Credit: Thomas Wheatley via Twitter
Atlanta journalist discusses his recent reporting on South River Forest activists and 'Cop City'
Protesters of the planned construction of a police training center in an Atlanta forest are mourning the loss of Manuel Teran, the 26-year-old protester shot and killed last week by law enforcement, who claim Teran shot first. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with journalist David Peisner about it.
Protesters who have been camped out for months in opposition to the construction of a police training center in an Atlanta forest are mourning the loss of Manuel Teran. The 26-year-old protester was shot and killed last week by law enforcement, who claim Teran shot first, wounding a state trooper.
The shooting has inflamed tensions between protesters and police, which persisted over the weekend as a protest in downtown Atlanta turned violent. Today, the Georgia Bureau of investigation released new information about a firearms transaction record from September 2020 that said Manuel Esteban Paez Teran legally purchased the firearm that was used in the shooting of a Georgia State Patrol trooper.
At least 13 people have been arrested in connection with protests and violence.
Atlanta journalist David Peisner has been writing about the movement to protect the South River Forest for The Bitter Southerner. He spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: Let's talk a little bit about Manuel. Over the course of your reporting, you got to know them. And we should mention that we are using they/them pronouns for Manuel Teran, as they preferred. Who was Manuel Teran to you?
David Peisner: Manny was first and foremost a source. They were someone I met when I first went down to start reporting on what was going on down in the forest. Manny was an intelligent, thoughtful, funny, self-aware person. I didn't know Manny socially. We weren't friends, but we did spend a lot of time talking. I wouldn't presume to be able to speak for Manny or any of the Defend the Forest movement or for even the wider movement of people and activists who are trying to protect the whole — the South River Forest. I'm just a journalist working on a story.
Peter Biello: As far as I understand it, Manny was not from Georgia. I imagine in the course of your conversations with them, you spoke a bit about their motivations, why they were there, why they were protesting. What did they say about why they were there?
David Peisner: On a very specific level, Manny came to the forest for what they called a week of action. These were things that the forest defenders would have to kinda promote what was going on down there within the activist community.
Peter Biello: And when was that week of action?
David Peisner: I don't know exactly. So this conversation I had with Manny, it would have been in August, and they had been down there at least several months at that point. But it could have been any time, probably, early in 2022. But Manny had come down for the week of action and as they put it to me really fell in love with the forest and fell in love with living there. The way they put it was, "I love being a forest hobo." So they really fell in love with the forest. But they had a really deep commitment to environmental and social justice issues.
Peter Biello: And you spoke with other people protesting in the forest as well. I'm wondering how much Manny's motivations were shared by those you spoke with.
David Peisner: They were broadly shared. I think that that would be the case. You know, it's a tricky thing because this movement is an autonomous, decentralized movement. So there are no leaders. There is no one in charge of anyone else. And so everyone's essentially part of a movement, but not really part of a group, if that makes any sense. ... So in other words, if somebody is setting fire to a construction machinery and someone else doesn't agree with that, those people can coexist in this same movement without sort of taking responsibility for that person's actions. This is kind of a complicated setup, and it's a distinction that people outside this movement do not make. It's been a little bit of a problem because certainly elected officials and police will paint the movement in broad strokes as being violent or destructive, even though the movement will lean on this autonomous, decentralized structure to say, “Look, I'm responsible for what I do, not for what anyone else is doing.” In reality, the distinctions aren't being made broadly and the whole movement gets tarnished by these sorts of actions, I guess.
Peter Biello: You write in The Bitter Southerner that Manny was against violence in protests. The police alleged that they fired first and they say they have the gun they allegedly used. How do you square what they said about their position on nonviolence with what the police are saying now?
David Peisner: I mean, there's a disconnect for me, too. We spoke at length about nonviolence, about nonviolent resistance, about tactically how nonviolence was the only way that this was going to work. The way Manny put it, and I don't remember the exact quote, but it was something to the effect of: "We're not going to outviolence the police. They're good at violence. We're not." For me, the way that I have to reconcile that is one of a couple of ways. One: the official narrative is not correct [that Teran didn't fire on them first]. I should say I have no idea what happened. If it did happen that way, if it did happen exactly as the police laid out or close to the way the police laid [it] out, there are a couple of ways I could think about it, which is that ... Manny was playing me, that they were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, what they thought would look good in print, and that is an absolute possibility. There is also a possibility that Manny's views changed.
Peter Biello: You mentioned that this is a decentralized movement and to some extent that could be problematic especially for those who want this to be a nonviolent movement. Does that decentralization also make it hard to actually sit down at the table with law enforcement? Because whoever you have at the table with law enforcement doesn't have any sway over those who refuse to negotiate and who have just one goal, all or nothing, in mind.
David Peisner: Sure. I mean, that's that was so many conversations I had during my reporting. If no one can negotiate...the way I put it was [that] it's unreasonable by design. Like, no one can negotiate. Sure, there were people who had been down there longer who had sort of more moral authority maybe within this group. And maybe the police or law enforcement or politicians could have sat down with them and said, "Is there something we could work out?" My guess is that they wouldn't have even sat down with them.
But let's say they did. And that person might have said, "Okay, what with the politicians and the police are offering here is reasonable. They're going to shrink the footprint or maybe they're going to move this to someplace else. There's a parking lot in DeKalb County that's not being used and they're going to move the whole thing there. And there's going to be no destruction of the forest." And that sounds reasonable. And we agree with that. That person has no authority to then say, "All right, we're leaving."
But some people just liked living down there. Some people literally said to me, "I'm not leaving no matter what. This is my home now. I like living in the forest." And I think that's really problematic for this movement because, you know, they were those people would say, "Oh, well, it's squatter’s rights. Why shouldn't I be okay?" Like, those are those are legitimate arguments to make. But that's not the arguments that are being made by their allies outside the forest. And there's such a movement, a sort of impulse to turn this story into two sides, that there's the forest defenders and there's the cops. And, you know, you're on one side or the other. And unfortunately, that's the way it kept going until the forest defender and the cop had this confrontation and two people were shot and one of them was killed. But there are actually a lot of other people involved — a lot of other people on both sides.
Peter Biello: Who would those be?
David Peisner: Those would be, you know, local activists. Local activists —
Peter Biello: People who care but are not parked in the forest right now?
David Peisner: Right. People who weren't living down in the forest, but they maybe they live nearby. They were concerned about policing issues. But they weren't necessarily about to abolish the police. They're South River Watershed Alliance, the South River Forest Coalition Group, the Great Park Conservancy, which is on the other side. They wanted to see development in their neighborhood. These are some people who live nearby. The area has been neglected for years and years and years, and they wanted to see positive development, a new park. And I don't think that those people are unreasonable. And if you could have gotten the reasonable people talking, maybe this doesn't come to the point that it came to.