gender identity.”

But on some trails, protesters also erected barriers using logs, tires and old fences. Police have also accused protesters of laying booby traps.

Linda Ragland and her husband, Kumi, live across the street from several trails that protesters used to reach their camps. The couple sympathize with the protesters and also have concerns about whether the police training center is needed.

Although they said most protesters were peaceful, the Raglands’ concerns escalated throughout the fall as tactics turned more confrontational. One morning, Linda Ragland emerged from her house and discovered someone had lit several tires on fire on her street to block vehicle access.

“Things have just started getting a little bit too intense,” said Linda Ragland, 49. “The fire was literally 10 steps from my mailbox.”

Protesters behind bars

In December, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and several local law enforcement agencies raided the forest after several small skirmishes between protesters and police. Authorities said in a statement they recovered “explosive devices, gasoline, and road flares” from campsites.

In a series of public comments after the December raid, Kemp vowed that the initial arrests marked only the start of efforts to clear the forest.

“These individuals are part of a broader network of militant activists who have committed similar acts of domestic terrorism and intimidation across the country with no regard for the people or communities impacted by their crimes,” Kemp said in a social media post. “We will bring the full force of state and local law enforcement down on those trying to bring about a radical agenda through violent means.”

A police report for one of the arrested protesters states that the Department of Homeland Security had “classified” a group known as “Defend the Atlanta Forest” as “domestic violent extremists.” The report also accused the group of vandalism; “throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks and fireworks at uniformed officers”; and discharging firearms.

A DHS spokesman denied that the agency had labeled any group called “Defend the Atlanta Forest” as an extremist group, saying the agency “does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists.”

But the spokesman said the agency does share information with state and local officials when it believes domestic groups or individuals could resort to violence. DHS declined to detail any discussions it may have had with Georgia officials about the protesters.

Some activists and civil rights leaders say law enforcement is going too far.

“For one thing, there is no organization called ‘Defend the Atlanta Forest’ — it’s a political slogan said by many people across many different organizations,” said Kautz, with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. “Secondly, the idea that voicing a political slogan in a protest makes you guilty of ‘domestic terrorism’ is clearly a violation of the First Amendment.”

Five protesters were arrested in early December and another seven on the day Paez Teran was shot. The arrested are in their 20s and 30s. Another six were charged after violent protests in response to Paez Teran’s death.

Bruce, who believes this is the first time Georgia’s domestic terrorism law has been used, accused prosecutors of “overcharging” protesters by using a broad statute instead of simply compiling evidence to link them to a specific crime, such as arson. He said prosecutors use that tactic to try to keep suspects in prison without bail or goad them into accepting plea deals.

Bruce lobbied against the law in 2017, fearing it was designed to detain Black Lives Matter protesters in the aftermath of protests that erupted after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“What I was told behind closed doors is, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. It will never get used,’” Bruce said. “Six years later, we are now having this conversation.”

‘I might be killed’

Paez Teran was born in Venezuela, but their family bounced around Aruba, England, Russia, Egypt, Panama and the United States. The future protester’s former stepfather was a high-ranking executive with Shell, said their brother, Daniel Esteban Paez, 31, a U.S. Navy veteran. Because of the variety of places the family had lived, Paez Teran considered themself a citizen of the world.

While at Florida State in Tallahassee, Paez Teran’s interest in politics grew. They collected signatures in support of President Biden’s 2020 campaign, Daniel said. Later, Paez Teran took on a range of liberal and social justice causes, including becoming active in LGBTQ rights groups and Food Not Bombs, according to friends and family members.

“My sibling was the kind of person that sometimes you would worry about because they worry too much about others instead of worrying about themselves,” Daniel said. “If my sibling made $1,000, [they] would spend half of it on helping the homeless.”

Champagne, Paez Teran’s friend in Tallahassee, said the activist took a keen interest in the arrest of Daniel Baker, the leftist ex-soldier arrested in January 2021 after he urged attacks against the far right in response to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Paez Teran wrote Baker a letter in prison and attended several of his court hearings, Champagne said. Baker was later sentenced to 44 months in federal prison.

Champagne said of Paez Teran that the ordeal “kind of flipped a switch for them and got them thinking in an even more political direction.”

Donna Pearl Cotterell, 59, a Tallahassee social justice activist who hosted Paez Teran in her home from mid-2021 to May 2022, said they spent most of their time tending community gardens to feed the homeless or responding to calls for help from homeless LGBTQ youths in the South.

“I just remember he was always out picking up trans folks who had hitchhiked from Jacksonville, or wherever, and needed a place to go,” Cotterell said.

Once they moved to Atlanta to occupy the forest, Paez Teran had a reputation for being kind, supportive and idealistic. Fellow campers had an ironclad rule that guns were not allowed in the forest, a friend at the camp said.

“There is no part of me that — and I know Tort very well — that will ever convince me, without body-camera footage, that Tort did anything to justify being shot down,” said Kiara, 41, a fellow campsite protester who would only identify herself by her first name because she worries about being targeted by law enforcement.

But Cotterell said she wasn’t surprised after learning law enforcement’s version of events.

Cotterell said Paez Teran had purchased a handgun while in Tallahassee because they worried about becoming the victim of a hate crime. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation confirmed Paez Teran purchased in 2020 the firearm authorities say was used in the shooting. Cotterell said they also frequently espoused harsh statements about law enforcement, often bringing up the slogan “ACAB” — All Cops Are Bastards.

“We would go to the shooting range and shoot sometimes,” she said. “I am going to be honest with you … if anyone was going to shoot a cop, it would have been Manny. He just really hated cops.”

Nonetheless, she has since seen a picture of the gun investigators say Paez Teran used in the shooting and is convinced it is not the same one she had seen them with. Cotterell says she has grown increasingly skeptical of officials’ account of what transpired.

In an interview with the Bitter Southerner last year, Paez Teran described being fearful of police.

“Am I scared of the state? Pretty silly not to be,” Paez Teran told the digital publication. “I’m a brown person. I might be killed by police for existing in certain spaces.”

With the Georgia Bureau of Investigation vowing its investigation will continue, both activists and city leaders are bracing for the next chapter of the saga.

During the raid last week, police drove heavy machinery deep into the forest, knocking down tents and treehouses that had been used by the protesters. Activists promise they will keep showing up to protect the forest.

“This is how change happens,” said Rachel Durston, 36, who attended a vigil for Paez Teran at the edge of the forest last week. “Unfortunately, usually many, many people have to die. So I hope it won’t take very many.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.