The United States has seen a pattern of deeply disturbing tragedies over the last month.
On January 18th, a young man named Manuel Teran, called Tortuguita, was killed in Atlanta during a police raid on a group of environmental activists. The group was protesting the city’s razing of the 300 acre South River Forest in order to build a $90 million “Cop City.” A police officer was shot and wounded in the confrontation and authorities say Tortuguita shot first. They have provided no evidence that this is true, however, and others present at the time have questioned their version of events. No bodycam footage is available.
The situation is a convergence of two societal horrors, both the killing of the environmental activist and also the building of a “Cop City” to begin with. Since 2021, a few dozen “Stop Cop City” forest defenders have been protesting the building of the facility with the support of the direct action advocacy organization Defend the Atlanta Forest. In recent months, however, the activists have been met with increasingly violent police raids.
City officials are trying to paint the forest defenders as the enemy here, to be sure. In truth, however, they are environmental activists trying to save us from the insanity of razing one of the most precious environmental resources in America’s Southeast.
The criminalization of environmental activism has been a well-known feature of Latin American society for decades, but this is the first time that we know of that an environmental activist has been killed as a result of their activism in the United States. Georgia police lied in sworn court affidavits, claiming the climate protestors were designated “violent extremists” by the Department of Homeland Security; in fact, the agency confirmed to the Washington Post that that is not true. Yet still, seven of the activists are now facing charges of domestic terrorism.
Meanwhile, the week before the death of Tortuguita in Atlanta, a young man named Tyre Nichols was brutally murdered by a group of five policemen in Memphis. Nichols had been stopped for “suspected reckless driving,” leading inconceivably to a brutal and murderous beating that led to his death three days later.
The obscenity of Tyre Nichols’ death is not just the horror of his murder; it’s the horror of the pattern it represents. We clearly have a police brutality problem in this country. We obviously need police reform, and there needs to be federal legislation to make it happen. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2021 passed the House of Representatives but failed to pass the Senate, primarily because Senators Manchin and Sinema refused to allow for filibuster reform that would have made the Democratic 50 seat majority powerful enough to achieve it. Others argue for a bill called The Breathing Act, while others have focused primarily on the end of qualified immunity for police officers. Various ideas have been put forth in an effort to transform the institution of law enforcement in the United States, but the resistance to doing so is proving almost insurmountable.
In the meantime, we should not be providing more resources to a system that’s already out of control. While the vast majority of police men and women in the United States are good people doing their best, risking their lives for the rest of us on a daily basis, something is wrong here and we all know it. The militarization of the police is part of the problem, both in terms of equipment and in terms of personnel. Twenty-five percent of police officers are now ex-military, yet the psychological orientation of a soldier is totally and completely at odds with the appropriate orientation of domestic police. A citizen of the United States stopped for a traffic violation is not an enemy. Add to that the very troubling phenomenon of police gangs, the infiltration of police departments by White Supremacists, and the sickening and repeated cases of police brutality, and there is a challenge here that we must confront.
The last thing we should be doing in the meantime is building “Cop Cities.” The Atlanta project is not a stand-alone venture, but rather an idea being talked about in cities around the country. Only an aware and active citizenry can stop this madness in its tracks, with more people running for local office, attending City Council meetings, and refusing to look away from local plans to create something similar in their own communities.
We like to think certain things “couldn’t happen here,” yet some of those things are exactly what have started to happen here. A “Cop City” is simply a terrible idea. Proper civilian oversight of such a project would be very difficult to achieve, and an entire city just for cops would have a striking resemblance to a domestic military base. Separating police from the rest of the population would bolster an us-versus-them mentality at a moment when that is the last thing we need. Atlanta should be taking that $90 million (a third of the money is to come from Atlanta taxpayers, the rest from private and corporate donors) and spending it on things that will actually reduce crime, such as economic, cultural and educational development in the communities where it’s the worst.
“Cop Cities” are infrastructure for a police state, at odds with the very idea of a free society. There is a dangerous connectivity here between police violence against innocent civilians (particularly Black citizens), attacks on environmental activists and other protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, and the failure of our government to adequately address the challenge. Only We the People can solve the problem now, through awareness and non-violent activism. America is standing at a critical crossroads, between what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom” and an authoritarian future inching closer and closer every day. There’s nothing theoretical about any of this. It’s very real and it’s happening now.