Atlanta Captures Part of Disturbing US Crackdown on Environmentalists | Environmental activism
The shooting of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, believed to be the first environmentalist killed in the US, is the culmination of a dangerous escalation in the criminalization and repression of those who seek to protect America’s natural resources, activists have warned.
The death of the 26-year-old man, who was also known as “Tortugita” or “Little Turtle,” in a forest on the outskirts of Atlanta, was the kind of deadly act “people who pay attention to this issue assumed would happen soon, without a sense of joy,” according to Marla Markham, founder of Center for Climate Defiancewhich supports climate protesters.
“The police and the state are callous to the lives of those on the front lines of environmental causes, and I hope this is a wake-up call for those who didn’t know that,” she said. “I hope people take the time to notice what’s going on, because if this trajectory of criminalization continues, no one will be safe.”
The Terran was shot and killed by police when officers from a range of forces swept through the small encampment of a loose group of activists protecting the urban forest on 18 January. Police say Teran shot and wounded a Georgia state trooper first with a handgun, but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the shooting was not recorded on body cameras, prompting calls for an independent investigation.
State and local authorities have responded aggressively to protesters trying to stop the clearing of 85 acres of forest to build a sprawling, state-of-the-art $90 million police training complex — dubbed “Cop City” by opponents because it will include a model city for “tactical” exercises.
Nineteen forest protectors were loaded with crimes under Georgia’s domestic terrorism laws since December. Authorities detailed the alleged acts of so-called terror by nine of the individuals facing charges, which include enter, build a campsite and sit in the trees of the forest, 300 acres of land that once contained a prison farm but is now one of the largest urban forests in the US.
Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, who declared state of emergency and mobilized 1,000 National Guard members for the protests, blamed the problems on “out-of-state insurgents” and “a network of militant activists who have committed similar acts of domestic terrorism across the country.”
Georgia’s response to the protests follows a troubling pattern of environmental and land rights defenders in the US being threatened, arrested and charged with increasingly drastic crimes, including terrorism, for opposing oil and gas pipelines or destroying forests or waterways , advocates say.
“This was intended as a chilling deterrent to show that the state can kill and imprison environmentalists with impunity. It reflects a trend toward escalation and violence to distract from the real problem of corporate interests encroaching on lands,” said Nick Estes, author of Our Story is the Future: The Standing Rock Against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Native Resistance.
The current crackdown on environmental and land rights defenders can be traced back to the aftermath of 9/11 and the broadening of the definition of terrorism that sparked a wave of arrests known as “green threat” targeting so-called eco-terrorists.
This then spurred the subsequent proliferation of state legislation criminalizing—or at least attempting to criminalize—all forms of civil disobedience, including Black Lives Matter protests and opposition to fossil fuel projects such as pipelines designated as critical infrastructure, primarily to protect business interests over the environment and concerns for indigenous sovereignty.
“Criminalizing land and water defenders and Indigenous nations using critical infrastructure security laws can be traced back to the Patriot Act. This has contributed to the current escalation by allowing the definition of terrorism to be more vague and expansive, which is intended to have a chilling effect on peaceful protesters,” said Kai Bosworth, author of Pipeline Populism and assistant professor of geography at Virginia Commonwealth. University.
The 2016-17 uprising against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which crosses the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota and threatens tribal lands, cemeteries, and water sources, prompted a brutal response from authorities that can be seen as before and then how environmentalists are policed.
Law enforcement used automatic rifles, sound cannons, stun grenades and police dogs against the protesters, resulting in hundreds of injuries as personnel and equipment poured in from more than 75 agencies across the country. Local leaders and journalists were among hundreds of arrests – including 142 in one day in October 2016 – with multiple felony charges and hefty fines.
From then20 states in total have passed laws that impose stiff penalties for obstructing “critical infrastructure,” such as making the offense a crime, or have introduced vaguely defined domestic terrorism laws that have been used to target environmentalists and local communities. In all, 45 states have considered legislation restricting peaceful protests, and seven currently have pending legislation.
These laws “succeeded in really stifling dissent and instilling fear in people,” Markham said. Much of that fear has been fueled by the labeling of protesters as “terrorists” by senior elected figures like Kemp, according to Ellie Page, senior legal counsel at the International Nonprofit Law Center, who has tracked anti-protest accounts.
“We see autocrats around the world use this kind of rhetoric to tame dissent,” Page said. “The widespread demonization of protesters we’ve seen from politicians calling them terrorists or mobs is incredibly damaging. I think this creates an environment where violence against protesters is not out of the question and that more of these tragedies are going to happen.
Many of the laws of the states share language prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec)a right-wing group backed by fossil fuel companies.
In Florida, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, for example, a “riot” is considered any unauthorized action by three or more people, while in Florida, Oklahoma, and Iowa, drivers who injure protesters block traffic, a common tactic used by environmental activists. environment, receive legal immunity.
In Arkansas, an “act of terrorism” is considered anything that causes “substantial damage” to a public “monument,” which can include graffiti. In 17 Republican-controlled states, protesters face up to 10 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines for violations.
The widespread enforcement of these laws, as well as accompanying legislation that criminalizes people and organizations that support allegedly dangerous protesters, “chills activism and makes it riskier for people to engage in their right to protest,” Page said.
“Many of the laws have such broad language that they make constitutionally protected speech illegal,” she said. “It gives authorities the right to apply the law to an activity they don’t like… We know that fossil fuel interests promote these kinds of laws.”
As the criminalization of peaceful protestors has spread, so has the implementation of new fossil fuel project projects under both Democratic and Republican administrations—despite the escalation of costly and destructive extreme weather events caused by climate collapse.
“There are no effective federal efforts to help protesters or protect against criminalization,” said Charmaine Chua, an assistant professor of global studies at the University of California. “If you’ve been paying attention to the way cops indiscriminately kill people and the fierce antipathy to protest movements trying to solve climate change, it’s hard to be surprised by Manuel’s death, but it still feels unprecedented.”
Sabine von Mehring, one of about 900 protesters who were arrested to oppose the Line 3 pipeline, which carries oil through Minnesota, said she was “deeply shocked” to hear of Terran’s killing, but hopes it will spur more people to get involved in climate activism. “Any criminalization of protest is an attack on our democracy,” said von Mehring, an academic at Brandeis University.
“On Line 3 there were several instances of police being extremely aggressive and violent, it was traumatic to witness and I’m an old white lady – I haven’t been through the worst of it. The accusations were used to intimidate and quell the protest.
For critics of the fossil fuel industry, the Line 3 protests are a prime example of their ability to shape law enforcement agencies that increasingly crack down on their opponents. In 2021, it appeared that Enbridge, the Canadian company behind the pipeline, reimbursed US police $2.4 million for arresting and monitoring hundreds of demonstrators along Line 3. The payments covered employee training, police surveillance, wages, overtime, food, hotels and equipment.
Stephen Donziger, a lawyer who was embroiled in a long-running legal battle with Chevron on behalf of indigenous peoples in Ecuador, said the payments were part of a “dangerous trend” of fossil fuel influence on the functions of government and the law.
“As we approach the tipping point of no return on climate change, efforts to silence advocacy for a clean energy transition are intensifying,” Donziger said. “To attack young people trying to preserve a forest with a military-style attack is completely inappropriate, but unfortunately a sad reflection of where the country has come to.”
“For weeks these people have been called terrorists, which is a complete misuse of the word. The police were led to believe that these people were terrorists, and what do you do with terrorists? In the US you kill them. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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