Tortuguita didn’t die, they multiplied

On the anniversary of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán’s brutal murder by police, I want everyone to know that they led a full life. They played a fundamental role in weaving together a community of people who, like them, dreamed and fought for a better world.

This story was published as a collaboration between Reckon and Mainline.

Editor’s Note: One year ago today, 26-year-old queer activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán was violently killed by Georgia state police during a multi-task force raid on public land in Weelaunee People’s Park. Tortuguita was part of a broad movement in opposition of the proposed $90 million-plus police militarization facility known as “Cop City” and is the first known climate activist to be killed by police on U.S. soil.

 “Love has never been a popular movement and no one’s ever wanted really to be free. The world is held together, really it is, held together, by the love and the passion of a very few people.”

— James Baldwin

I still remember when I got the news. I was flying from Seattle to Boston, looking out on the vast clouds. During the six-hour flight, I connected to the plane’s Wi-Fi and received a notification from a group chat that Manny–a powerful, warmhearted activist that I knew from my days as an organizer in North Florida– had been shot in cold blood by a Georgia State Trooper. I felt numb to what I just read as I tried to quietly conceal my tears for the remainder of the flight. 

As soon as I got off the plane, I saw the headlines. The smiling face of my comrade Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, had become internationally known for the horrific police violence that ended their life. But also, they were quickly becoming a symbol of global resistance. 

Before ‘Cop City’

My activism started when I attended a historically Black university in Tallahassee, Florida, a small city just a few hours away from where I was born. As I started to get involved in activism, I joined a small but powerful network of community organizers in town that fought for racial justice, land preservation and queer rights.

Many people think that Florida is a place that is “not saveable.” They assume that amid the book bans, abortion restrictions, and some of the most transphobic legislation in the country, it is a place that is beyond repair. 

But it’s different when you live through these things firsthand. I know young people who were directly affected by the attacks on gender affirming care. I have seen the everyday effects of the crackdown on campus free speech, and how some student activists are facing felony charges for protesting. During a time of my life when I should have been focused on my studies and building my future, I had to spend multiple days and nights at my state’s capital building advocating for the basic human rights of my community.

But the Florida I know is a place where everyday people are standing up to fascist laws. It is a place with a strong spirit of southern solidarity where grassroots movement organizers take things into their own hands when they see community members fall through the cracks of our crumbling systems.

Manny was the embodiment of that spirit. Their presence lit up every room we shared. They were part of virtually every organizing group in the city, and hearing them speak about their commitment to justice was both fierce and welcoming enough to encourage anyone to join them.

I want the world to know this: Before their brutal murder, before the construction of “Cop City” Manny led a full life. They played a fundamental role in weaving together a community Tallahassee who, like them, dreamed and fought for a better world.

The warmth and power of southern movement spaces like ours continues to inform my own activism. It is a north star that I look to, a sense of belonging that I try to recreate wherever I go.

The spirit of that community is written all over the Stop Cop City online memorial for Manny. One anonymous post says, “Everyone in Tallahassee knew Manny. They ran a cold night shelter for the homeless practically on their own… They helped do grocery deliveries for those in the south side of town for free. They showed up to almost every single meal share that [we] hosted, and this is still only a fraction of the work they did … in Tallahassee and beyond.”

Tortuguita, presente

It is still difficult to comprehend the brutality of Manny’s death. But like so many freedom fighters who have been killed by the same systems of injustice that they are fighting against, I know that their legacy lives on. 

Organizing in the South is vital to larger movements across the country. From Tallahassee to the Weelaunee Forest, our southern freedom fighters are showing the world what it looks like to resist white supremacy and refuse to be silenced. 

Even though Manny is gone, they lived as they died: in the struggle. Their story lives on in the hands that plant seeds in the soil of Tallahassee’s community gardens, in the tireless work of the forest defenders who continue to fight against the construction of “Cop City.”

Tortuguita’s light shines on

Manny’s spirit has accompanied me in my own journey to find community in my new, often unforgiving home in New York City.

This week I attended a vigil to honor their life. Members of New York’s chapter of the Weelaunee Defense Society sat in a circle of chairs as they read stories about Manny written by their loved ones. Hearing the words of fellow organizers from Tallahassee inspired me to tearfully share my own memories of Tortuguita. 

Their mother Belkis Terán reflected on the anniversary of her child’s death. She encouraged us to honor them by planting trees, distributing food and offering shelter to anyone in need.

Before the event ended, three attendees led the rest of the room in hymnals and anthems, including an altered rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” As we intertwined lyrics about Turtle Island and Palestine into each repeated verse, I was reminded that Tortuguita’s spirit is present in the fight for justice, wherever it is happening in the world.

Noella Williams is a Brooklyn-based writer that covers Black culture, queer identity, and music, among other topics. Her words can be found in publications like the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Uproxx, and PopSugar. In their free time, you can find Noella playing cozy games on her Nintendo Switch, listening to Solange, and DJing. Follow them on IG at @noella.jpeg.

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