Driving worldwide mobilizations around climate change are legitimate fears of the devastating impacts it has and will have on all life inhabiting the planet. Hotter summers and more unpredictable winters; worsened catastrophic weather such as hurricanes and flooding; and famines, droughts and forest fires are all present and looming threats to the world as we know it. These apocalyptic scenes of the ongoing climate crisis, undoubtedly deadly in their impact as showcased in the tragic loss of 1,700 people to flooding in Pakistan this summer alone, are burnt into the minds of climate scientists and regular global citizens alike; however, an all-too neglected reality is that much of the real violence of climate change — and the social injustices undergirding it — is that which we inflict on each other.
On Wednesday, Jan 18th, Atlanta Police shot and killed local activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. Tortuguita was one of many “forest defenders” occupying the Muscogee Weelaunee Forest — also known as Weelaunee People’s Park or South River Forest — in Atlanta, GA, where the Atlanta Police Foundation is bankrolling the bulldozing of 85 acres of land to develop a $90 million training center for the city’s police. The forest is part of the ancestral lands of the Mvskoke, or Muscogee Creek, peoples.
In the leadup to the police murder of Tortuguita was the outright criminalization of a movement that, at its core, was opposed to the senseless razing of a predominantly Black community’s environment for the construction of a “Cop City” in which police will inevitably train to enact violence on that same community. Protesting the fascistic alliance of private capital like Wells Fargo bankrolling agents of state violence, activists camping out in treehouses in the forest were charged with domestic terrorism by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for allegedly throwing rocks and sticks at the cops, who were armed and armored, securing the Cop City project. The state filed these deliberately far-fetched charges while its own police allegedly fired tear gas canisters and pepper balls at activists, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The development of Cop City is undoubtedly an environmental justice issue on account of the deliberate degradation of the environment for state and private interests. It is a violent process for two reasons. Firstly, police are empowered to violently enforce laws that keep the poor in poverty and the unhoused without quality shelter; in fact, $250 million, or approximately 30% of the city’s budget is allocated to Atlanta PD. Spending on police is effectively a drain on the city’s ability to support social programs that could actually reduce crimes of poverty and save lives such as welfare, employment guarantees and harm reduction measures. In a less abstract sense, Atlanta PD can also kill people extra-judicially, as they did with Tortuguita.
Second, Cop City being an inclusion in the systematic destruction of the environment adds a growing burden on the resource that all living beings share and depend on for survival. Whether it is deforestation for a police training compound or unfettered greenhouse gas emissions, environmental destruction harms all of us — unequally and on racial and national lines, as this article by Yessenia Funes expounds.
If climate change is such a serious priority of lawmakers and institutions, with terms such as “existential threat” being thrown around not infrequently, why is it that political figures like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens — whose mayoral campaign made climate change and protecting Atlanta’s tree canopy central issues — have denounced protesters’ militant response to Cop City? When such a power differential exists between climate protesters and police enforcing ecological destruction at gunpoint, what is there to be gained by criminalizing the former and not the latter?
This question has a bluntly obvious answer: Only the capitalist state is entitled to violence. Rule of law as a concept is often invoked in political science spaces to refer to stable democratic societies, in doing so papering over in whose interests the law rules. In this case, rule of law is letting a private contractor funded by private donors destroy a historic Atlanta forest and fire pepper spray and live ammunition at protesters while resistance to the latter is punishable by death, a fate suffered first by Tortuguita and who knows how many others as activists continue to oppose Cop City.
Atlanta residents organized legally for months through canvassing and protesting at town council meetings to lobby against the development; activists around the world exercise their civil rights to prevent further harm to our biosphere and, without fail, the same government that charters those rights continues massive climate injustice with impunity. Whether “resisting” at the ballot box or putting one’s body on the line to prevent ecocide, the attitude of the ruling class is firmly on the side of fossil fuels and natural resource extraction. Either way, the structural violence continues. Tortuguita’s memory serves as a harsh reminder of the cruelty of the climate crisis of capitalism, and yet a warm call to abandon the hollowed-out avenues of reform. Fluid and inconsistent party platforms cannot be depended on. Climate action is immediate, it is necessary to take action to impose the law of a sustainable Earth over that of a disposable one — by any means necessary.