WEELAUNEE PEOPLE’S PARK, SOUTHEAST ATLANTA — a pine tree stretches across the forest floor, torn up by its roots. Surrounding it: more signs of disturbance. A crumpled-up tarp, broken glass, splintered plywood. A tent flipped sideways, with slashes running through it.
A few minutes ago, soft sunset light was weaving in through a canopy of tight-knit pines and casting a warm glow over the forest floor, but now the shadows are lengthening. I am here alone. The forest creaks and the leaves shuffle with creatures hidden just out of sight, somehow reminding me that just a week ago, a life was lost on the very ground I now stand upon. Maybe I should be more afraid? I’m not exactly sure where I will be sleeping or how reliable the MARTA is. I’ve never been to Georgia before. And there’s someone else here — besides the creatures, I mean. In the distance. I hear them whistling.
It is a strange evening, made all the more strange by the fact that no part of me feels any fear.
The 2020 George Floyd-inspired riots may not have amounted to as much as some had hoped, but they did manage to seriously freak out the cops. In response to officer complaints of “low morale” and “increased crime” following the Black Lives Matter movement, the Atlanta Police Foundation requested 381 acres of the Weelaunee Forest to create a military training base on the outskirts of the city. Despite public dissent, the request was approved by the City of Atlanta in September 2021 and financially backed by various large corporations (including Amazon, Wells Fargo, Delta Airlines, The Home Depot, and UPS) in the months that followed.
Of the $90 million that the Atlanta Police Foundation plans to spend on the project, two-thirds will come from corporate funding and the remaining third from tax-payer dollars. The APF plans on converting this huge amount of space and money into a military base complete with shooting ranges, bomb and tear-gas testing zones, a helicopter landing pad, a burn building, and a “mock city” where cops can practice urban warfare techniques — the surveillance, control, arrest, and murder of city residents.
The zone has been dubbed Cop City by its overwhelming opposition, and as forest defenders have graffitied all over the city, it will never be built.
As 2021 drew to a close, Atlantans decided to take a more literal approach to their opposition, moving into the Weelaunee Forest in a last-resort effort at preservation. The forest defenders built tree-houses, set up tents, organized meeting areas and events, vandalized weapons and construction tools of the state, and established a welcoming yet non-authoritarian culture of occupation and resistance over the following year. The occupation of the Weelaunee Forest was an anarchist movement — an untelevised revolution. There aren’t any records on who was in the forest, when they were there, or what they were doing. But they werethere — plenty of them. In the trees, on the streets, peaceful and barefoot on the forest floor, hooded and full of rage at the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. They were there, and then they were gone.
While Stop Cop City was a horizontally organized movement — no captains, all captains — there were undoubtedly certain individuals who kept the movement alive with their unique charisma, wisdom, and capacity to organize. Manuel Teran, known in the forest by their alias “Tortuguita,” belonged in that group. Warm, intelligent, funny, brave, and abolitionist to the core, Tortuguita was murdered by the Georgia State Patrol on January 18th, 2023, in a final violent raid of the Weelaunee Forest.
A recent autopsy has revealed that Tortuguita was shot at least 13 times. Georgia Stage Patrol claimed it was in self-defense; that the shooting took place after Tortuguita shot one of their officers in the abdomen (he was wearing a bullet-proof vest and has sustained non-life threatening injuries). However, in early February, body camera footage from just after the event revealed what Forest Defenders have insisted since the fatal shooting: this officer was shot not by Tortuguita, but by The Georgia State Patrol themselves. In the video, one cop clearly says, “man, you fucked your own officer up.” There is footage of almost the entire raid except for the moment in which Tortuguita was murdered.
There’s something shocking about the state-sanctioned murder of a climate activist in the US. Then again. People have been killed by police in this country for less than tree-sitting. Just a week before Tortuguita’s death, 29-year-old father, photographer, and skateboarder Tyre Nicholas was beaten to death by five cops after being pulled over at a traffic stop.
When the Georgia State Patrol killed Manuel Teran, they tore down the entire camp. Many Forest Defenders stayed only temporarily in Weelaunee, but others considered it their home. After their tents were slashed, their tree-sits destroyed, the trees bulldozed, their banners ripped down, and their friend murdered, Forest Defenders were forced to abandon their physical occupation of Weelaunee and take their fight to the city streets.
The Atlanta riots that followed Tortuguita’s death inspired the city to take a tried-and-true route: round up a few protestors, charge them with domestic terrorism, give them bail exceeding $300,000, and see who’s still got the nerve to keep smashing bank windows. Fear is just another one of their weapons, no less effective than rubber bullets and tear gas. Maybe much more effective. Personally, the lack of autonomy that comes with imprisonment is my biggest fear. And who isn’t scared of dying? So the state leverages these fears to dissuade us from radical protest, just like it generates an artificial distrust in us of all potential comrades: women, people of color, people living in poverty, people living in prison, people living on the streets — in the forests.
A quote from Frank Herbert’s “Litany Against Fear” has been circulating on social media and around Weelaunee: “Fear is the mind killer.” Apparently, Tortuguita referenced it once or twice. As I made my way around Atlanta on the MARTA, as I walked through the Weelaunee Forest, and as I talked to different people in the city, I thought a lot about fear. When I felt it, and when I didn’t, and what kind of power it held over me. Fear is the mind killer. I don’t think the quote means that it is wrong to feel fear. I think it means that fear is used to prevent revolutionary thought. But in Atlanta, I realized something wonderful and unsurprising: it goes the other way, too. Thinking revolutionary thoughts rewires your fears. Walking around the city, I felt safest in “sketchy” neighborhoods, on the bus at night, and in the Weelaunee Forest as the shadows lengthened, the footsteps of an unknown anarchist echoing in the distance. I felt the most afraid walking down streets lined with American flags, and when talking to guys who looked fratty, and in the presence of police. And it was a triumphant feeling — fearing the genuinely dangerous over the potentially revolutionary — black cats and street loiterers and the number 13.
In an attempt to locate the source of the whistling, I step up onto the fallen pine. “Hello?” I call out, slightly tentatively. In the remaining light, I see them dismount their bike and turn in my direction. “Hey,” they say, slowly weaving between trees to reach me.
“So everyone is gone…” I offer in greeting. They seem neither surprised by my presence nor my dreamy declaration, but take their time in answering.
“Everything was destroyed. They have nowhere to stay. They’re gone for now.” We both reflexively look around us, as if to confirm that we really are alone; that the carefully constructed forest dwellings and tree-houses have indeed been demolished. All of a sudden, there is a lot to say. They lean their bike up on their hip. Their name is Turkey Tail, and they take it upon themself to bring me up to speed.
“…And that tree you are standing on,” Turkey Tail says at one point, pausing in their summary. I step off of the trunk. “Did you see the banners on the ground? This tree held up one end of a Land Acknowledgement. Instead of just tearing down the banner, the cops ripped out the entire tree.” A few feet away, I see the strings that must have held the banner tangled on the ground. I feel I know where he is going with this — an anarchist argument as old as time.
“This right here, this is the key to the whole thing. What crime did this tree commit to deserve such harm? It simply existed and supported a tree sitter. What crime did the tree sitter commit to deserve such harm? It simply existed to defend a tree —
“How they treat the land is how they treat the people.”
The next day, I return to the forest. A man wearing a trench coat is hauling trash bags to the main entrance. We say hello, and I ask him if he was involved in the movement. “I am now,” he says with a grimace. “Let me ask you — what do you think of the whole thing?”
Something in his tone tells me to let him do the talking — I don’t want to start any fights with this guy. “I think it’s…well it’s definitely…what do you think?” I finish lamely. Is anarchist written all over my face?
“It’s a fucking mess, that’s what I think. People come from out of state. All excited. And then they leave, and they leave more than trash. Today I picked up two notebooks full of people’s names and numbers.” He looks around, takes a more conspiratorial tone. “If anyone were to find those…it’s game over. Game over.”
I think I know what he’s saying, but I still can’t tell whose side he’s on. Before I can respond, though, someone is hollering at us. I jump — from the distance, he looks like a frat boy: short hair and backwards hat — and it’s the first time I felt afraid since arriving. But then he’s walking toward us with his hands held up in surrender.
“Friends of Tort? Friends of Tort?” he yells. I nod until I realize he can’t see me, and then shout back my affirmation.
“What the fuuuuck!” He stops a few feet away from us. “What the fuck man. This is the first time I’ve been back since they killed Tort. It’s a fucking warzone. No one’s down at Space. Have you seen anyone? They tore it all down. This is my wife,” he adds, gesturing to the young woman beside him. She looks like she has been crying. He is restless, looking back and forth as he speaks, not seeming to care too much about who we are.
“Tort was my best friend in the forest. Didn’t know too many others. It started out, I was his weed dealer. But we became friends — ”
“He was everyone’s friend. He was so friendly,” the woman interjects.
“I’ll give you my two cents — ” Trench coat man breaks in.
“If they had killed anyone else, anyone else,” he continues. “I’m not saying it would be any less terrible. But man. Without Tort…Tort was…”
“Did they… did they do a lot of the organizing?” I ask.
“…Tort was the heart of the whole thing.”
“Look — ” Trench coat man explains about the names and numbers he found. “After Standing Rock they put me on the FBI watch list. I’ve been there seven years. And listen, I don’t know how I feel about Antifa coming in here. Antifa comes and then it’s not long before it’s the Klan. All I’m saying is I don’t want a bloodbath. It’s Georgia, everyone’s got a gun. You don’t realize — ”
“You don’t understand what kind of operation this was,” Tortuguita’s friend interrupts. “I showed up here on my first day, gave people my real name. They said if I keep doing that I’m not allowed back.” He continues his surveillance of the forest — rubble on the ground, trees splintered at the edge of the trail — and shakes his head slowly. “It’s fucking trashed. But I think some people are still up at OPL…”
“What?” Trench coat and I say in unison. He just looks at us, as if realizing for the first time we never lived in the forest. “Look, I didn’t say anything. And we gotta run.” The couple turns and continues up the path.
We watch them go in silence. “I’m so sorry about your friend,” I call after them, maybe not loud enough.
But they hear me. “Yeah. Us too.”
I’m from Northern California and the Weelaunee trees aren’t my trees. I couldn’t tell if Trench Coat Man was “on my side” or not. It was hard to discern whether or not Tortuguita’s weed dealer was a fratty flag-waver or a well-meaning insurgent. Uncertainty breeds fear. Fear is the mind killer. And yet, walking out of the forest on that second day, I realized that there are many complex layers to the oppressed and to the resistance they create. Layers and layers that I may not fully understand, nuanced strategies that won’t always resonate with me specifically, ancient & varied forms of defense — including these Atlantan trees and flowers — that I may not even be able to name.
Coming out of the woods, three cop cars pulled into the parking lot and idled there at the edge of the forest. And there was nothing complicated, nothing nuanced about the three cars and the people and weapons within them. I realized that even if these aren’t my trees, those cops will always be my cops.
Before it was the crime scene of Tortuguita’s murder, the Weelaunee Forest was the site of the “Old Atlanta Prison Farm” — a deceiving title, considering the prison was running into the 1990s. There is very limited information available on the Old Prison Farm, undoubtedly due to an effort on the city’s part to gloss over what appears to be a dark history: brutal treatment of prisoners; violent racism; negligence of inmate rights; even multiple prisoners being killed after having to use tetraethyl dithiopyrophosphate — a lethal chemical — as soap. According to the Atlanta Press Collective, there is ample evidence of “systemic abuse, torture, overcrowding, neglect, and racialized violence throughout the prison farm’s history, as well as the possibility that unmarked graves of prisoners exist on the grounds.”
Before it was the Old Prison Farm, Weelaunee was a stop along the Trail of Tears.
This land has seen the police murder of an environmental activist, the brutal treatment and murder of countless Black prisoners, the forceful removal and premeditated genocide of Indigenous tribes, and even more, random yet incomprehensible tragedies — the draining of the nearby Lake Charlotte in search of victims connected to the “Atlanta Child Murders,” the burial of several abused elephants from the Atlanta Zoo.
Maybe you’ve heard of Emoto’s theory on water emotion. He says that water has memory — that its molecules can be shaped by the emotions of the person submerged within it, that it can hold an imprint of substances long after they have been dissolved or removed. That snowflakes form symmetrically when music is played, but come out distorted when they are spoken to harshly.
If water has memory, I wonder about trees.
Tortuguita’s altar is situated at the park entrance, where the majority of the painted rubble is amassed. People have left photos, letters, candles, camping materials, cigarettes, flowers, quotes, even a pair of shoes on the memorial. Each time I pass it, the candles are lit. As I walk out of Weelaunee People’s Park for the last time, I leave a light blue spirit, a pink stone, and a stick of cedar for Tort. Kneeling closer to the altar, a quote someone had jotted down on ripped notebook paper catches my eye. “This little light of mine…will burn it down.”
Someone is coming out of the woods. A journalist, like me.
“Have you been in there?” He asks, out of breath. I nod.
“There’s just…owls flying overhead. Owls. What they’ve done to these people…” His face falls; the writer is lost for words.
As I am nearing the main road, I turn around to get one last glimpse of the forest. I feel I should say something besides for thank you, but all that comes out is, “and good luck.”
Thank you — and good luck — and we will do what we can.
Solidarity from Berkeley, CA