After Manuel Teran aka Tortuguita was killed in a shootout with police outside Atlanta, David Peisner published a story about him. The story focused a lot on Teran’s commitment to peaceful protest, something the activist had stressed when talking to Peisner for a story about the Forest Defenders. But in light of Teran’s decision to shoot a police officer, Peisner was going back over those interactions and wondering if he’d been taken in by someone who knew what he wanted to hear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Teran’s commitment to nonviolence today. Law enforcement and other critics of the forest defenders have continually labeled the movement as “violent,” pointing to multiple acts of arson and property destruction as evidence. There were also incidences of throwing rocks, bottles, and — on one occasion — two largely ineffective Molotov cocktails in the direction of police. Forest defenders will point out that their movement is autonomous and decentralized, meaning that no one is giving orders or laying down rules, so there is no collective responsibility for any individual’s actions. That may be true on a theoretical basis, but in reality few people outside of the forest defenders and their ardent supporters are making that distinction. That said, until the incident that killed Teran and wounded the trooper, none of the so-called violent acts committed by the forest defenders led to any real injuries that I’m aware of. Some may consider property destruction in and of itself to be violent, but there’s been a real blurring of the lines between that looser definition of violence and the one that is aimed at actual people.
Is it possible that Teran was lying to me about their allegiance to peaceful protest? Could they just have been telling me what they thought I wanted to hear or what would look good in print? Of course, that could be true. Is it possible that in the time since we had those conversations — time during which Teran witnessed the increasing destruction of the forest — they’d been radicalized and changed their mind about violence? Sure, that’s also a possibility. But I personally saw no evidence of it.
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie,” they told me. “I don’t crave conflict. I’m out here because I love the forest. I love living in the woods. Being a forest hobo is pretty chill. Some folks probably have flashpoint moments where it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, the truck is being lit on fire!’ But not me. I love it when everything is calm.”
But this week, we’re getting a glimpse of Teran’s inner life thanks to a diary that was found in his tent after the shootout. And the diary seems to contradict his claims about liking it when things are calm.
The personal diary of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an activist who died after exchanging fire with police near the site of the planned public safety training center, was filled with phrases such as “Cop cars love being on fire;” “Prisons were built to be burnt down,” “Burn police vehicles” and “Kill cops.”…
“These statements are a glimpse into the mind of a ‘Forest Defender’ and the attitudes kept by Teran and his co-conspirators,” reads the motion, filed Nov. 15. “He writes about the forest and his desire to stop the construction of the training center as well as his contempt and hatred for police.”
The AJC published a story with more detail on the diary.
On Dec 18, 2021, Teran started a passage titled, “If the Cops (the word “Pigs” was crossed out) Kill me.”
“If the cops kill me, I want you to riot, burn down their stations and set their cars alight. Know that I went out fighting and ask we all could have peace and be free,” Teran wrote.
Then, “If the cops kill me I want you to riot, to kill as many of them as you can. They are terrorists. They keep us all subjugated . . . I think they should all quit their jobs or die. I would love to live a long and peaceful life but I do not fear violence.”…
An entry in September 2022 read, “I made the accounts knowing the risk and I do not regret it. Even if the FBI assassinates me, it will have been worth it. I have helped people and will hopefully inspire others to do more mutual aid without getting assassinated. My exit strategy is to keep resisting fascism, ecocide and the damn capitalist heteropatriarchy.”
Four pages later comes the passage, “Killing cops is okay! Killing people is generally a bad thing. Fascists and cops count as people but killing them is morally and ethically just because they are threats to the survival of many people. . . Dead cops! Dead cops everywhere.”
The final entry in the diary is dated Dec. 15 just after police had cleared a camp set up by the protesters and arrested several of them. Teran was seething. “I hope every judge, kkkop and bootlicker dies painfully and is remembered as scum,” he wrote. About four weeks later, Teran refused to exit his tent when ordered to by Georgia State Patrol troopers. Pepper balls were fired into his tent to force him out and he responded by firing a shot which hit one trooper below his vest, sending him to the hospital where emergency surgery was performed. The other troopers responded by firing multiple shots into the tent, killing Teran.
Teran repeatedly wrote that he was willing to die for the cause. I don’t think there’s any way to know for certain what he was thinking in those final moments, but he must have known that firing his gun at police would probably result in his death. It really seems to me that he chose to be a martyr. That’s certainly how his comrades and many sympathetic media outlets have treated him.
But he was not a peaceful protester or even a mostly peaceful protester. He was someone who thought a lot about harming police and about how his death might inspire more people to harm police.