Cop city coverage fails to question narratives of militarized police

The story of Tortuguita’s death is about protests against militarized policing being met with more militarized policing, which ultimately resulted in a fatal shooting.

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Image Credit: John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Protests against the construction of an 85-acre police training facility—dubbed “Cop City”—in a suburban Atlanta forest turned deadly when police shot and killed a demonstrator occupying the area. The police mobilization against the occupation involved the Atlanta Police, DeKalb County Police, Georgia State Patrol, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the FBI (Guardian, 1/21/23). Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a protester known by most as “Tortuguita,” was shot at least a dozen times.

Guardian: ‘Assassinated in cold blood’: activist killed protesting Georgia’s ‘Cop City’

After quoting the police justification for Tortuguita’s killing, the Guardian (1/21/23) added, “but they have produced no evidence for the claim”—an observation rarely made in US corporate media coverage of police violence.

Officers claimed they shot Tortuguita (who used gender-neutral they/them pronouns) in response to the protester’s shooting and injuring a Georgia State Patrol officer. A GBI investigation is still underway, and it remains unclear what occurred in the moments leading up to the shooting. The Georgia State Troopers responsible for Tortuguita’s death did not have body cameras. The Atlanta Police in the woods at the time captured the sound of gunshots, and officers speculating the trooper was shot by friendly fire, but no visuals of the shooting.

Tortuguita’s death was reported as the first police killing of an environmental protester in the country’s history. It propelled the “Stop Cop City” protests into broader national and corporate news coverage. Much of the reporting—especially by local and independent outlets—was commendable in its healthy skepticism of cops’ unsubstantiated claims. But other reporting on the shooting and subsequent protests was simply police-blotter regurgitation that took unproven police statements at face value, and demonized Tortuguita and others in the Stop Cop City movement.

Bodycam questions

NPR : Autopsy reveals anti-'Cop City' activist's hands were raised when shot and killed

Almost two months after the police killing of Tortuguita, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was warning against “inappropriate release of evidence” (NPR, 3/11/23).

Anti–Cop City protests over the first weekend of March led to dozens of demonstrators being arrested and charged with domestic terrorism (Democracy Now!, 3/8/23). The following week, an independent autopsy revealed Tortuguita was likely seated in a cross-legged position with their hands raised when they were shot (NPR, 3/11/23; Democracy Now!, 3/14/23).

The GBI said a gun Tortuguita legally purchased in 2020 was found at the scene, and matched the bullet found in the wound of the officer (Fox5, 1/20/23). But accounts from other protesters, statements from Tortuguita’s family and friends (AP, 2/6/23), and Atlanta Police bodycam footage have cast doubt on the cops’ claims that Tortuguita shot the officer (Democracy Now!, 2/9/23).

ABC (2/9/23) described the video, which includes the voice of an officer seemingly responding to the shootout by saying, “You [expletive] your own officer up.” The Intercept (2/9/23) added that the same officer later walked up to others and asked, “They shoot their own man?”

Both outlets do their due diligence in clarifying that the officer was speculating, and that the GBI’s investigation is still underway.

Truthout (2/10/23) also included another quote from the bodycam footage in the moments after the shooting:

In one video, after gunshots ring out through the forest, an officer can be heard saying, “That sounded like suppressed gunfire,” implying the initial shots were consistent with the use of a law enforcement weapon, not the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9 mm the GBI alleges Tortuguita purchased and fired upon the trooper with, which did not have a suppressor.

The piece noted that the sound of a drone can be heard in the background, indicating there may be more footage of the incident that the GBI has not released. An article in the Georgia Voice (2/16/23) also mentions the suppressed gunshots referred to in the videos.

Trailing behind Fox

Blaze: 'This isn't protest. This is terrorism': Five Antifa extremists charged with domestic terrorism, pulled down from their treehouses

The Blaze (12/16/22) shows how to present people sitting in trees as a clear and present danger.

A Nexis search of  “Cop City” reveals that prior to Tortuguita’s killing, coverage of the protests, which have been going on since late 2021, had been relegated to mainly local outlets and newswire coverage. There were, however, a handful of notable exceptions, including the Daily Beast (8/26/21, 9/9/21, 12/14/22), Politico (10/28/21), Atlantic (5/26/22, 6/13/22), Guardian (6/16/22, 12/27/22), Rolling Stone (9/3/22) and Economist (9/27/22).

Right-wing outlets like Fox News (5/18/22, 5/20/22, 7/1/22, 12/16/22, 12/29/22, 12/29/22), Daily Mail (5/18/22, 12/15/22, 12/16/22, 12/17/22, 12/19/22), Blaze (12/16/22) and Daily Caller (12/15/22) all demonized the protesters, often referring to them as “violent” and affiliated with “Antifa” (which, for the record, is not an organized group, but an anti-fascist ideology).

In the first few days following Tortuguita’s January 18 shooting, coverage on major TV news channels and national papers was scant, with most centrist outlets trailing behind Fox in the volume of coverage. A Nexis search for the terms “Tortuguita,” “Terán” or “Cop City,” from the day of Tortuguita’s death (January 18) until the end of January, found that Fox covered the shooting and protest more than all the other national networks combined, dominating the conversation with a pro-cop spin. It raised the issue on eight shows, while CNN covered it four times, ABC and CBS once each, and NBC and MSNBC not at all. Meanwhile, USA Today offered no coverage and the New York Times ran two articles. A separate search of the Washington Post, which is not on Nexis, brings up three articles, one of which was an AP repost.

Beyond the police version 

Democracy Now!: Atlanta Police Kill Forest Defender at Protest Encampment Near Proposed “Cop City” Training Center

Kamau Franklin (Democracy Now!, 1/20/23): “The only version of events that’s really been released to the public has been the police version.”

Independent and local outlets generally led the way in reporting on Tortuguita’s killing. A couple days after the shooting, Democracy Now! (1/20/23) dedicated an entire segment to the murder and movement. Host Amy Goodman interviewed Atlanta organizer Kamau Franklin, who wrote an article headlined “MLK’s Vision Lives On in Atlanta’s Fight Against New Police Training Facility” (Truthout, 1/17/23) the day before Tortuguita was shot.

On Democracy Now!, Franklin said:

The only version of events that’s really been released to the public has been the police version, the police narrative, which we should say the corporate media has run away with. To our knowledge so far, we find it less than likely that the police version of events is what really happened…. As the little intel that we have, residents said that they heard a blast of gunshots all at once, and not one blast and then a return of fire. Also, there’s been no other information released. We don’t know how many times this young person was hit with bullets. We don’t know the areas in which this person was hit. We don’t know if this is potentially a friendly fire incident. All we know is what the version of the police have given.

Many other local and independent outlets also reported on Tortuguita’s death with a healthy dose of skepticism of police claims. Shortly after the killing, the Bitter Southerner published a piece by journalist David Peisner (1/20/23), who had been covering the Stop Cop City protests (12/23/22) and had spent extensive time interviewing the activist. Peisner’s article is essentially a eulogy for Tortuguita, vouching for their character and quoting pacifistic statements they made in interviews. Peisner wrote:

“The right kind of resistance is peaceful, because that’s where we win,” they told me. “We’re not going to beat [the police] at violence. They’re very, very good at violence. We’re not. We win through nonviolence. That’s really the only way we can win. We don’t want more people to die. We don’t want Atlanta to turn into a war zone.”

Piesner acknowledged the possibility that Tortuguita may have been disingenuously advocating peaceful protest, but made clear he saw no evidence of that.

A letter to the editor on Workers.org (2/8/23) pointed out how police’s unproven claims and charges of violence against Tortuguita served to dampen publicity and reduce sympathy for them. Julia Wright’s letter also called out the double standard in dozens of land defenders being charged with “terrorism,” unlike the Capitol insurrectionists, whose deadly riot sought to dismantle US democracy:

The postmortem image of Tortuguita has been twisted and exploited to make them look like a “terrorist,” whereas none of those who invaded the Capitol were charged with or sentenced for terrorism.

Local Atlanta news outlet 11Alive (2/6/23) reported that Tortuguita’s family was publicly questioning the police-driven narrative of their child’s death, and demanding more transparency from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. While outlining the official narrative, the outlet also offered significant space to those contesting it.

Claim becomes fact

Fox News: Democrats largely silent on anti-police violence in Atlanta after night of chaos, smashed windows

Fox News (1/22/23) condemned Democrats for not speaking out against broken windows in Atlanta.

Other outlets, however, were far less skeptical of the unsubstantiated law enforcement claims, whether presenting claims as facts or simply not challenging those claims.

In its report on the killing, Fox Special Report (1/20/23) played a soundbite from the GBI’s chief: “An individual, without warning, shot a Georgia state patrol trooper. Other law enforcement personnel returned fire in self-defense.” The segment went on to play a short soundbite of unidentified protesters urging people not to believe the police narrative, but correspondent Jonathan Serrie’s outro implied that he did believe it:

Top Georgia officials, including the governor and director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, say they embrace the right to protest, but cannot stand by when protesters resort to violence and jeopardize innocent lives.

Just a few hours later on Fox (1/20/23), police claims had become fact, with a brief update beginning, “In Georgia, a protester shot a state trooper without warning.” There was no mention of the incomplete investigation underway, nor the protesters’ accounts.

After further protests, the Wall Street Journal editorial (3/7/23) accused the “left” of “justif[ying] a violent assault on a police-training site,” saying that “Cop City” was under siege from “Antifa radicals.”

The Journal relied entirely on official accounts of the protests, reporting only the police’s account of events that day:

Authorities say Terán refused to comply with officers’ commands and instead shot and injured a state patrol trooper. Officers returned fire, striking Terán, who died on the scene, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The investigation isn’t finished, but the bureau says the bullet “recovered from the trooper’s wound matches Terán’s handgun.”

As of this writing, even with the most recent autopsy results suggesting Tortuguita’s cross-legged, hands-up position at the time of their death, neither the police’s nor the activists’ accounts have been proven. Still, the Wall Street Journal has already made clear which narrative it finds newsworthy.

Vandalism as ‘violence’

A lack of skepticism of official accounts was not limited to right-wing media. The New York Times (1/27/23), reporting on Georgia’s governor calling in the National Guard amid the protests, wrote, “The authorities claim that Terán fired a gun at a state trooper during a ‘clearing operation’ in the woods before being killed by the police.” No sources were quoted who questioned that claim.

WaPo: Violent protests break out in Atlanta over fatal shooting of activist

The Washington Post headline (1/21/23) implied that protesters were violent—though the only attacks on people described in the piece were police tackling demonstrators.

Covering the protests after Tortuguita’s killing, the Washington Post (1/21/23) made the actions of protesters rather than police the issue, with the headline “Violent Protests Break Out in Atlanta Over Fatal Shooting of Activist.” While the headline implies that the protesters were violent, the only attacks on other humans described in the piece were police tackling protesters. The Post included no reports of protesters committing bodily harm, but parroted Atlanta’s mayor referring to property damage as “violence”—elevating vandalism over assaults on people. (FAIR—2/6/18—has documented that news media do not commonly refer to other, apolitical instances of property destruction—such as sports fans celebrating a win—as “violence.”)

Only toward the end of the article, below a featured image of a car on fire and descriptions of smashed bank windows, did the Post add that the Atlanta police chief “emphasized that those who caused property damage were a small subset among other peaceful demonstrators.”

The headline “In Atlanta, a Deadly Forest Protest Sparks Debate Over ‘Domestic Terrorism’” (Washington Post, 1/26/23) implies the protesters’ actions were deadly—but the only people who caused death were the police who shot Tortuguita.

Another Post piece (3/6/23) offered history on the construction of Cop City and the movement against it under the headline “What Is Cop City? Why Are There Violent Protests in an Atlanta Forest?,” but prioritized depicting the demonstrations as “violent” over describing the shooting that led to the backlash in the first place, using the adjective three additional times in the piece.

(It also referred to Tortuguita using he/him pronouns, though that has been corrected.)

“State authorities claimed self-defense and said that Paez Terán purchased the gun that shot a Georgia State Patrol officer, but the shooting is under investigation,” the article said, without mentioning the protesters’ claims, or the bodycam footage.

Holding back evidence

NYT: A New Front Line in the Debate Over Policing: A Forest Near Atlanta

A New York Times overview (3/4/23) gave a detailed account of how police say Tortuguita was killed—but not what protesters say happened.

Some coverage that did mention the doubts of Tortuguita’s family and supporters failed to explain the evidence that could back their claims. In a New York Times report (3/4/23) that attempted to put the protests in context, the only person quoted supporting Tortuguita’s innocence was their mother. The piece quoted Belkis Terán describing her child as a “pacifist,” and mentioning the first independent autopsy revealed 13 gunshot wounds—but made no mention of the bodycam evidence that suggested the officer may have been shot by friendly fire.

(The second autopsy’s results that indicated Tortuguita was likely sitting cross-legged with their hands up when they were shot were not available when this article was published. At the time of this article’s publication, the Times has not published any articles on the second autopsy’s results.)

The mourning mother’s grief adds emotion to the story and briefly paints Tortuguita in a sympathetic light, but her claims are not granted the same amount of authority and credibility as the cops’ assertions, which are offered in detail:

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is looking into the shooting, has said that on January 18, as the police sought to clear the forest of protesters, Tortuguita fired first “without warning,” striking a trooper. Officers returned fire, according to the authorities.

Despite the investigation being incomplete, the police narrative is still able to stand alone, without any mentions of opposing allegations and evidence.

Ignoring recent history

NBC: Environmental protests have a long history in the U.S. Police had never killed an activist — until now.

To draw a sharp contrast between police treatment of  Cop City opponents and earlier environmental protests,  NBC (2/5/23) had to ignore precedents like police at Standing Rock sending two dozen Indigenous water defenders to the hospital in a single event (Guardian, 11/21/16).

Even after the GBI’s report comes out, journalists should clearly present the evidence supporting protesters’ and police narratives, given police’s well-documented record of lying in reports, affidavits and even on the witness stand (New York Times, 3/18/18; CNN, 6/6/20; Slate, 8/4/20).

In early February, NBC (2/5/23) reported that Tortuguita’s killing was the first of an environmental activist, but made this police killing seem like a fluke. “Police have often been important intermediaries in environmental protests,” the article’s subhead claimed. “In a forest outside Atlanta, they were opponents.”

If you read the story, though, a source acknowledges that “there’s a long history of law enforcement confronting direct-action environmentalist activists and those confrontations turning hostile.” Going back to the 1980s, activists who engaged in civil disobedience “were sometimes dragged away and thrown in vans, sometimes pepper-sprayed.”

To claim that the violence at Atlanta represents an “unprecedented” escalation, as the article argues, requires ignoring recent history like the suppression of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. There police used water cannons, pepper spray, tasers, sound weapons and more against peaceful—mostly Indigenous—protesters, in one incident injuring 300 and putting 26 in the hospital (Guardian, 11/21/16).

Regardless of who shot the first bullet, the story of Tortuguita’s death is about protests against militarized policing being met with more militarized policing, which ultimately resulted in a fatal shooting. Unquestioningly spreading unproven police claims is not only irresponsible, it misses the story’s entire point.

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