ATLANTA – Tortuguita’s cautious voice rang out from a platform amid the tall pines the first time Vienna met them: “Who goes there?” she remembers them calling.
The tree-dweller, who chose the moniker Tortuguita – Spanish for “Little Turtle” – over their given name, was perched above the forest floor in the woods just outside Atlanta last summer.
Vienna quickly identified herself, and Tortuguita’s watchfulness melted into the bubbly, curious, funny persona so many in the forest knew. They welcomed the newcomer and helped her settle in alongside the other self-proclaimed “forest defenders” on an 85-acre (34-hectare) site officials plan to develop into a huge police and firefighter training center. Protesters derisively call it “Cop City.”
“It was a magical experience for me, being able to live out our ideals,” Vienna told The Associated Press, recalling how the protesters shared clothing, food and money, all while engaging in community activism. She and Tortuguita quickly fell in love during those warm, late summer days.
That was before. Before a Jan. 18 police operation that ended in gunfire, leaving 26-year-old Tortuguita dead and a state trooper hospitalized, shot in the abdomen. Officials have said officers fired in self-defense after Tortuguita, whose given name was Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, shot the trooper. Activists argue it was state-sanctioned murder.
Outrage over the events has galvanized leftists around the world, with vigils from Seattle to Chicago to London to Lützerath, Germany.
Environmentalists for years had urged officials to turn the land into park space, arguing that the tall, straight pines and oaks were vital to preserving Atlanta’s tree canopy and minimizing flooding.
Vienna, 25, recalls her first four months there as joy-filled. There were campfires and sleepovers, in her tent or Tortuguita’s, nestled in the large wooded tract that activists call the Weelaunee Forest, the Muscogee (Creek) name for the land.
City Council approved the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale beset by hiring and retention struggles in the wake of violent protests against racial injustice that roiled the city after George Floyd’s death in 2020.
The planned development, largely financed by private corporate donations, enraged activists. Trees would be razed to build a shooting range, a “mock village” to rehearse raids and a driving course to practice chases. All would be within earshot of a poor, majority-Black neighborhood in a city with one of the nation’s highest degrees of wealth inequality.
Like many of those who took to living in the forest to oppose the development, Tortuguita was an eco-anarchist committed to fighting climate change and halting expansion of a police state, Vienna said.
Beyond the distrust many in the “Stop Cop City” movement have toward police, six people who knew Tortuguita told the AP that authorities’ allegations about the protester's final encounter do not match up with the person they knew: someone who, almost to a fault, always put others first.
“They were genuinely so generous and loving and always wanted to take care of people,” Vienna said of her partner, who last year took a 20-hour course to become a medic for the activists. “Their biggest thing was building communities of care.”
Tortuguita’s brother, Daniel Esteban Paez, said his sibling was even growing long hair to donate to children with cancer.
Tortuguita was a “citizen of Earth,” Paez said, growing up in their home country of Venezuela as well as Aruba, London, Russia, Egypt, Panama and the U.S. as their stepfather’s oil industry career led the family around the world. Tortuguita graduated magna cum laude from Florida State University and had been active in Food Not Bombs, helping feed homeless people in Tallahassee, Florida.
They had lived for several months among the “Stop Cop City” campers, a group whose reputation had been growing among leftist activists.
The campers built platforms in the trees and slept out, seeking public support and to block construction. They barricaded forest entrances and have been accused of threatening contractors and vandalizing heavy equipment.
Officials recently ratcheted up pressure. In December, authorities said firefighters and police officers were removing barricades to the site when they were attacked with rocks and incendiary devices. Vienna was among six arrested and accused of domestic terrorism for allegedly throwing rocks at fire department and emergency services workers, as well as a moving police vehicle. She’s fighting the charges in court.
The allegations are designed to scare others away from the cause, argued Marlon Kautz of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a group providing legal aid to those arrested.
“These charges are purely being brought for the sake of putting activists in jail ... and demonizing the movement in the public eye,” Kautz said. “When we see the authorities using the criminal justice system to chill speech and prevent activists from associating with the movement, that is a grave threat to democracy.”
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston declined to comment on the specific facts of each case but said "if a person uses threats and violence in an effort to force a government entity to change a policy ... that is defined as Domestic Terrorism according to the Georgia statute.”
A month after the December altercation with police, Tortuguita was dead, killed as officers tried to clear remaining protesters from the site. Seven others were arrested on domestic terrorism charges during what authorities called a “clearing operation.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said there is no body camera or dashcam footage of the shooting, but that ballistic analysis shows the trooper was shot by a bullet from a handgun in Tortuguita’s possession.
The GBI said Tortuguita was inside a tent and did not comply with officers’ commands prior to firing at authorities. Vienna declined to comment when asked whether she knew if her partner had a gun, though the GBI says records show Tortuguita legally purchased the firearm in 2020.
Vienna and other activists have questioned the official version of events, calling the shooting a “murder,” accusing officials of an inconsistent, vague narrative and demanding an independent investigation. The GBI says it has a “track record of impartiality” when investigating officer-involved shootings.
On Jan. 21, violence and vandalism broke out when a masked contingent among hundreds protesting in downtown Atlanta began throwing rocks and aiming fireworks at a skyscraper housing the Atlanta Police Foundation. Activists then lit a police cruiser on fire and smashed a few more windows. No injuries were reported.
Authorities arrested six more people that night on charges including domestic terrorism, saying that “explosives” had been recovered. Police declined to elaborate when asked whether they were referring to fireworks or more dangerous incendiary devices.
“Make no mistake about it: these individuals meant harm to people,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said during a news conference Saturday.
In response, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday declared a state of emergency, giving him the option of calling in the Georgia National Guard to help “subdue riot and unlawful assembly.”
Paez, Tortuguita’s 31-year-old brother from Texas, said his family is heartbroken.
“Our family doesn’t want violence toward cops, but we also don’t want violence from cops,” Paez told the AP. “I’m just terrified at the thought that the tactics that were used to kill my sibling are going to be replicated at Cop City.”
He bristles at the allegation that Tortuguita was a domestic terrorist. They were too kind. Too smart. Too caring.
“He was a privileged person but he chose to be with the homeless, to be with the people that needed his caring,” said Tortuguita’s mother, Belkis Terán, who lives in Panama.
For a long time, Paez said he did not care about the forest’s fate. He was far more concerned about Tortuguita’s safety.
“I told my sibling, ‘If you were ever to die, I’m going to dump oil and hazardous materials in your stupid forest,’” Paez recalled, his voice cracking. “They called my bluff. I care about the forest now.”