Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway with MHP, from WNYC and PRX, in collaboration with GBH News in Boston.
Belkis Teran: My child, Manuel Esteban Paez Teran was killed here in Atlanta on the 18th of January 2023. We still do not know anything. He was killed, our most beloved family member and the most caring person that any group of people could have, and there is only silence.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening here to Belkis Teran, the mother of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, a young, indigenous Venezuelan activist, who was known by friends and fellow activists as Tortuguita. In January, they were killed by police during a law enforcement raid of the peaceful encampment of forest defenders. These are, of course, social and environmental justice advocates, who are part of a broad coalition resisting the proposed 85-acre, $90 million public safety facility training center known as Cop City.
Belkis Teran: Manuel loved the forest, gave them peace, they meditate there. The forest connect them with God.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Initially, official reports claimed that police fired on Tortuguita after they refused to follow one officer's directions and fired on another officer. Last week, an autopsy report conducted by the DeKalb Medical Examiner's Office found no gun residue on the activist's hands. Now, back in March, The Takeaway talked with some people who had known Tortuguita, and they offered their memories.
Male Speaker: I knew Tort, you know what I'm saying? They used to tend the fire a lot so we would hang around the fire. They were very involved in the movement. Every time I saw them, they were dressed in camo, they had the canteen, always fetching wood.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Last Sunday would have been their 27th birthday.
Matt Scott: My name is Matt Scott. I'm a member of the Atlanta Community Press Collective.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Atlanta Community Press Collective is a nonprofit media collective in Atlanta. We talked with Matt about the latest developments surrounding Cop City, and the lingering questions about police violence against resistors.
Matt Scott: There have been now two autopsies released. There was an independent autopsy performed by a medical examiner picked by the family's lawyers, and that was released back in March, and that found that there was no evidence of gunshot residue on the hands of Manuel Paez Teran or Tortuguita as protesters called them. Then last week, the results of the first autopsy that was conducted by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner's Office were released.
Those results also said that there was no evidence of gunshot residue found on the hands of Tortuguita. It does mention upon visual inspection. It does not specify whether the medical examiner went to any further steps themselves. It does say that the medical examiner did a gunshot residue test kit and sent that to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to actually have the test run.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind us why that matters because this comes into direct conflict with what police said in the context of their shooting and killing.
Matt Scott: The police narrative changed just a little bit over the course of the first 24 hours, but the narrative ended up being that Tort fired or was not responsive to officer commands and fired from their tent at officers, striking and injuring one and being killed in return gunfire. Protesters have maintained pretty adamantly that that does not line up with their experience or expectation of Tortuguita. Then a little while later, the City of Atlanta released some body camera footage, and when they released that, ACPC caught a clip that had an officer essentially say that that officer believes that GSP had shot their own guy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How is the community of activists and resistors to Cop City feeling doing thinking in this moment, given these developments?
Matt Scott: There was definitely an outpouring of, I would say anger and a little bit of joy and confirmation that their suspicions were proved correct last week. Of course, there is a report that came out yesterday. The GSR test kit report that says that there was evidence of gunshot residue on Tortuguita's hands. However, that residue could have come from the actual bullet wounds to the hands themselves. The news sparked a series of protests. This past weekend, actually, on Sunday would have been Tortuguita's 27th birthday.
There were events throughout the city over the weekend. Then actually starting yesterday, students at campuses across Metro Atlanta engaged in a unified protest at their own campuses. In two of those student protests, one at Georgia Tech and one at Emory actually engaged in overnight occupations. The Emory occupation was broken up by police at around 2:00 in the morning and the Georgia Tech occupation continued throughout the night and they are facing increased harassment as the morning goes along today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I know that earlier this week, you attended a city council subcommittee meeting about the proposed Cop City. Are there key takeaways we should know about?
Matt Scott: Yes. The Public Safety Legal Administration subcommittee meets on a biweekly basis. Their meetings are Monday afternoons. They are the committee that has direct purview over anything related to the Public Safety Training Center or Cop City. They typically do not talk about it. It is not a subject that they want to engage in if they can avoid it. City council likes to say that this is already a done deal and all they can do is try to improve it. It's not often a topic of conversation. However, during public comment yesterday, many of the public commenters were there to speak against Cop City from a variety of perspectives.
Some said that they like police and they want police, but this project is militarized and doesn't need to go there. Others were more abolitionist and bent and were against police in general. Most of these comments were anti-Cop City. There were a couple interesting Cop City developments in that meeting. Last Monday, Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari introduced a paper, papers are how legislation begins in city council.
Bakhtiari introduced a paper that would request and simply request because the City of Atlanta cannot make this order, request that Georgia State Patrol and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations be mandated to wear body cameras anytime that they are operating. That is important. The SWAT team that killed Tortuguita was a Georgia State Patrol SWAT team, and they are not required to wear body cameras. There is no body camera footage of the incident or direct body cam footage, I should say, of the incident.
Now, protesters with the Cop City movement would certainly want or not want the takeaway to be that police need more body cameras. However, this is a fairly common elected official stance that more body cameras are always a good thing. The paper moved from full council into the PSOA subcommittee yesterday where it was brought to vote and the Councilperson Bakhtiari or Councilmember Bakhtiari is not a member of this subcommittee.
However, they did come to the meeting so that they could talk about this particular piece of legislation. When it went to vote, three of the members abstained from voting, and this is pretty atypical. Usually, bills like this move through. Unanimously, maybe have one no-vote if it's maybe a little off the cuff. For three abstentions to happen is an indication that something else is at play here behind the scenes. Possibly some pressure from elected officials on the executive side of things, maybe the mayor or maybe the governor, but it was unexpected.
However, the other three individuals who were there voted yes. The legislation will move on to full counsel this upcoming Monday. We'll have to see how it progresses there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, stay right there. We're going to have more of our update on Cop City when we return. It's The Takeaway. Since the start of this year, we've been following developments about the proposed Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia. In recent months, 42 people have been arrested and are facing charges of domestic terrorism for their role in resisting this plan development. Right now, we're still with Matt Scott from the Atlanta Community Press Collective.
Matt Scott: At this point, there are six protestors who are still being held in two separate counties on charges of domestic terrorism. The three protestors who were being held in Fulton County had been arrested at a protest following the killing of Tortuguita back in January. They have been held for 90 days. There's a project that was created during the COVID era called Project Orca that stipulates that once you have been held for 90 days, you are to receive a second bond hearing. This was their orca bond hearing that they would have attended yesterday.
However, lawyers for the state and defense attorneys came to a consent agreement to grant bonds to all three of these individuals. Two are granted $25,000 bonds and one was granted $125,000 bond. They're able to be bonded out at this point as soon as the paperwork goes through, and that can be a lengthy process. Those three individuals and the three individuals in DeKalb County Jail all have preliminary hearings on May 3rd. This will be something that we'll watch.
This is the first time that the state will have to present evidence against any of the domestic terrorism defendants. Both of the preliminary hearings for both counties are going to happen at the same time so there will be a lot of coverage coming out that day. The state is trying to move the DeKalb hearings to an in-person-only hearing and not have them streamed, which will cut off public access to these hearings and is causing a bit of an uproar in the activist community here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering what the message out of the continuing resistance to Cop City and then the pushback against that by city officials and by policing, what are the messages to students of abolition, to the contemporary struggles against these kinds of developments and investments in policing? What are people supposedly learning from this moment?
Matt Scott: This I would say is a perfect example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Every time that the state pushes back, protestors come out harder. It does not seem like either side is willing to step down at this point. I cannot see protestors giving up this fight no matter how far into this construction the project itself gets. The project has started clearcutting at this point, and that is a large cause for concern amongst the protestors.
What we're learning is that every time protestors do something like engage in property destruction or sabotage equipment, the state comes back and says, "We want peaceful protests. We will accept peaceful protests." The focus really for the last month and a half has been these so-called peaceful protests. Of course, they have always been disrupted or broken up by police as we've seen with the student protests that are happening at college campuses and the occupations at Emory and Georgia Tech last night.
These were peaceful protestors. They were simply sleeping or setting up temps in the campus Quad and Atlanta Police Department and Emory Police Department came in a large show of force, intimidating show of force to try to quell these protestors. While they say they want peaceful protests, what they really want is for their power not to be challenged.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Matt Scott, of the Atlanta Community Press Collective, thanks for joining us.
Matt Scott: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You can catch up on all of our coverage of Cop City on our website and our podcast. It's The Takeaway.
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