By John Ruch
A DeKalb County commissioner and an online petition are calling for the reopening of a public park shuttered in March to evict “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protesters – a move that could have deep legal and political consequences.
The ongoing closure of Intrenchment Creek Park has underexamined ramifications and motives, as it was the location of the controversial police killing of protester Manuel Esteban Paez Teran – known as Tortuguita or Tort – in an alleged shootout. The timing and location of the armed raid that led to the incident – in a public park during opening hours – is spurring legal and safety questions. And with Teran now an international environmental protest martyr, there’s the question of whether the park will forever be a protest magnet – and if that is why officials allegedly destroyed a makeshift memorial on the shooting site, reportedly including the removal of earth where family and friends had spread the protester’s ashes.
The park is part of a complex nexus of sites and political controversies in Southwest DeKalb. The protest movement is heavily focused on what it calls “Cop City” — the City of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center slated to be constructed on a wooded site on Key and Constitution roads, where some protesters previously camped out as civil-disobedience trespassing.
The park, right next door to the east, is also the subject of debate, as 40 of its approximately 135 acres recently were swapped to a private developer in a deal that is under a pending court challenge by residents and environmental activists. Protesters for months have based themselves in tents and tree houses in various parts of the park, both the disputed swap section and the undisputed public park, which have no obvious boundaries. The protesters also oppose the parkland swap and have dubbed that section the Weelaunee People’s Park and used it for concerts and other public events, while sometimes controlling its entrances with checkpoints and sparking complaints of property destruction and intimidation.
Meanwhile, all of those sites and more are part of the South River Forest, a vision for approximately 3,500 acres of interconnected green spaces in Atlanta and DeKalb. Among the training center’s controversies has been its impact on that City-approved vision, and Mayor Andre Dickens recently launched a “task force” attempting to merge both ideas as a counterprotest tactic.
The Jan. 18 killing of Teran by Georgia State Patrol (GSP) troopers, allegedly after the protester shot one of them, was a turning point in the protest politics, variously used as an example of the ultimate in police violence and protest violence. The troopers did not wear body cameras, leaving major mysteries about who shot first and why, among other controversies about the incident and the overall raid, which was intended to evict protesters from the woods.
Lost in the immediate debate was exactly where the killing happened. According to an official autopsy report, residents and activists, the site was within the non-swapped portion of Intrenchment Creek Park, to the northwest of a field on Constitution Road used by a model airplane club. According to the autopsy report and other official reports, the raid began around 6 a.m. and the confrontation with and killing of Teran around 9 a.m. Under County policy, parks are generally open to the public from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Teran appears to have been camping in the park for some time, which would be a trespass. However, removing someone from a public park during opening hours on trespass grounds raises legal questions – and even after hours, often depending on the method of advance warning and whether it came from someone with property-rights authority, which might not necessarily include police officers. That’s also a background legal issue in the case of a journalist who is preparing to file a First Amendment lawsuit after police officers on the training center property threatened him with a trespassing arrest if he did not delete video footage.
A spokesperson for the lawyers representing Teran’s family in challenges to the police investigation declined to comment. But others are raising the legal question, including international climate activist Steven Donziger, who appeared last month in a local panel discussion about the training center controversy. On Twitter, Donziger posted a video of himself at what he said was the approximate site of Teran’s killing and wrote, “The forest is a public park; police had no lawful basis to evict anybody, much less kill them with a fusillade of bullets.”
The South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), one of the groups challenging the parkland swap in court, has also raised concern about how such raids could affect park users with no affiliation with protests, as well as a general police presence around the area that Executive Director Margaret Spalding likens to a police state.
On March 24, County CEO Michael Thurmond announced an executive order indefinitely closing the park and several other County-owned properties in the area. Thurmond’s announcement focused on another sweep to evict protesters and concern about “hidden traps or other devices designed to injure, maim, or cause the death of adults, children and pets on the property.”
However, the executive order also addressed those legal issues underlying the Teran killing controversy. It explicitly gives a warning about criminal trespass and calls for blockades and the posting of no-trespassing signs.
On March 27, County departments and a team of state and local police agencies from as far away as Johns Creek and Sandy Springs joined in a sweep of the shuttered park. The County later announced it found such items as nail-studded boards and a Molotov cocktail.
But according to residents and activists, it also involved destroying a makeshift memorial to Teran on the site of the killing. The memorial included various objects and a banner reading, “On this ground, GSP assassinated forest defender, comrade, friend, lover Tortugita [sic].” An anonymous source who identified themselves as a local resident and friend of Teran said that officials also used some kind of earthmover to scrape topsoil from the memorial site – apparently to remove the protester’s ashes. “Unbelievably inhumane and spiteful,” wrote the resident in an email. “This sickening act needs to be made public and police should account for this type of cruelty. Is this why CEO Thurmond closed the park?”
The County government was unaware of the specific shooting location and memorial, according to spokesperson Andrew L. Cauthen III. “We are not aware of the existence of a makeshift memorial on county property,” he said.
GSP declined to comment, citing the “ongoing investigation,” though the Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently completed its probe and turned over information to a prosecutor for review. The Atlanta Police Department did not directly respond to a question about the removal of ashes, and the DeKalb County Police Department did not respond.
Regardless, the memorial and its removal highlight the significance of the site as Defend the Atlanta Forest and Teran’s killing continue to grow as an international cause célèbre for left-wing environmentalists, police-reform activists and anarchists. And, despite that extensive sweep in March, the park has remained closed while the private Atlanta Police Foundation forges ahead with land clearance for the neighboring training center amid legal challenges.
Now District 6 Commissioner Ted Terry is introducing a resolution calling on Thurmond to reopen the park. Terry is a critic of the training center plan and is among the appellants challenging its land-clearing permit.
Terry intends to introduce the resolution at a May 2 meeting of the DeKalb Board of Commissioners’ (BOC) Committee of the Whole. According to a copy of the resolution and agenda item provided by Terry’s office, the documents note that County police and other officials said their sweep was completed on March 29, yet the park remains closed, “causing inconvenience and frustration among those who rely on the park for exercise, leisure and relaxation.”
Besides calling for the park reopening, the resolution also requests the County fund and hire “a South River Forest Park Naturalist to assist in restoration and education importance of Intrenchment Creek Park and the South River Forest.” The resolution describes the position as “the land steward for this environmentally sensitive area, with a focus on educational activities about the forest and leading volunteer efforts to restore and revitalize the local environment.”
Terry said he was unaware of the issue of the Teran memorial.
An online petition also calling for the reopening of the park was launched on April 23 by Spalding, the SRWA executive director. As of May 1, it had more than 550 signatures. Spalding said the petition is intended to support Terry’s resolution and that she likely will present it to the BOC next week. The petition refers to reopening the entire park, including the swapped land that is the subject of the legal challenge.
One municipal government nullifies a public park, while the neighboring municipal government commandeers land designated for public use and enjoyment. Still, militarized agents of the state execute a protestor, peacefully occupying the public park as an act of civil disobedience.
What makes activists out to be terrorists is an evil that infests mainstream media and threatens our democracy.
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