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Eco-Terrorist or Eco-Activist… Where is the Line? - The YEARS Project

Eco-Terrorist or Eco-Activist… Where is the Line?

It wasn't until the first environmental defender protesting Cop City was killed that I began to seriously weigh the risks of being an environmentalist. To the U.S. government, the protester, known as Tortuguita, was not an environmentalist — they were seen as a terrorist. But what is a terrorist? The definition of what terrorism looks like varies person to person, and system to system. A quick google search finds the UN, the FBI, and my home state of Georgia all have differing qualifications. So with evolving interpretations how do I discern where the line is between eco-activist, and eco-terrorist?

The U.S. adopted definition of terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence … against noncombatants.” This definition distinguishes acts of violence against groups like the military or police to not be considered acts of terrorism in comparison with violence against innocent people. This would mean that destruction of property is not an act of terrorism if there are no innocent folks in danger. This protects an activist’s freedom to protest.

I do not wish to participate in violent or destructive acts of activism. However, I feel that Georgia’s recently amended definition of domestic terrorism that includes damage to property allows for a gray area to exist between violent activism and terrorism. This gray area can turn people away from participating in ecoactivism. 

When Cop City’s controversy began in Southeast Atlanta, I wanted to participate in the movement for the forest. My intention was to join a mini music festival as part of a week of solidarity in the Weelaunee forest, but car troubles prevented my attendance. The next day news broke out that 35 people were arrested. Police raided the festival due to reports of vandalism and arson at the Cop City construction site. Yet, that site is over a mile from where the music festival occurred more than an hour before. Twenty three of these people were charged with domestic terrorism. 

As a young student in Fulton County passionate about causing change, I’ve been hesitant to engage in organizing for Cop City. I’m afraid of associating too closely with the movement because of what I have learned about The Patriot Act. If I get too close, I could be investigated as an eco-terrorist. The vagueness of Georgia’s amended terrorism definition, in combination with the Patriot Act, are enough to deter me from truly expressing how I feel. It makes me question how the United States can be classified as a democracy when enforcement systems hold so much power to silence our voices. 

So much power in fact, that it silenced one voice forever. Tortuguita was shot and killed by the Atlanta police. Autopsy reports reveal they were shot fifty-seven times while sitting in the cross-legged position and their arms in the air. How can someone sit in the forest peacefully, and be shot that many times? The police have justified their actions with claims that Tortuguita shot first, yet there has been no evidence of that. I feel a strong sense of irony that those sworn to protect our society feel like the terrorists themselves, committing senseless acts of violence.

This sort of extreme response to activism is nothing new. It has appeared as a pattern persisting to squash progressive action. Globally more than 1,700 land and environmental protectors were murdered between 2012 and 2021. About two thirds of those land defenders have been killed in Latin America. And these numbers have only increased in recent years. 

This pattern reveals that current law enforcement practices do not uphold a democratic system. And so seeing the repression of environmental activists in real time in my home state forced reflection on material I’ve learned in student environments. In the United States we have freedom of speech and the right to assemble. Creating narrow legal definitions that limit these freedoms is undemocratic. It leaves citizens with few opportunities to voice how they think things ought to be other than voting or suing. 

In other words, citizens are only granted the ability to change current systems by utilizing the broken one. This is also known as state repression. State repression specifically deals with enforcing power in such a way that it violates first amendment type rights including freedom of speech, freedom to boycott, and freedom of association and belief. 

Maybe our everyday systems are the key problem suspending progress within the climate movement. The most obvious limitation is the ability of our legislative system to agree on the best strategies to combat the climate crisis, but a less clear and less studied subject is the enforcement of civil liberties restrictions. 

Time and time again repressive government systems have acted through police systems, military, SWAT teams, and so on, to silence protests across several movements. Most recently in the Cop City fight, three organizers of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund’s home was raided by a SWAT team armed in military gear. The organizers were arrested on charges of charity fraud, a charity that provided resources for protestors standing against Cop City. This fund ensures that the rights of arrested protesters are being respected through funding legal resources. Yet the Georgia Deputy Attorney General stated, “the activists ‘harbor extremist anti-government and anti-establishment views.’” Limiting protesters' ability to fund their activism is government repression and a weaponization of the law. 

Not only that, but moving forward Cop City’s development itself could also be considered active state repression. If built, this facility will be the largest police military training facility in the nation and it will provide the Atlanta Police Foundation a space to practice high speed car chases, shooting ranges, bomb detonations, evacuation drills, and further repress movements. East Atlanta is overpoliced; and the presence of a military training facility will likely only further brutalize already targeted communities. Violence instills fear. This tactic is apparent in the case of Cop City, where “activists were so scared after the police killing of Tortuguita that the forest quickly emptied out.” 

If Copy City is completed we’re not only losing our ability to advocate for what we believe in, but a lush green forest as well. The Atlanta Fire Rescue also plans to utilize Cop City to practice putting out fires with substances made with polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), that will threaten to pollute the city’s drinking water. These carcinogenic ‘forever chemicals’ are the active ingredient in fire-fighting extinguisher foam. The creek located on the 85 acre Cop City facility’s property runs down to the drinking water source of my college, the University of Georgia. 

There’s often a desire to get involved with issues we care about, but figuring out a safe place to start makes becoming an activist difficult. There are many well known non-violent environmental organizations, but we often wonder how one can discern which organizations are the safest to protest with and to donate to. 

The Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion (XR) are both working towards the same goal, yet use remarkably different activist tactics. The Sunrise Movement utilizes political action and boosts youth voter turnout to sway legislation in their favor. Conversely, XR utilizes non-violent acts of civil disobedience to demand government action. Some examples of their civil disobedience include blocking major roadways and gluing themselves to buildings or locking themselves to various forms of equipment . Despite their non-violent strategies, XR has been placed on an extremist list by counterterrorism police in the U.K. This further blurs the line between civil disobedience and terrorism and displays how any strategies outside of our built systems are punished. 

Yet although my civil liberties feel under threat, I do see hope in the future. I see it in my fellow Gen-Z peers and know that change is possible. Landmark moves in our existing systems can be seen in examples such as Juliana V. United States, increased funding towards Environmental Justice under the Biden Administration, and in more fearless activists like Tortuguita not backing down. It is going to take a mix of activism and outside pressure, while also playing the legal system’s cards as they are dealt, to protect my home. I encourage others who feel similarly to me in fear of raising their voice to stand for what they believe in, regardless of the consequences. Find where you fit, and work as hard as you can. It is going to take this entire global movement to stop projects like Cop City all over the world.