Right-wing media's reactions to forest defender's death reveal increasing hostility toward activists
Right-wing media are vilifying a group of environmental activists known as Defend the Atlanta Forest, particularly Manuel Terán, a member who was shot and killed by Atlanta police on January 18, falsely portraying the group as having a strictly anti-police objective.
The commentary is no surprise coming from media figures who have repeatedly derided young climate activists both in Europe and in the United States who were engaging in nonviolent protest.
Twenty-six-year-old Terán, whose pronouns were they/them and was known as “Tortuguita” by family and friends, was killed while occupying an urban forest south-east of Atlanta. The area occupied by activists is set to be destroyed to make way for a movie studio and a $90 million police training facility known by many as “Cop City.” The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that Tortuguita shot a Georgia State Patrol officer before being killed; Defend the Atlanta Forest disputes this claim, and no body camera footage has been released. Following Tortuguita’s death, opponents of Cop City took to the streets and damaged property, including an empty police car, in protest.
Right-wing media deliberately mischaracterized the goals of Defend the Forest
Defend the Atlanta Forest describes itself as an “autonomous movement” aiming to preserve land with ties to the Muscogee Nation — land which represents a long history of injustice. Right-wing media insisted that those occupying the forest were motivated by anti-police sentiment, trying to justify the killing.
On January 24, John Roberts, co-anchor of Fox News’ America Reports, asked whether protesters were “more … about being anti-police than being pro-environment” and parroted far-right commentator Andy Ngo, who called them “spoiled children of privilege trying to burn Atlanta down” in the New York Post. On Newsmax, on January 23, journalist Carolyn Ryan also echoed the idea that the activists only “claim” to want to protect the old-growth forest. Speaking with Roberts on January 24, Juan Williams, who for years served as a “liberal” co-host on Fox News’ The Five, said that “no question these people are from out of city, out of state” and that he hopes the protesters are “put down.”
The brutal murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in neighboring Tennessee showed us, once again, that police use excessive and deadly force under questionable circumstances. Yet without footage, right-wing media have unquestioningly accepted the Atlanta police’s narrative.
On January 23, OAN host Dan Ball called the protesters “environmental whackos” and “defund-the-police Nazis” and insisted, despite conflicting information from Defend the Forest, on characterizing police’s behavior toward the group as peaceful. He also claimed that “police and witnesses” saw Tortuguita shoot first, not mentioning that the only witnesses were the police.
“They had no right to be in that forest,” said Fox News host Jenine Pirro, referring to the protesters on the January 24 segment of Hannity. “Someone from there shoots a cop and that’s what started the whole thing. … They turned it into police violence.”
Attacks fit a pattern of vitriol toward climate activists around the world
Right-wing media have similarly smeared grassroots groups that are loudly demanding climate justice. Just Stop Oil, Last Generation, and Extinction Rebellion, which participated in protests throughout 2022 and in 2023, where they blocked roads and threw food on well-known works of art, have drawn outrage from the right, with some influencers suggesting they should be physically punished for their radical, yet peaceful, tactics.
The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh and former Daily Caller writer Greg Price have suggested that these activists be dismembered, “beaten with a bullwhip, or forced into “labor camps where they spend all day drilling for oil.” Frequent Fox News guest and climate change denier Steve Milloy called climate activists “enemies of humanity.” The Washington Free Beacon put forth the absurd notion that Democrats would soon storm the Capitol over climate change policy. And in an October 14 segment of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson suggested that they should be monitored by the FBI.
Fox News Digital writer Thomas Catenacci often writes about activists embracing extreme tactics. In July, Catenacci falsely claimed that climate activists had embraced “violence” as the “deadline to 'save the planet' draws near.” It’s not uncommon for Fox News journalists to vilify activists who support causes they oppose while defending or downplaying extreme and violent actions of activists whose causes they support.
Antifa, the right’s favorite scapegoat, has become part of the conversation as well, with media figures referring to the movement and forest defenders interchangeably to fearmonger about the protests.
Neo-nazi collaborator Jack Posobiec portrayed Defend the Atlanta Forest as antifa, which right-wing figures have blamed for the January 6 insurrection, as well as other violent incidents.
Fox host Jesse Watters alleged on December 16, without evidence and before the shooting even took place, that Defend the Atlanta Forest was “plotting to kill cops” and that the protesters were “all card-carrying members of antifa.”
Over the past few years, antifa has been used to detract attention from the climate crisis and its impacts. In September 2020, podcaster Joe Rogan and other misinformers blamed antifa for wildfires on the West Coast, and climate activists were similarly blamed for wildfires during Europe’s extreme heat wave this past summer. The right wants people to think climate activists are dangerous, and it seems they’re willing to say anything to support that.
Some right-wing figures have targeted climate activists with vile personal attacks
Tortuguita’s gender identity has been a subject of scrutiny for right-wing media since their death, seemingly for no reason other than to further antagonize networks’ prejudiced audiences. On the January 25 episode of Newsmax’s Tipping Point, guest and right-wing journalist Pedro Gonzalez was upset that some media outlets called Totuguita by their nickname and used their preferred pronouns: “It’s kind of ridiculous, but PBS did all their coverage by referring to him using his they/it pronouns and his preferred nickname.”
On January 23, Newsmax host Jenn Pellegrino acknowledged Tortuguita’s pronouns but continued to misgender them, seemingly on purpose, as did most of the right-wing shows covering the story. Newsmax host Rob Schmitt on January 23 said that “cutting down trees to train more cops is almost as offensive as intentionally misgendering somebody,” adding that antifa “descended on Atlanta to defend trees from fascism.”
Right-wing media have also found other ways to insult young protesters and connect climate change to culture war issues like gender, beauty standards, and mental illness. In a nauseating November 22 segment of Gutfeld!, host Greg Gutfeld compared activists to Charles Manson and lamented that “it’s not just gender that’s no longer binary; it’s sanity. … In the old days, they’d be carted off, placed in comfy cells with padded walls.”
The foulness continued as conservative “comedian” Jamie Lissow said of the group Last Generation, “No one is banging these girls.” “You know what kills me about them? They could be attractive,” said Gutfeld. “But they hate all, like, patriarchal standards of beauty,” he concluded.
Almost no one is a better example of this than 19-year-old Greta Thunberg, whom right-wing media influencers have mocked for her autism diagnosis, calling her psychotic and mentally ill, and even advocating violence against her.
The right is coming for your right to assemble
By framing protesters as violent, aggressive, and mentally ill, right-wing media figures are making excuses for state efforts to criminalize civil disobedience in response to climate change protests and public outrage over violent and racist policing.
Cop City is funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which has a slew of corporate donors and has helped make Atlanta the most surveilled city in the U.S. In 2020, a report found that fossil fuel companies including Chevron and Shell and the banks that fund them are donors for police foundations across the country.
As journalist Dharna Noor noted in Atmos, “Police exist primarily to protect existing structures and institutions. They are deployed to defend the exploitation of the land’s resources—like what is happening in Atlanta.”
And Republican state lawmakers are actively trying to hinder lawful opposition. Since 2020, eight states have enacted laws that increase penalties and charges for either interfering with oil and gas activity or disturbing meetings of government officials. Iowa, Oklahoma, and Florida have all passed laws protecting motorists who hit protesters.
Nineteen forest defenders have been charged with domestic terrorism. But according to Grist, nine are “alleged to have committed no specific crime beyond misdemeanor trespassing,” or tree-sitting. They’re facing five to 35 years in prison.
Right-wing media and politicians are sending a clear message: If they had their way, exercising your right to protest could be a death sentence, if the thing you’re protesting doesn’t kill you first.