The Repression of Stop Cop City Is a Chilling Evolution in Policing of US Climate Activists

Abe Asher / Jacobin

US climate defenders have long faced serious threats, but the intensity of the crackdown on Stop Cop City protesters in Atlanta is an escalation. It’s reminiscent of conditions in Latin America, where climate protesters’ lives are frequently on the line.

When Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was shot fifty-seven times and killed by law enforcement officers at Cop City outside Atlanta in January, much of the American environmental movement was stunned.

The Guardian wrote in its coverage that experts believed the killing of Terán, known as “Tortuguita,” was “‘unprecedented’ in [the] history of environmental activism.” Keith Woodhouse, a professor of history at Northwestern University, told Jacobin that it was the first time in American history that law enforcement officers had shot and killed an environmental activist engaged in forest defense.

Even beyond the gratuitously violent killing of a very possibly unarmed twenty-six-year-old, the state’s response to the Stop Cop City movement has frequently been framed over the last several months as a chilling escalation of the tactics it is willing to engage in to quash environmental defense — a watershed moment, of sorts, for the US climate movement.

At the end of May, an Atlanta Police Department SWAT team working in coordination with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided a residential home in East Atlanta, arrested three board members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, and charged them with money laundering and charity fraud in an apparent attempt to kneecap their efforts to organize legal support for arrested protesters.

The Atlanta Solidarity Fund’s work has been especially vital in recent months as Cop City protesters have been subject to mass arrests and trumped-up charges including domestic terrorism. Several activists are facing up to twenty years in prison for placing flyers on mailboxes in a Bartow County neighborhood. Governor Brian Kemp has warned that “domestic terrorism will not be tolerated in this state.” His words have received backing from the Department of Homeland Security, which has listed Cop City protesters alongside mass shooters and violent white supremacists as terror threats facing the country.

To be clear: only one police officer has been injured in the course of policing, and while police say that officer was wounded by a protester, there’s evidence to suggest he may well have been hit by friendly fire. The supposed violence of the Stop Cop City protest pales in comparison to the violence the construction of Cop City will inflict — the destruction of hundreds of acres of forest, the loss of public land, and the expansion of the corporate police state in what is already one of the most surveilled, inequitable cities in the country.

As the climate crisis intensifies, the question is whether the persecution of climate defenders in the United States will intensify along with it — whether the brazenness and severity of the campaign against the Stop Cop City activists is a preview of what is to come elsewhere.

Climate defenders in the US have long faced threats to their lives and livelihoods. But the intensity of the threats protesters in Atlanta are facing is reminiscent more of the risks climate defenders routinely face in the Global South, where both activists and journalists are routinely jailed and killed in their defense of land and water. Of the 401 human rights defenders killed last year, nearly half were killed defending the climate. Of those, the majority were killed in countries like Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and Honduras — places where the United States has historically exported policing strategies and devalued life.

Now, as states and corporations race to seize land and accumulate resources, that kind of policing may be coming home.

“It’s been normal for a while that militarized states, whose purpose is the facilitation of capital, are using mechanisms and strategies of counterinsurgency . . . to repress movements defending land and water,” Jared Olson, an investigative reporter working in Latin America, told Jacobin. “Now that’s coming back north. Now you’re seeing a little bit of that increasingly creep into the United States.”

The killing of Terán may be unprecedented for the modern US climate movement, but the militarization of policing climate protesters in the country did not start this year in Georgia. The use of counterinsurgency tactics to police climate defenders in the United States goes back at least to 2016, when the global security firm TigerSwan used a variety of methods including aerial surveillance, social media monitoring, radio eavesdropping, and undercover infiltration to build dossiers on the climate defenders at Standing Rock. The Intercept reported earlier this year that TigerSwan has since pitched its counterinsurgency approach to handling pipeline protests to a variety of other oil companies. Three years before TigerSwan was contracted to work at Standing Rock, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service covertly surveilled opposition to an Enbridge pipeline project in the western part of the country.

Georgia is also far from the only state with a domestic terrorism law on the books that can be used to persecute climate defenders. Since 2016, more than twenty states have enacted laws restricting protest rights — with a number of those laws specifically penalizing protesters who impede “critical infrastructure.”

For Olson, the manipulation of the legal system — even more than direct physical violence — is the principal strategy states and corporations are using to slow organizing and protect extractive interests. He pointed to the arrest and arbitrary detention of a number of Guapinol defenders in Honduras as an example.

“In Latin America, oftentimes you show up expecting to see bloodshed — which does happen — but what’s generally happening on a larger scale is criminalization,” Olson said.

It’s not just states and corporations that are responding to crisis conditions. It’s also the climate movement, which, recognizing the extreme time pressure it’s under, has been changing its tactics. That’s one of the reasons Woodhouse expects the level of violence protesters face to continue to rise in the coming years, even if neither he nor Olson believe the United States will become as dangerous for climate defenders as Latin America due to their differing historical and political conditions.

“I think that there is a very high likelihood that we’re going to see more and more confrontations between activists and police and more and more heavy-handed action by police, in part just because we’re going to see more and more direct action by activists,” Woodhouse said. “That’s sort of where the climate movement has been moving in fits and starts for ten, fifteen years now.”

There’s another important way the US climate movement is increasingly mirroring its counterparts in Latin America: the Stop Cop City movement is not simply about the fate of a swath of forest, but rather about the future of the city of Atlanta and the militarized police state itself. It’s a threat to corporations and their enforcers in a way that less intersectional climate movements have not been — as evidenced in part by the simple and head-spinning fact that the majority of the funding for Cop City is coming not from the city itself or any kind of state entity but rather from the Atlanta Police Foundation, which is contributing $60 million in donations from corporations to finance the project. Donors to the foundation’s fundraising drive for the project include Bank of America, Chick-fil-A, Georgia Pacific, Rollins, and Coca-Cola, who are all betting that the police trained at the facility will help them continue to change Atlanta from a city for people to live in to a city for them to profit from.

The Stop Cop City movement has centered the fact that the training center is being built on stolen Muscogee land, the ancestral home of people driven away by the US military not two centuries ago. The climate crisis itself is the result of projects like this one, the extraction of both people and resources from the land to feed the inexhaustible capital and war machines. Seen through that lens, the killing of Terán, who was indigenous, appears not as an aberration but as a return to form.

“I think the United States was built off the murder of environmental defenders, so I don’t necessarily see this as an escalation,” Jayson Maurice Porter, a postdoctoral research associate in environment and society at Brown University, said. “I don’t see [Terán] as a first example of an environmental defender killed by the state.”

There are other, local historical echoes. Fort Moore, just outside of Columbus, Georgia, remains home to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — the institution formerly known as the School of the Americas, where US military personnel trained scores of the worst human rights defenders in Latin America during the latter half of the twentieth century, the people whose institutions continue to brutalize climate defenders in the region today. The School of the Americas was launched as a means of fighting the Cold War and protecting US corporate interests abroad, but it shouldn’t be a surprise when those same tactics are deployed domestically too.

“There’s been all sorts of thinkers who talk about how fascism actually isn’t an aberration; fascism is just a particular moment when imperialism comes back and bites its own tail — when, for whatever reason, the colonial violence in Africa becomes Nazi violence against Jews,” Olson said.

At its core, Stop Cop City is about nothing less than fighting for democracy and habitability and the right to dissent. The level of repression the dissenters have faced is a reminder of the movement’s power, the new worlds its coalition might just be able to build.

“For this generation of environmental activists, it’s sort of second nature to bring together a lot of different issues that used to be seen maybe as distinctive and disparate,” Woodhouse said. “It’s a more totalizing critique.”