Photo via Stop Cop City ATL.

Tortuguita Lived for Peace; Georgia Police Made Sure They Died for It

Content warning: police violence.

Tortuguita, named by family Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known affectionately to many as Tort and more recently as Cami, was a beloved community medic. On the morning of January 18, they were murdered in a sleeping tent by members of the Georgia State Patrol during a surprise raid on Weelaunee Forest. They were in the forest providing medical care to tree sitters and other defenders opposed to the creation of a police militarization center known as “cop city.” They were 26 years old.

I knew Tort — just barely, not nearly well enough — and my heart breaks that I will never know them any better. They meant the world to so many friends of mine all across the city. Though relatively new to Atlanta, they were someone who knew everyone — they were part of the living, beating heart of the community. Their slaying stole from our city a person of rare goodness who had dedicated their life to myriad ways of helping others instead of pursuing a career. It is not possible in a brief summary of their life to do justice to their existence.

Their brother, Daniel Paez, said of them on their family’s GoFundMe: “Tortuguita was Indigenous Venezuelan of Tomoto-Cuica descent, queer, non-binary, and always the biggest light in any room they entered. They were an eco-anarchist, Forest Defender, and community member.”

Tort was a prolific activist who spoke eloquently about the need for nonviolent resistance to police and carceral violence. An abolitionist, in interviews they expressed their hope for a future without prisons, where everyone would be free.

Throughout their communities, Tort was known for their dedication to the liberation of queer, trans, and Indigenous people of color. It was a dedication shown not merely in words, but practiced daily.

They were a trained street medic who studied a curriculum for community-based first aid, called a 20-hour training, that traces its roots to the model of community street medicine invented by Freedom House. Tort ran as a medic at protests and provided free medical care at community clinics. In the forest, they fulfilled the role of an onsite nurse for basic medical needs. In the event of a shooting, they would have been equipped to provide lifesaving first aid.

Even now, after their killing, their work still serves to keep others safe. They taught Atlanta bar staff to save the lives of shooting victims following the homophobic attack on Club Q in Colorado.

According to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, Tortuguita “spent their time between Atlanta, defending the forest from destruction and coordinating mutual aid for the movement, and Florida, where they helped build housing in low income communities hit hardest by the hurricane.”

At their memorial two days after their death, friends recalled their support of the unhoused community in Atlanta and Florida with their work for groups including Food Not Bombs.

When neo-Nazis in Tennessee threatened a drag event at a small-town bookstore, Tort drove for hours to be there and protect the families in attendance. A medic who often worked with them later told me they had faced down fascists armed with guns.

In the forest, police increasingly relied on the terrorization of its defenders to break resistance to construction. SWAT team-led raids on camp became a monthly occurrence. In the months leading up to Tortuguita’s death, police armed and armored with military equipment shot at them with pepper balls — powerful chemical irritants fired from a gun — and threatened to shoot them with assault rifles. Many of their friends were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for no more than being accused of camping in the path of construction.

Roughly a month before their death, Tort mentioned to friends that they feared for their life from the police.

Despite facing extreme violence, Tortuguita was known among activists for their tranquility. They had no love for conflict and advocated for a peaceful existence in the forest with respect and consideration for nature and community members. When David Peisner asked them about an incident in the forest, they responded: “I don’t crave conflict. I’m out here because I love the forest. I love living in the woods. Being a forest hobo is pretty chill. Some folks probably have flashpoint moments where it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, the truck is being lit on fire!’ But not me. I love it when everything is calm.”

Their death marks the first government killing of an environmental activist for blocking construction in the United States, according to the Guardian.

In many other respects, however, their killing underscores the continuous inequity of state violence.

Tort was a queer, trans, Indigenous activist from Venezuela known by many for their words about peace, defending the environment, and abolition. They were killed by police officers with military equipment for opposing the ecologically disastrous creation of a police militarization center in a predominately Black neighborhood, on land stolen from the Muscogee (Creek), that had been subsequently turned into a site of slavery and imprisonment — and which is thought to include unmarked graves. Tort’s murder, its cause, and its place combine to form a horrific illustration of the interconnectedness and historical continuity into the present of oppressive violence as a systemic part of this country. Moreover, the state’s deliberate misrepresentation of the pacifist as a violent terrorist in a naked effort to blame Tort for their own murder stands as a testament to the ongoing use of racism as a justification for state violence, even under Democratic administrations.

We may never know the exact circumstances of their killing. The problem is not that there is a lack of witnesses — Tortuguita’s tent was likely surrounded by SWAT police at the moment of their death — but a blue wall of silence, misdirection, and lies. The Georgia State Patrol, whose SWAT team carried out the shooting, notably does not issue body cameras. They were one of the only police forces on the scene not to use them. Their Atlanta counterparts had body cameras filming on the day of the raid, but were not present at the site of the shooting when it happened.

In the absence of body camera video, the police narrative of events has been essentially self-serving, but this should come as no surprise. The police have a vested interest in presenting their actions as self-defense to avoid punishment, and given their position of authority, they seem unlikely to be held accountable for misrepresenting events in their favor. In no other aspect of life would we permit such a structural void of checks and balances, but the police are, and it’s decidedly for the worse.

On February 7, exactly three weeks after Tortuguita’s murder, the Atlanta Police Department quietly released four videos taken from four APD officer’s body cameras. All the officers were in the same group and were just out of sight of where the shooting happened. At 9:01am on January 18, four suppressed shots are heard, followed by 20 to 40 more suppressed gunshots in rapid succession. The APD was close enough to hear shouting immediately after the shooting. A minute later, one cop says of the shooting, “You fucked your own officer up.” While it is clear from the video that he did not see it happen, the suppression of the shots, which multiple officers comment upon in the video, leads to one logical conclusion: Tort did not possess a silenced weapon, which would mean that GSP SWAT team members were equipped with them.

In the minutes following Tort’s murder, the videos document a litany of police self-endangerment, even as they shout repeatedly to each other not to get in front of their own lethal weapons. We see APD members surround a green tent with their guns drawn, only to realize that in such a circle they risk shooting each other. Awkward reshuffling ensues to turn the circle into a crescent, but then they accidentally expose most of the unit to chemical irritants anyway, which they suffer, coughing and spitting, without protection. Talking with each other about what they have just heard, the officers seem to accept immediately that the situation was friendly fire and everything we see about how they operate seems to confirm the plausibility of that assessment. They seem totally unaware, in the forest environment, where their coworkers are in the trees around them.

Comments at the end of three of the videos indicate that as of 9:20am, Tortuguita’s body was still in the tent where they were assassinated, obscured from their killers. According to an independent autopsy, they were shot at least 13 times. Around 10 to 30 bullets missed. It is possible the GSP SWAT team never saw who they were shooting at. In the videos we see police preemptively shooting a dozen pepper balls, lethal weapons drawn and pointed, into an empty tent. Everything points back to the same conclusion. Given the police proclivity to surround tents, the suppressed gunfire, and their own unfiltered conclusions, it seems highly likely to me that one cop shot another in the course of killing Tort.

For many who paid attention to the intensifying raids in the forest, this turn of events seemed inevitable. The policy pursued by Atlanta, Decatur, and the state of Georgia was one of deliberate escalation that relied upon the threat of lethal violence and trumped-up charges in an attempt to terrorize the forest defenders into surrender. That threats of lethal violence would become lethal violence approached inevitability the longer the raids went on. There are only so many times guns can be pointed at people without going off. Every child with a BB gun knows not to point it at people for that very reason. The choice to repeatedly raid the forest with SWAT teams was like flipping a coin until inevitably, eventually, it came up tails. It was too deliberately methodical to call it a reckless endangerment of life. It was the deliberate creation of the conditions for violence to happen.

Over the past month I have imagined, again and again, Tort’s final moments. Where were they? What did they see, what did they hear, what did they feel? In the absence of details, it’s just as plausible that they could have been standing in the forest before a line of cops when it happened. Now the more likely story seems that they were in a sleeping bag, staying warm against the January chill. Perhaps they heard footsteps, a shout; perhaps it woke them. Who wouldn’t be terrified? Maybe they moved and went to open the tent flap, or maybe they tried to stay still and quiet. When you are awoken in a tent by people threatening to kill you, outside, where you cannot see them, how do you respond? Four suppressed shots. Then what happened? Did one of those bullets hit the wounded cop? Did the others see his injury and open fire? Did they fear Tort more now that they had likely wounded them? Did others just decide it was time to join in? A suppressed fusillade. The first weapon keeps firing, and several others join it. Then shouting for a medic for the wounded officer. Quiet confusion over the police radio. “Man … you fucked your own officer up.” Confirmation that an officer was injured. An ambulance is called, and the officer’s evacuation is organized. Nearly 20 minutes later an APD unit walks into the site of the killing after a tense standoff with an empty tent. Three of them start talking with an officer who asks them if they were there. A fourth walks near what might be Tort’s tent. The four videos stop. How long after that before Tort received any care? Did anyone feel regret or shame for the terrible violence just committed?

Tort believed in the possibility of a peaceful world without police or prisons, a world where everyone would be free. We have forgotten that before both had become fixtures of modernity, there was no need for them. It is not that people were better in the past. In no part of history have people been so well behaved as to never wrong each other. Rather, the innovations of police and prisons were never intended to solve that problem. It is well documented that policing in this country originates from slave catcher patrols. Its overall function has not so much changed as been updated to match the modernized conditions of prison slavery and ongoing de facto segregation. Law and order can be indifferent, even opposed to humanity, peace, and justice. We owe it to Tort to understand this and not, out of a mistaken realism, to turn our backs to liberatory possibilities. What is now is not forever.

“The abolitionist mission isn’t done until every prison is empty. When there are no more cops, when the land has been given back, that’s when it’s over.” — Tortuguita