As a toddler within the Congo-Brazzaville, Therese Patricia Okoumou liked climbing issues, significantly homes. Nobody else, not even her brothers, joined her in these escapades; feats that many years later got here in helpful as she scaled New York Metropolis’s revered Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018, in protest of President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration coverage.
By doing this, Okoumou turned the primary girl in historical past to efficiently climb Girl Liberty’s pedestal however she may spend as much as 18 months behind bars for doing so.
Final December, a federal district court docket in Manhattan discovered Okoumou responsible of three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, trespassing, and interfering with authorities company features. Every cost carries a sentence of as much as six months in jail. Ruling in The US of America v. Therese Okoumou, Justice of the Peace Choose Gabriel Gorenstein asserted that Okoumou’s political motivations didn’t override the regulation.
The prospect of jail time, nevertheless, hasn’t curbed her activism.
Final month, Okoumou, 45, testified at Metropolis Corridor on behalf of the Marketing campaign for an Elected Civilian Assessment Board to higher scrutinize the New York Police Division. Extra not too long ago, she launched a Valentine Day’s card marketing campaign that gives postcards to individuals to signal and present solidarity with migrant households on the border. On Feb. 14, she and different activists will journey to El Paso, Texas, to ship the playing cards.
“Household separation is tough on kids,” Okoumou says of the zero-tolerance coverage. “Individuals don’t notice that kids don’t have a way of time, particularly younger ones. And when the Trump administration rips these kids, a few of them from nursing moms, the harm they’re inflicting is long-term psychological harm.”
Her activism, she says, is pushed much less by her journey to America and extra by humanistic ideas. “I’m combating not as a result of I’m an immigrant, however as a result of I’m Patricia Okoumou. It’s immoral to place kids in cages,” she mentioned.
Whereas her immigrant expertise won’t be the driving drive for her work, it’s nonetheless one which many immigrants throughout the U.S. can relate to. Rising up in Congo-Brazzaville, Okoumou was enamored by America. It was the music and Hollywood, all of the—as she has described it—“false commercial” that reeled her in like most immigrants. She remembers having fun with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and had posters of MC Hammer.
“I actually visualized America to be the land of the free and the house of the courageous,” she mentioned. “I had that false notion of range and inclusiveness.”
Okoumou left the Republic of the Congo in 1994 on a brief visa, and have become “undocumented” when it expired. In 2010, she acquired a inexperienced card underneath the U-1 nonimmigrant standing and was naturalized as a citizen in 2016.
Within the pre-Trump years, she lived a quiet, apolitical life as a private health coach. However since Trump’s presidential win in November 2016, Okoumou has taken to the streets in protest, typically alone. One among her solo demonstrations was documented by The Younger Turks’s host, Cenk Uygur, exterior the Trump Tower in Manhattan. By April 2017, she had joined the New York-based activist group, Rise and Resist.
“I like being unbiased and having my very own thoughts,” Okoumou mentioned, sporting her signature cobalt-green gown emblazoned with the phrases: “In search of Asylum is NOT a Crime.” It was that free-spiritedness that spurred her to clutch the hem of the “Mom of Exiles” on America’s 242nd birthday.
Earlier that day, she had participated in a protest with Rise and Resist on the Statue of Liberty. On the stone pedestal of the monument, ten RAR members unfurled a banner saying, “Abolish ICE.” Whereas NYPD officers have been arresting a few of the protesters, Okoumou slipped away and scaled greater than 20 toes of the statue’s base, reaching the highest of the pedestal. She was rescued after a three-hour standoff with regulation enforcement.
Because the stunt, Okoumou has acquired widespread protection from the media. Elle journal acknowledged the act as “probably the most highly effective occasions for ladies in 2018”; she was featured in a photograph shoot with Teen Vogue, and even immortalized in avenue artwork.
In response to certainly one of Okoumou’s attorneys, Ron Kuby, Okoumou’s protest hearkens again to an earlier era of people that engaged in civil disobedience the place their actions had the potential to have actual penalties, just like the civil rights marches or the anti-war protests.
“At this time, in New York Metropolis, protests are sometimes a extra elaborate type of choreography,” Kuby mentioned, “the place all people is aware of their position; all people is aware of their half, all people performs their half and there aren’t any actual penalties. However Patricia goes again to a a lot earlier custom of protest.”
Okoumou’s protest was additionally harking back to the same occasion in November 2000 by Puerto Rican activist, Tito Kayak, who, together with 5 different protesters, draped the Puerto Rican flag from the Statue of Liberty’s crown.
“The feds didn’t prosecute, they only referred [Kayak] to the state court docket for prosecution for disorderly conduct and he was discovered not responsible of that,” Kuby mentioned. “They may have achieved that [in Patricia’s case], however they selected to not. That was a call made by the Trump administration.”
Final summer season, an govt order overturned the coverage of separating kids from their mother and father upon crossing the border unlawfully, however the Trump administration quietly continues to take action, together with situations the place kids are positioned in short-term foster care and shelters with little or no indication that they arrived on the border with their mother and father.
It’s too early to find out if Okoumou’s feat made an impression, however “the motion itself acquired an incredible quantity of consideration,” Kuby mentioned. “Whereas individuals might not know her title, they bear in mind the protest.”
Okoumou pleaded not responsible to the misdemeanor fees. She will probably be sentenced on Mar. 5.
Signal as much as the Quartz Africa Weekly Temporary right here for information and evaluation on African enterprise, tech and innovation in your inbox