On Wednesday, 18th January, police in Atlanta, USA, shot and killed 26-year-old environmental activist Tortuguita who peacefully occupied an area of woodland destined to be felled and concreted over to create a brand new ‘Cop City’.
Despite police claims that they fired at the pacifist in self-defence, police body cam footage reveals a barrage of gunshots aimed blindly and without provocation. As Tortuguita lay dying, 16 of his friends were dragged from their tents and treehouses, thrown into jail, and charged with domestic terrorism.
The death of Tortuguita marks a turning point in the ever-more urgent protests against environmental destruction and climate change. They are the first environmental activist to be killed by the US authorities (though it may not be the first time they’ve tried). In a world on the brink of collapse, it seems remarkable that those willing to speak out for our natural world are being persecuted, let alone assassinated. But, unfortunately, capitalism and the pursuit of growth normalise the demonisation and repression of anyone willing to speak out in any attempt to save us all from ourselves.
However, the response in Atlanta is the most extreme yet seen in the western world, and there’s a reason why.
One of my long-term activist inspirations is Fred Hampton. As a founding member of the Black Panthers, Hampton was remarkably adept at demonstrating that all those fighting for social change were essentially fighting the same enemies for the same reason. Creating a Rainbow Coalition of black rights, feminist, socialist, indigenous rights and trade union activists and organisations, he ensured that each group would support the others at any protest they organised. It was a model that threatened the entire capitalist and white supremacist system. A united working class is the single biggest threat they face. The FBI stormed Hampton’s home and shot him dead in cold blood.
Modern activists like Tortuguita are not just environmentalists, and the Atlanta Forest protests aren’t just about the environment. Yes, this is a fight for the lungs of our planet, but it is also a protest against the expansion of militaristic and toxic policing (exemplified by the murder of Tortuguita). It is a resistance to white supremacy and a call for indigenous justice. Like most state repression, from Fred Hampton to the Rainbow Warrior, Tortuguita was not murdered for what he did, but for what he represented.
What Tortuguita represented is a new generation of activists who unite various progressive movements into one unified cause. And that is the thing the state fears most. Tortuguita will not be the last victim of violent policing and capitalism protecting itself, but let’s make their legacy the unification of everyone fighting wealth hoarders, planet destroyers and white supremacists who are the enemy of virtually all life on this planet.
Rest in power Tortuguita.