A short woman with flowers in her raven hair, Belkis Terán touched a small dot of herbal oil to the base of activists’ and journalists’ necks before the march through Gresham Park began on Wednesday, June 29, on the outskirts of East Atlanta. Terán’s small ceremony, with its strange sense of calm, washed away the tension and excitement that moved through the crowd, some thinking that being so close to the forest would provoke a mountain of police repression. She would repeat it multiple times throughout the sixth week of action organized by the groups Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City.
“My job is to be a healer. I want to work towards peaceful healing and give them hope,” said Terán, who jokingly refers to herself as “Mama Tort.”
Terán’s second child, Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, was killed by Georgia State Patrol during a multi-department raid of the South River Forest on January 18 of this year. Activists were camping in the forest as part of an over two-year-long protest against the construction of a $90 million, 85-acre police training facility —known as “Cop City”— that is set to be built in the forest.
Police originally claimed that Tortuguita shot at them, prompting return fire, but body camera footage released later seemingly shows one officer saying his comrade had been shot by a fellow officer. An independent autopsy requested by the family found that Tortuguita had been sitting cross-legged with their hands up when they were shot 57 times.
Later a Dekalb County Medical Examiner’s Office report found that the deceased had no gunpowder residue on their person and declared the death a homicide.
Many activists, including Terán, believe police entered the forest with intent to kill, some likening the action to “execution by firing squad.”
‘Even If the Earth Shakes, We Have to Sing’
Tortuguita became a martyr, with activists across the United States organizing protests in their name and carrying banners and posters with their likeness. In an attempt to keep the will of their slain comrade alive, “Viva, viva Tortuguita!” (long live Torutguita) has become a popular slogan.
“When Manuel died in that horrible way, everything was broken,” Teran said.
She reflected fondly on her son, saying he was preparing themselves to “help humanity. They wanted to be a neuroscientist.” She explained that he was very kind, always trying to help their community. After graduating from university, they took a year off to help humanitarian causes, which is how they ended up in the South River Forest, known by the movement as the Weelaunee People’s Park.
A friend of Tortuguita called her the day after they were killed to deliver the news. It took her a few weeks to accept the fact that her child was truly dead. While the grief still remains, it’s propelled her to take on the cause her child gave his life for.
“She’s the mother of the movement,” one forest defender said of Terán, who herself says that the movement has given her dozens of new children—though she still wishes she still had her Manuel instead.
Since January she has made numerous trips up from Panama to Atlanta to join the activists fighting to stop Cop City from being built. She feels her master’s degree in divinity, specializing in urban ministries, alongside being steeped in liberation theology —a Christian approach that emphasizes the liberation of the oppressed— has “prepared” her for the role she’s taken on.
During the sixth week of action, activists organized a vigil for Tortuguita alongside protests, workshops and community-building events. Right when the vigil was set to begin, 30 officers from the Atlanta Police Department rolled through the park, yelling that the park would close soon. Some activists characterized it as an “intimidation attempt.”
When the vigil finally got underway, Terán stood before a mobile altar activists had built for Tortuguita, a lit candle in her hand. “To have all of you,” she told the crowd, “it makes me feel like Manuel is present. It’s sad when we have to gather together because of death. But Manuel says ‘the best way to fuck the police is to be happy.’”And we need to be strong to be happy.”
The activists gathered there to hear her speak erupted in cheers.
“Aunque la tierra tiemble, tenemos que cantar” (Even if the earth shakes, we have to sing),” Terán sang, capping her speech with Psalm 46, which begins with the words: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The song describes how even if the earth and sky fade into time, God’s word will remain. The crowd, a majority non-Spanish-speakers, sang a slightly different chorus, responding to her with “no pasarán,” an anti-fascist slogan popularized during the Spanish Civil War.
Throughout the week, Terán was perpetually flanked by her youngest son Pedro and other forest defenders who were always greeted with a tight hug and a variation of “It’s good to see you.” Wherever she walked her path was cleared almost immediately. She spoke to crowds of activists at every chance she could, providing a sense of comfort with either a soft hug or a firm word the way only a Latina grandmother could.
While being the movement’s “healer” is new to her, Terán has always wanted to help people. She worked as a social worker in her native Venezuela and went on to work in orphanages in Egypt and Russia before settling in Panama. Since 2022, Terán has been using her home to host migrants who crossed the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, one of the deadliest migrant crossings in the world.
Terán almost always had a smile on her face throughout the most recent week of action. Her voice never raised above a low yell so people at the back of crowds could hear her, never a hint of anger in her voice. A pastor at a church she spoke at summed her up in a simple phrase: “quiet defiance.”
Even when speaking with people she had reason to hate —the politicians who voted to build Cop City, for instance— she never screamed, instead calmly explaining what they were doing wrong, like a parent voicing their disappointment in a child’s actions.
“We almost got Dickens but he’s a coward and ran away,” Terán said, referring to a faith coalition confronting Atlanta’s Democratic mayor, Andre Dickens —an ardent supporter of Cop City— during a press conference outside of a Fire Station. After signing some papers, Dickens was quickly whisked away by his security team, leaving members of the Atlanta City Council to deal with the coalition.
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While officials addressed a small crowd, Terán spoke with Atlanta City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland, who voted to build Cop City after hearing a record-breaking nearly 17 hours of public comment that almost unanimously opposed the project. Terán held Westmoreland’s hand in hers while clutching a handbag in the other that read “Fuck 12” on one side and “Cops are bad” on the other over a burning “Thin Blue Line” flag. Tortuguita had hand-painted the bag for her before their death.
When activists asked the councilman to condemn the murder of Tortuguita, Westmoreland, still holding Teran’s hand, responded with a succinct “No.” Nevertheless, she continued demanding he stop supporting Cop City, even hugging him goodbye.
Later she spoke with Councilmember Liliana Bhaktiari, who voted “No” to building Cop City but has an incredibly close friendship with Westmoreland. Bhaktiari told Terán she had called for a federal investigation into Tortuguita’s murder. As the two hugged each other goodbye, Terán cried as the two hugged goodbye—the only time this reporter ever saw the “mother of the movement” shed a tear.
She later explained that she hugs everyone, even people she dislikes, because she wants them to heal as well, hoping that they see the error of their ways and stop supporting Cop City and the police.
“The police are evil,” she told a small crowd at a neighborhood church. “They’re not doing good things, which is protecting people. Which is why they need to be abolished.”
The crowd chuckled, surprised to hear the words of a fiery revolutionary issue from the mouth of a seemingly meek and elderly woman.
Terán is sure that the people responsible for killing Tortuguita will pay—no matter how long it takes. They need to pay and recognize they were wrong, Terán explains, saying that she has faith they will win in the end and that God will give them victory.
She remembers fighting with Tortuguita because they said her generation could have stopped many of the crises now facing theirs but didn’t. At first she argued back but eventually ceded the point.
“Unfortunately, it’s my turn to take the baton, and I am taking it on with all my heart,” she said with silent determination flashing in her eyes. “I’m not backing down. I’m always going to keep forward.”
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL