Lawyers for the family of a climate activist who was shot dead by police in Georgia last month have condemned officials’ attempts to brand his fellow protesters of Atlanta’s planned “Cop City” training facility as domestic terrorists.
Attorneys representing relatives of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán were speaking at a news conference Monday as a large number of officers, including heavily armed tactical teams, descended again on the site in Atlanta’s South River forest where the building of the $90m so-called Cop City is planned.
Paez was shot at least 13 times and killed there on 18 January while a minimum of seven other protesters were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and domestic terrorism.
At a press conference on Monday at the local county courthouse, Jeff Filipovits, attorney for the Paez family, said the Georgia bureau of investigation (GBI) agents looking into the shooting were not answering questions yet still sending a warning.
“The terrorism charges are meant to send a message, and that message is clear: ‘If you stand in our way, we will take you out of our way,’” he said.
“We will not tolerate this. There are plenty of other criminal laws that can be used if anyone has broken a law. There are plenty of crimes that can be charged against any individual who engages in acts of violence. We cannot ignore this worsening environment that started here in Atlanta, and that one day will be used against other groups.”
In addition to the charges against those arrested on the day Paez was killed, several senior Atlanta police officials have attempted to portray the protests against the training facility as terrorism, alarming civil rights analysts.
In comments to community stakeholders in December, Atlanta’s assistant police chief Carven Tyus appeared to suggest the charging of activists at a protest that month was based on geography.
“None of those people live here, they do not have a vested interest in this property, and that is why we consider that domestic terrorism,” he said, according to saportareport.com.
The police chief, Darin Schierbaum, echoed the view at a press conference last month after a protest in downtown Atlanta in which several windows were broken and a police car was set on fire.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an attorney to tell you that breaking windows and setting fires is not protest,” he said. “It’s terrorism.”
The GBI has so far not produced any video or audio evidence to back its claim that Paez first drew a handgun and fired at a state trooper – who was wounded – before Paez was shot by officers from multiple agencies.
Dozens of officers from the Atlanta police department, the Dekalb county police, the Georgia state patrol, the GBI and the FBI swept through the protest camp in what was described as a “clearing operation” on 18 January. Yet the shooting was not captured on any body camera worn by officers, prompting calls for an outside agency to review the case.
In a press release, the GBI said Paez legally bought a handgun in September 2020 “that was used in the shooting of a [state] trooper”.
Filipovits on Monday suggested the claim was selective. “It is a single fact without context that tells us nothing of the narrative of what happened, and how things unfolded on that day,” he said.
“It’s a justification that they want people to draw conclusions from, but that doesn’t tell us what happened.”
Another attorney representing the Paez family, Brian Spears, said the GBI had refused to meet with him or his clients and had refused to provide answers to any of their questions.
“Our goal is to get answers for Manuel’s mother and father and family,” Spears said. “We’re asking again for that meeting with the GBI, and we want the release of all audio and video recordings, including any drone footage of the shooting in the area in which he died.”
Paez’s mother, Belkis Terán, told reporters her son was a pacifist whose life was dedicated to preserving the environment.
“We are horrified by all that has happened,” she said. “Killing a person who was sleeping in the forest doesn’t make sense to me.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Monday that teams of law enforcement had swooped on the Cop City site during the morning, accompanied by construction crews with heavy machinery. No one was arrested, the GBI said in a statement.
Activists from a group known as the Atlanta Forest Defenders have occupied the site on mostly unincorporated land for months.
The Atlanta Police Foundation, which is helping to fund the construction, said the project will provide “the necessary facilities required to effectively train 21st-century law enforcement agencies”, including a practice course for high-speed vehicle chases, a helicopter landing pad, a mock village and a shooting range.