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Police Story on Forest Defender Tortuguita’s Death Was a Lie

A recent autopsy reveals that Georgia cops brutally murdered land defender Tortuguita. It shows that the police’s purpose is to protect private property, and repress workers who protest capitalism and the structures that uphold it — violently if necessary.

M. Carlstad

April 29, 2023
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Photo by Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Tortuguita, an activist and defender of the Weelaunee Forest, was killed by police in Georgia on January 18, 2023. After months of mourning, continued protests against Cop City, and more repression and arrests, the autopsy report released on April 19 showed that the narrative crafted by police organizations was a lie.

While authorities claim that Tortuguita shot and wounded a Georgia state trooper, the autopsy report found no gunpowder residue on their hands, lending no legitimacy to this claim. Further refuting this story, an independent autopsy report that Tortuguita’s family released in March found that Tortuguita was seated with their hands raised when police killed them. 

The more recently released autopsy report reveals that the police shot Tortuguita 57 times. The cruelty of Tortuguita’s murder is both gut wrenching and shocking, but it is also to be expected from the police: the billions of dollars spent for their military-grade guns, crowd-control weapons, and riot gear are not just for show. And, even if the police are re-branded and re-trained to appear less threatening or more community-oriented, as President Joe Biden claims can be done, their role as the defenders of capital will not simply be erased. Their ultimate purpose is to protect private property, serve the capitalist government, and repress workers who protest this system, violently if necessary. That’s what they were doing when they took Tortuguita’s life, and that is what they have always done.

Since Tortuguita’s murder made national news, Georgia authorities have attempted to direct blame toward Tortuguita and delay or withhold information about the case — they released a photo of a gun belonging to Tortuguita two days after their murder, but waited months to complete and release this autopsy report. All the while, police and politicians have done their best to depict the movement against Cop City as the work of violent criminals. As part of this campaign, 23 people have been charged with domestic terrorism after being arrested during a gathering and protest in March.

The proposed plan to destroy the Weelaunee Forest and build a police training facility in its place, and the violent repression that has accompanied this plan, are part of the global system of stealing land, extracting profit from it, and working to crush the people who dissent. While Tortuguita’s death is the first reported killing of an environmental activist in the United States, there has been an extremely troubling increase in the killing of these activists in countries around the world, many in Latin America. This uptick is partly thanks to the coronavirus pandemic providing a cover for more severe repression, but the targeted threats and assassinations of environmental activists has been going on for decades. A report that broke in 2022 found that more than 1700 activists were killed worldwide between 2012 and 2021, many of them Indigenous to the land they were defending against fracking, logging, or other extractive industries. Among these losses were the murders of Dom Philips and Bruno Pereira, who went missing and were found dead in the Amazon in 2022.

Tortuguita’s birthday was on Sunday, April 23. The murderers who cut their life short, and continue to threaten and harm activists and communities of color, must be brought down permanently. In order to do that, we need to address the heart of the problem, the reason the police exist, which is capitalism. As long as this system is in place, there will be a police force in one form or another to ensure that the exploitation of workers and accumulation of capital can continue. The struggle against Cop City and the work of land defenders around the world are extremely important efforts within this struggle, and the violence they are met with is further confirmation of how significant they are.

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