Tortuguita was killed by Georgia state police in a forest encampment in the outskirts of Atlanta on the morning of January 18th, 2023, in one of the highly militarized police raids that had become a regular feature of life for the forest-dwellers by then. Tortuguita was 26 years old, and by all accounts was one of the folks anchoring the movement based in the woods that the mayor of Atlanta is still intent on turning into a huge police training camp, which folks have nicknamed “Cop City.”
Very soon after Tortuguita was killed, I started getting messages from people, telling me about what happened, and telling me I need to write a song about this. I read up on the movement to stop Cop City, which I hadn’t heard about before this police killing. I heard from more people, from different groups, one telling me about how Tortuguita was an active member of Food Not Bombs, another telling me about their involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World.
In another time, when I used to play gigs in most states in the US at least once or twice a year, I would have known about the movement to stop Cop City, and would by now probably have visited the forest camp multiple times, instead of never. But it’s been years since I was in Georgia, or most of the country — due to the vagaries of the indy music biz these days, as my regulars have heard too many times already, most of my touring over the past decade is on the other side of the Atlantic, where the gigs still pay.
Though I had never heard of Stop Cop City or met Tortuguita, as far as I know, from everything I heard from people, they sounded like particularly dedicated movement-builder types, with their fingers in every pot, community-oriented, life-affirming, multi-talented and brilliant. Hearing about their death and their character, I was reminded of the other folks I have known who have died young and violently, under similar circumstances. They all tend to share these kinds of traits.
I thought of the night my housemate, Eric Mark, was killed in San Francisco while watching out for cops on the street while me and other members of our posse decorated an abandoned building with May Day stuff, early on May Day morning in 1993. I thought about looking at the Pacific Ocean with Felony one day, being cold, and having her put Gypsy’s jacket on me, soon after he had been slain by a tree that was felled in his direction by a logger. I thought about getting a phone call from the Palestinian Occupied Territories from a comrade of Rachel Corrie’s after she was killed. I had been reading her missives from the front lines of the International Solidarity Movement there in Palestine regularly.
I remembered the phone call that informed me late one night in October, 2006, that my friend Brad Will had been killed in Oaxaca. I was especially reminded of Brad, hearing about Tortuguita. I hadn’t known Brad’s last name, over the years I knew him, when he was alive. I had his number saved in my phone as “Brad IWW,” but he was just as known in Indymedia circles, or in the guerrilla gardener circuit, or among the tree-sitters in northern California, or among the squatters in New York City, or among the Black Bloc at any major protest anywhere I went.
At the risk of someone out there thinking I may be bragging, I’ve known a few people who paid such a price for their commitment to social change. It comes with the territory. In fact, putting aside the question of whether Tortuguita was the first environmental activist to be killed by the authorities in the USA, as many people are saying, this kind of thing is such a regular occurrence that the vast majority of incidences like this that I hear of, I never end up writing anything about.
That would probably be the case this time, too, but for a message I got a few days ago on Instagram from a friend of Tortuguita’s, containing a link to a Spotify playlist Tort had made. The song pretty much wrote itself, and it’s called “Tortuguita’s Playlist.” The song is short, like a typical song length, and doesn’t cover much ground, other than to say a very little about Tortuguita and the outrageous circumstances of their death.
One of the things many people say about their friend was Tort shared songs with people regularly, and loved music. This is very evident from the 90-song playlist their friend shared with me, which is certainly among the best selections of 90 songs I could imagine, if you’re trying to give someone an introduction to the role of music within social movements over the past century, with an emphasis on Tortuguita’s lifetime, which happens to almost perfectly coincide with my career as a touring performer.
For more about Tortuguita, there’s quite a bit of good material you’ll find if you search for “Tortuguita Atlanta” or other such parameters. The rest of this missive will be all reflections inspired by Tortuguita’s Spotify playlist.
Most of it was put up on Valentine’s Day in 2021. The last song was added at the end of November, 2022. The spirit of the playlist — and, perhaps, of its compiler — is ecumenical, embracing the resistance of people to bad things like capitalism, imperialism, and fascism. The first track on the playlist is from Florida band, Against Me!, “Baby I’m An Anarchist.” The last track, #90, is the late Faith Petric and my friend Mark Ross, from just south of me here in Oregon, in Eugene, singing “Ain’t Done Nothing If You Ain’t Been Called A Red.”
There are a few artists on the playlist that have as many as four songs. There’s one band with five, and that’s the one band that has evidently removed all their material from Spotify since the time that Tort made this playlist. You can still see the name of the band and titles of the tracks on Spotify, but they’re no longer playable. Searching online for the story here, I was expecting to see that they had removed their material from this platform for political reasons of some kind, but apparently the band canceled itself in the course of an internal schism.
The playlist is heavy on folk punk and hiphop from the 1990’s to the present, but it includes a solid introduction to some of the classics of what they used to call “folk” music. Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger with the Almanac Singers, Joe Glazer. Joe Glazer was one of the folks who put together the songbook that was like my Bible in my early years of learning about the musical traditions of the labor movement, Songs of Work and Protest.
The number of familiar faces among this playlist, both in terms of my musical education as well as my circle of friends, was a bit uncanny. Seeing each one of them made me want to ask Tortuguita if they had heard of so-and-so, who is absent from the list.
Representing my late teens, working at a vegetarian restaurant (Morningtown) in Seattle in the 1980’s, there’s a couple from British singer/songwriter, Billy Bragg, doing a song that Woody Guthrie wrote lyrics for, reminding me of the first track I ever heard of Billy Bragg, which was him singing a song about Phil Ochs, set to the tune of a song Phil Ochs wrote about Woody Guthrie. In England, most people first heard Billy Bragg because of one of his hits there, I suspect. For me and, I suspect, Tort as well, it was through the more circuitous route of the IWW.
There’s Utah Phillips, another who I discovered in the 80’s, in the form of a well-stained cassette in Morningtown’s kitchen — Utah Phillips Sings the Songs and Tells the Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World. The great Ani DiFranco is represented, but only as the person providing the musical backdrop for one of Utah’s pieces. Did Tort ever get around to discovering Ani’s solo music, I wonder? Not evident from the playlist, anyway, whether her solo stuff cut the mustard for them.
Anne Feeney, who I first encountered in the 90’s, is well-represented, with two of my favorite songs, and another one which isn’t one of my favorites of hers, but I see why Tort liked it — it’s about an event when a plane full of CEO’s crashed and everyone on board died. Indeed, to prove the point, another song in the playlist on this very subject, from the Coup.
A flood of memories hits me again, continually, whichever direction I peruse the playlist. Opening for the Coup somewhere in Arcata, California sometime in the 90’s. Meeting Anne around then, and touring all over the US and Scandinavia with her. She died of Covid, much too young. I’ll be picking her guitar up from where I left it in Copenhagen this spring, to eventually get to her daughter, Amy, in Texas, also a fine musician.
There on the playlist in position #41, the brilliant Scottish musician and fan of Leon Trotsky, Alistair Hulett, rendering the version of “the Internationale” that has long been my favorite. Where did Tort discover it? I brought Alistair to tour the US once, and he retaliated by organizing a seven-week tour for the two of us in Australia and Aotearoa. Whenever I sing “the Internationale” — this classic song that originated as a poem written by a veteran of the Paris Commune in 1872 — I do Alistair’s version of the song, and I mention to the audience I’m singing for that this is Ally’s version.
There’s Chumbawamba doing the classic Italian antifascist song, “Bella Ciao.” Only one song by this amazing band? Did Tort know their other material? I bet they would have liked “Give the Anarchist a Cigarette” — Tort smoked, apparently.
Rebel Diaz is well-represented, as are Immortal Technique, and Tom Morello. There’s the amazing English hiphop artist, Lowkey, with one track. All performers I met somewhere along the line singing at protests over the course of Tort’s short life. There’s the wonderful hiphop duo, Dead Prez. Every time I played at a protest with them somewhere in the USA, the sound system crapped out just before they were to begin their sets. I always figured the FBI was following them around, and doing their sound for them, too.
There’s the Irish Brigade, with a song about plastic explosives. I stay with my friends in that wonderful band most every time I’m in Belfast. This is not the only song on the playlist that makes Tort’s militant orientation fairly evident. It’s a militancy that I completely share, just as I share Tort’s oft-quoted orientation that the most effective way to conduct a campaign like the one they were involved with in Atlanta is through strategic nonviolence — different from pacifism, but related.
Of the four songs of mine in Tort’s playlist it is somewhat startling to note that two of them are about people who died young, violent deaths. The same sorts of deaths, involving the same sorts of messages from their friends that I received from Tort’s friends after they died. One about Heather Heyer, the young woman killed by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The other, “Rojava,” I wrote after getting messages from someone who was writing from that nominally Kurdish-controlled region of Syria, telling me about how he and a friend had been at a little gathering of fighters like them, fighting for the YPJ, at the time mainly against Islamic State, which was the main group always trying to take their part of Syria from them. At the gathering, everyone was expected to sing a song from their tradition. The person writing me and his friend sang my song, “Behind the Barricades,” that night. His friend, Michael Israel, from the Sacramento IWW, was killed in a firefight a few days later.
Given their age and political affiliations, it’s quite likely that Tort, like me, knew many young people who went off to Syria to fight in the ranks of the Kurdish-led international brigades. Like me, Tort probably knew some who never returned.
“I thought you might like to know that Tortuguita loved your music so much,” is what the note said. I didn’t know Tort, but I know their playlist well, and I think everyone should hear it.