Four days after almost a million immigration activists took to the streets in over 700 locales across the country, a 44-year-old woman named Therese Patricia Okoumou became perhaps the most visible activist in the country when she climbed the Statue of Liberty on July 4th, protesting President Trump’s aggressive immigration policies. She was one of several demonstrators arrested after protesting against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and calling to “Abolish ICE.”
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Okoumou has lived on Staten Island for a decade. On Thursday afternoon, she made her initial appearance on misdemeanor charges of trespassing, interfering with agency functions, and disorderly conduct in the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York, according to court documents sent to Rolling Stone. She pleaded not guilty to all three charges and was released on her own recognizance.
A press release from the Office of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated that Okoumou refused to come down from the monument, causing officials to evacuate Liberty Island on one of its busiest days of the year. According to Berman, she posed “substantial danger to NYPD officers who were required to retrieve her.” Berman called the incident a “dangerous stunt that alarmed the public and endangered her own life and the lives of NYPD officers,” adding that while “we must and do respect the rights of the people to peaceful protest, that right does not extend to breaking the law in ways that put others at risk.”
Okoumou is a member of Rise and Resist, a New York nonprofit of activists formed after the 2016 presidential election aiming to “oust the Trump administration, fight for equality and collaborate on a wide variety of social justice issues.” On its website, Rise and Resist describes how its members created an “Immigration Action Group” that rallies against current immigration topics.
Last weekend, anti-ICE protestors made national headlines as they demonstrated against Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy. Over 30,000 people marched to the White House. Another 15,000 gathered in Boston and 4,000 made their voices heard in Atlanta.
Strength and power to #TheresePatriciaOkoumou for shutting down liberty island on the 4th of July to demand liberty for immigrant children locked behind bars. #WomenDisobey pic.twitter.com/DiGqVsusHR
— Women’s March (@womensmarch) July 5, 2018
On Wednesday, before climbing the national monument, Okoumou took part in a separate protest near the monument that described ICE as a “threat to our liberty and way of life” while unfurling a banner reading, “Abolish ICE.” It was about 2:45 p.m. when “seven people were arrested by U.S. Park Police for unfurling a protest banner off the side for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal,” the National Park Service spokesperson Jerry Willis wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. The act was in violation of NPS regulation and the people were issued summonses to appear in federal court.
At 3:15 p.m., NPS officials noticed Okoumou climbing up the statue, Willis wrote, “from the “public observation deck at the top of the statue’s pedestal.” She scaled the base of the mint-green sculpture in New York Harbor, just before the Independence Day fireworks were set to light up the sky over the East River, according to The New York Times. She reportedly refused to come down of the statue and instead sat in a copper crease of Lady Liberty’s robes.
Police and park officials began clearing roughly 4,500 tourists from the national monument at 3:30 p.m. In a report from CNN, she was heard saying that she would not come down until “all the children are released.” In protesting Trump’s immigration policies, Okoumou joins her fellow Rise and Resist colleagues in railing against often forceful enforcement of arrests, detentions and raids. She also appeared to be protesting against the border agents for separating migrant families. (It is not ICE but Customs and Border Protection and its agents which have been splitting up parents and their children.)
At 6:30 p.m., two officers with the New York City Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit lowered Okoumou down to a ladder posted against the base, where a 20-foot banner once read, “Refugees Welcome.” She was transported to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan and turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
This is not the first time Okoumou has appeared in court. In August 2017, she was arrested for trespassing, obstruction of governmental administration, and misdemeanor assault when protesting the New York Department of Labor, according to the New York Daily News. Okoumou also pursued legal action against various groups based on racial discrimination, including the time she won $1,500 from Staten Island towing company named County Recovery in 2009, along with and her unsuccessful legal bouts concerning a human rights complaint against a Staten Island-based group home in 2007, and a wrongful-termination lawsuit against a New York City women’s shelter called Safe Horizons in 2003.
On Wednesday, members of Rise and Resist said they were not aware of her plans to climb the statue. In a statement, the group wrote that it “planned and executed a non-violent banner drop and human banner action at the Statue of Liberty” and that its “message was that ICE must be abolished, families must be reunited now, deportations must be halted, and the policy of detention as deterrent must end.” The wording was seen by many social media users as the group distancing itself from Okoumou’s actions.
But on Thursday, the group posted a statement on its Facebook page, saying that they “unintentionally led people to believe that we were distancing the group” from her, adding: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Patricia is our friend, our comrade, our sister.” A Rise and Resist tweet said its members were headed to Okoumou’s court appearance and had arranged legal options for her. Rolling Stone reached out to Rise and Resist for comment, but the group did not respond as of press time.
Okoumou’s actions have garnered support among activist groups throughout the country, especially on social media, where Black Lives Matter tweeted that it “stands in solidarity” with Okoumou – a “black, immigrant woman who courageously scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest this unjust government.” Bernice King, a minister and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta King, tweeted an image of Okoumou sitting on the statue while distancing herself from an officer attached to quote from her father, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” #MLK #ThereseOkoumou”