As a child in the Congo-Brazzaville, Therese Patricia Okoumou loved climbing things, particularly houses. No one else, not even her brothers, joined her in these escapades; feats that decades later came in handy as she scaled New York City’s revered Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018, in protest of President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
By doing this, Okoumou became the first woman in history to successfully climb Lady Liberty’s pedestal but she could spend up to 18 months behind bars for doing so.
Last December, a federal district court in Manhattan found Okoumou guilty of three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, trespassing, and interfering with government agency functions. Each charge carries a sentence of up to six months in prison. Ruling in The United States of America v. Therese Okoumou, Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein asserted that Okoumou’s political motivations did not override the law.
The prospect of jail time, however, hasn’t curbed her activism.
Last month, Okoumou, 45, testified at City Hall on behalf of the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board to better scrutinize the New York Police Department. More recently, she launched a Valentine Day’s card campaign that offers postcards to people to sign and show solidarity with migrant families at the border. On Feb. 14, she and other activists will travel to El Paso, Texas, to deliver the cards.
“Family separation is hard on children,” Okoumou says of the zero-tolerance policy. “People don’t realize that children don’t have a sense of time, especially young ones. And when the Trump administration rips these children, some of them from nursing mothers, the damage they’re inflicting is long-term psychological damage.”
Her activism, she says, is driven less by her journey to America and more by humanistic principles. “I’m fighting not because I’m an immigrant, but because I’m Patricia Okoumou. It’s immoral to put children in cages,” she said.
While her immigrant experience might not be the driving force for her work, it is still one that many immigrants across the U.S. can relate to. Growing up in Congo-Brazzaville, Okoumou was enamored by America. It was the music and Hollywood, all the—as she has described it—“false advertisement” that reeled her in like most immigrants. She remembers enjoying Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and had posters of MC Hammer.
“I really visualized America to be the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she said. “I had that false notion of diversity and inclusiveness.”
Okoumou left the Republic of the Congo in 1994 on a temporary visa, and became “undocumented” when it expired. In 2010, she received a green card under the U-1 nonimmigrant status and was naturalized as a citizen in 2016.
In the pre-Trump years, she lived a quiet, apolitical life as a personal fitness trainer. But since Trump’s presidential win in November 2016, Okoumou has taken to the streets in protest, often alone. One of her solo demonstrations was documented by The Young Turks’s host, Cenk Uygur, outside the Trump Tower in Manhattan. By April 2017, she had joined the New York-based activist group, Rise and Resist.
“I love being independent and having my own mind,” Okoumou said, sporting her signature cobalt-green dress emblazoned with the words: “Seeking Asylum is NOT a Crime.” It was that free-spiritedness that spurred her to clutch the hem of the “Mother of Exiles” on America’s 242nd birthday.
Earlier that day, she had participated in a protest with Rise and Resist at the Statue of Liberty. At the stone pedestal of the monument, ten RAR members unfurled a banner saying, “Abolish ICE.” While NYPD officers were arresting some of the protesters, Okoumou slipped away and scaled more than 20 feet of the statue’s base, reaching the top of the pedestal. She was rescued after a three-hour standoff with law enforcement.
Since the stunt, Okoumou has received widespread coverage from the media. Elle magazine recognized the act as “one of the most powerful events for women in 2018”; she was featured in a photo shoot with Teen Vogue, and even immortalized in street art.
According to one of Okoumou’s attorneys, Ron Kuby, Okoumou’s protest hearkens back to an earlier generation of people who engaged in civil disobedience where their actions had the potential to have real consequences, like the civil rights marches or the anti-war protests.
“Today, in New York City, protests are often a more elaborate form of choreography,” Kuby said, “where everybody knows their role; everybody knows their part, everybody plays their part and there aren’t any real consequences. But Patricia goes back to a much earlier tradition of protest.”
Okoumou’s protest was also reminiscent of a similar event in November 2000 by Puerto Rican activist, Tito Kayak, who, along with five other protesters, draped the Puerto Rican flag from the Statue of Liberty’s crown.
“The feds didn’t prosecute, they just referred [Kayak] to the state court for prosecution for disorderly conduct and he was found not guilty of that,” Kuby said. “They could have done that [in Patricia’s case], but they chose not to. That was a decision made by the Trump administration.”
Last summer, an executive order overturned the policy of separating children from their parents upon crossing the border unlawfully, but the Trump administration quietly continues to do so, including instances where children are placed in temporary foster care and shelters with little or no indication that they arrived at the border with their parents.
It’s too early to determine if Okoumou’s feat made an impact, but “the action itself received a tremendous amount of attention,” Kuby said. “While people may not know her name, they remember the protest.”
Okoumou pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges. She will be sentenced on Mar. 5.
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