'We can't stay silent anymore': On Cop City and grief There is a human toll for Atlanta-based activists organizing against Cop City and the very forces that seek to stamp them out
Photo of Nilson Barahona-Marriaga on the bottom left corner, and a photo of Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán in the center / Designed by Lara Witt

The Atlanta, Georgia activists organizing against the police and fire training facility known as Cop City are up against some powerful forces: the police industrial complex, government leadership, $90 million in funding, and the uniquely American commitments to demolish the environment, encroach on sacred Native American land, and further militarize the police. 

And make no mistake: city officials are deeply committed to pushing the 85-acre facility through on behalf of the Atlanta Police Foundation. Despite strident opposition from community members and a price tag that is now double what was originally proposed in 2021, after 14 hours of public testimony largely condemning Cop City on June 6, city council members voted 11-4 to approve $67 million toward the project. 

After the city council’s vote, organizers announced a petition drive to gather 70,000 signatures that would enable them to add a referendum on the November ballot, allowing voters to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the city-owned land that would house Cop City. Organizers originally had until August 14 to gather the signatures, but late last month, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen extended the deadline to late September. As of July 25, Paul Glaze, a spokesperson for the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition, told the Associated Press that organizers have gathered more than 30,000 signatures.

In return, the state has used the full force of its power against organizers. On May 31, Atlanta police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three activists with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that for seven years has provided jail support, bail, and access to legal representation to protesters experiencing repression—including those fighting to oppose Cop City. The activists were released on bond a couple of days later, but not without first being charged with “money laundering” and “charity fraud.”

Nilson Barahona-Marriaga has watched all of this unfold in Atlanta, a place he’s called home for decades since migrating to the U.S. from Honduras as a teenager. Because of a DUI, Barahona-Marriaga spent 13 months in detention during the height of the pandemic—first at Georgia’s notorious Irwin County Detention Center, where women were sterilized without their full and informed consent, and then at the Stewart Detention Center, one of the deadliest detention centers in the nation, where nine people have died since 2017.

Barahona-Marriaga understands state violence well. As a medically vulnerable person, he could have died in detention during the pandemic, which spurred him to action. With no organizing experience, he joined a larger group of detained immigrants to organize a strike to demand basic COVID-19 protections. These efforts were later the subject of a film

Since Barahona-Marriaga was released from detention in November 2020, he returned to Atlanta and launched the ICE Breakers, a grassroots organization committed to ending the funding of private prison companies, closing detention centers, and defunding ICE. His life has also changed in profound ways. Barahona-Marriaga was recently granted residency, bringing him a step closer to one day becoming a U.S. citizen. As a formerly undocumented immigrant who was funneled into the detention system from the criminal legal system, Barahona-Marriaga said his activism and organizing work will continue—and this includes speaking out about Cop City. 

While he’s attended protests and connected with organizers opposing the facility, Barahona-Marriaga said he found it difficult to publicly address one of the biggest tragedies surrounding Cop City: the murder of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán. In January, the 26-year-old was shot by police 57 times during a multi-agency raid on the Defend Atlanta Forest, Stop Cop City encampment. Tortuguita was a beloved activist, environmentalist, and a fellow immigrant—something that bonded Barahona-Marriaga and Tortuguita just months before the activist’s death. 

There is a lot to say about the state violence already wrought by Cop City, but during a recent phone call, Barahona-Marriaga urged us all to reflect on the human toll of activism for those organizing against the very forces that seek to stamp them out—the risk, the fear, the loss, the pain. Most of all, the immeasurable grief. 

In an emotional conversation with Prism, Barahona-Marriaga discussed his connection to Tortuguita, the need for more conversations about mental health, and how he uses pain as fuel. Here he is, in his own words:  

Last year, I went to a training for street medics because the ICE Breakers does a lot of rallies, and we want to always keep people as safe as we can. At the training, I met this person from Venezuela. They were so full of love for their people. They were very humble and kind, and they really just wanted to help people. We connected right away because we were both immigrants. We talked about our journey to becoming organizers and activists. They were in Georgia because they heard about what was happening with Cop City, and they wanted to offer support. This person’s name was Manuel, but they told me they went by “Tortuguita.”

When the training was over, I told them I wanted to go see them. They said, “Yeah, we have a tent that we hang out at. Come see us anytime, we’re always there, just trying to stop this thing from happening.” Because of life, I was never able to go visit them. Later, I heard about how the police were treating activists at Cop City, and I got worried. I got in touch with them on Signal, and they told me they were OK, that nothing happened to them, and that they were fine. I felt so relieved. 

Not long after, I saw on the news that Tortuguita was killed. 

I haven’t been able to talk about this publicly because it feels overwhelming. At the same time, after getting out of detention, I told myself I could not stay silent anymore. I felt like I couldn’t allow injustice to keep happening. What happened to Tortuguita was an injustice. Georgia is my home, this is my state. This is where I fight for justice for immigrants. But the conversation has to keep expanding. We want ICE out of Georgia, and we don’t want Cop City.

Organizing inside detention wasn’t easy, but we have to fight for what is right. We can’t stay silent anymore. We can’t let other people live through the hell that we went through.

Those who didn’t have the blessing to know Tortuguita don’t know what a great loss their death was to the human race. They had a huge heart. They had so many great ideas. They were brilliant and good with people. They were a medic and, to me, that tells you everything. For someone to decide to be a medic, that means they always put other people first. 

Tortuguita’s death has weighed on my heart, and they are a big part of the reason why what is happening at Cop City is important to me. It is my personal belief that we do not need that place, and talking about the grief I feel is also a way to honor them. 

The original idea behind the ICE Breakers was to talk about immigrant justice but also to actually break the ice and talk about the things people don’t really want to talk about. That has to include things like mental health. That is necessary to create a change in our communities and in the world. 

Before I was detained, the word “activism” wasn’t really part of my vocabulary. But when I think of the values I was raised with—not just from my family, but my community in Honduras—my neighbors were like my brothers and sisters. We relied on each other, we were involved in each other’s lives, and we took care of each other. When I was in detention, and I saw how my immigrant people were treated, it changed me. I knew I would spend the rest of my life lifting my voice against injustice. 

Organizing inside detention wasn’t easy, but we have to fight for what is right. We can’t stay silent anymore. We can’t let other people live through the hell that we went through. There are people sitting in detention centers and prisons right now going through horrible pain. These systems are money-making machines that destroy people’s lives. I use pain as fuel to try to help stop all of this suffering.

To be honest, being in the system and seeing all of the injustice can break your soul. That’s why so many people inside attempt suicide. These are not places human beings are supposed to be in—and when people have histories of mental health problems, it’s like [officials] provoke them. They put them in isolation. They hurt people intentionally.  

When I talk about it, I can still feel the pressure build up in my body. I have been at a breaking point before, and it took me time to learn how to talk about what I was feeling and let my emotions come through. 

When I came out of detention, I went to a therapist. I told her that I was going through something I never felt before. I described it as that feeling you have when you’re going to sneeze—that feeling in your body—but the sneeze never happens. Like there was no relief. Sometimes tears would start coming out of my eyes, and I didn’t know why. Nothing sad happened that day, but I would cry and cry. She explained that it was because, in detention, I didn’t allow myself to feel my emotions because I was just trying to survive. It was like I shut down my emotional system. Now that I’m in an environment that feels safe, I release all of the emotions I repressed—whether I want to or not. I don’t fight it anymore. 

In detention, but also when traumatic things happen like Tortuguita’s death, your sense of community goes to another level because together, you are living your worst fears. This is why we have to keep talking to each other, even when it’s hard. We have to share our feelings. We have to share our hopes. We need to give each other that safety. 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.