OUR CHILDREN ARE LISTENING
Photo Credit: @RobertCroonquist
Patricia Okoumou instructed supporters of her #ReturnTheChildren initiative and those closely following her case to arrive today outside the Southern District Courthouse of New York at 8 AM.
Here, she would learn her fate for last year’s Fourth of July climb, in protest of the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border brought on by President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies. She could face anywhere from 30 days to 18 months in prison and up to three years’ probation. Okoumou has been on house arrest since February, when she climbed the Southwest Key detention center in Austin, Texas. Before this, Okoumou climbed the Eiffel Tower on Thanksgiving twice and was detained and released there.
Jamie Bauer of direct-action activist group Rise and Resist had been to all of Okoumou’s court appearances since the Fourth of July action, and told PAPER the house arrest was a consequence of her Austin action. Rise and Resist played an integral role in helping Okoumou cover legal fees, and secure her current legal counsel: civil-rights attorneys Ron Kuby and Rhiya Trivedi.
“Patricia had been released on her own recognizance with no bail, but the conditions were that she didn’t break city, state, or federal law,” Bauer explained, adding that Okoumou might be facing up to six months in prison in Texas. International law — such as those in France — do not directly influence Okoumou’s fate, other than potentially validating the court’s opinion in New York.
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The gathering of Okoumou’s supporters was relatively small at first, with just three people: two women and a man who didn’t all know each other. By the time Okoumou arrived shortly after 8 AM, about a dozen more had joined, and she silently hugged them all.
Symbolically, Okoumou was dressed like the general of a one-woman army. She wore a white dress, white scarf, and white headband, all painted with the words, “I CARE.” On the front of her army green bomber jacket was a patch bearing her last name and assorted military-style decorations; on the back, painted in white, were the words, “I REALLY DO CARE,” with July 4, 2018, the day she climbed the Statue of Liberty inscribed below.
She then withdrew and laid out posters advertising even more political messages: “We Support An Elected Civilian Review Board, Hold Police Accountable.” Supporters followed her lead, forming a semicircle and holding up the signs.
One such supporter Deborah Hansen said she heard about Okoumou’s Statue of Liberty climb and felt compelled to get involved. “I think it was the right thing for her to do, to draw more attention to these atrocities of taking kids from families,” Hansen said. “She is one of the only people I know of, if not the only one, who has put their body on the line like this. When I realized that I was living in the city where she was being tried, I knew I couldn’t miss this for the world. She deserves to have people on her side and she does not deserve jail time. She doesn’t even deserve to be on house arrest. She deserves every ounce of support that someone can feasibly give her.’
Reporters and videographers from local networks, including ABC 7 New York, emerged from parked news vans. The ABC reporter, Candace McCowan of Eyewitness News, approached Okoumou, camera behind her, and began a line of questioning. As McCowan spoke, Okoumou retrieved clear masking tape from her bag and put it slowly over her mouth. Okoumou made gestures and nodded as McCowan’s questions ranged from her taped face, its implications and potential consequences, and whether or not she feared Federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein’s ruling. Still, Okoumou said nothing, and the crews turned away.
Okoumou handed out more signs given by fellow Rise and Resist members: these read “Abolish ICE,” “Return the Children,” and its Spanish translation, “Devuelvan Los Niños.”
By 9 AM, a significant group of dozens prepared to enter the courthouse, chanting phrases: “Jail Trump, free Patricia,” “Abolish ICE,” and perhaps most poignantly, “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.” A queue led by Okoumou headed toward building security at the courthouse entrance, during which electronic devices were turned off and confiscated.
Tom Gilroy, another Rise and Resist member, said that it was important today to think not only of Okoumou’s message, but who she is. “She is an immigrant the [Republic of] Congo who has been here legally, so why are we even here?” Gilroy said. “What are your motives if you want to give someone who is advocating for the rights and protections of immigrants a maximum sentence, for essentially trespassing? I wish there was a form of the Texas Verdict in place for moments like these: not guilty but don’t do it again.”
Once all were seated in the courtroom around 9:30 AM, Judge Gorenstein entered the chamber, and shortly after, upon noticing that Okoumou was not yet present, asked her lawyers where she was. After a few moments of pin-drop silence, Okoumou finally entered through the main doors of the courtroom, limply walking with the help of an aid. Her face was fully covered in clear masking tape.
“Why is Ms. Okoumou’s face covered in tape?”Judge Gorenstein asked, incredulous. “If you want to proceed or move this to another day, you’d have her take the tape off.” Okoumou obliged and removed her mask.
Bauer informed me that had Okoumu not removed the tape, it would’ve looked like “total non-cooperation.”
“It may look outrageous, but she knows what she’s doing,” Bauer whispered to me amid the commotion.
This entrance launched the back and forth procedural happenings, as Kuby gave his defense to the court. He addressed the court’s concern that Okoumou, who describes herself as a full-time activist, was technically unemployed. Following an “aggressive” job search to alleviate those concerns, Kuby said that just yesterday Okoumou was offered an immediate, pre-existing job at Salvage Art Institute. He argued that Okoumou’s case was one of civil disobedience, for which she was “ready to accept consequences,” but that jailing her for acting against the President’s misdeeds would be a ruling in alignment with the Trump administration’s tendency to promote “fear, not respect of the law.”
Discussing the dangers Okoumou allegedly posed to herself or others, Kuby brought up prior civil disobedience acts of similar incidents at the Statue of Liberty that did not result in severe sentences, such as an Australian stuntman who parachuted 305 feet to the ground from the statue’s torch in 1986. And in 2001, a French paraglider snared his sail on the statue’s arm. He had intended to land somewhere on Liberty Island, carrying a sign protesting the then-legal use of land mines. The rescue missions in both cases were dramatic and high-risk, Kuby said.
Patricia Okoumou on Instagram: “I’ll be testifying tomorrow at sentencing. I’ve just finished my prepared remarks and message to Federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel…”
The government argued that Okoumou placed others at risk not only because of her climb to the Statue’s base, but Okoumou reportedly moved away from officers as they approached her, and threatened to push the ladder down from which they used to climb toward her. It was said that a “Google search reveals lawful ways to engage in activism [from social media campaigns to voting] that do not break the law,” citing a more recent, legal protest at Ellis Island that Okoumou participated in.
In their defense against a probation sentence, Kuby and Trivedi maintained that three years’ probation was an erroneous timetable, unless it was the timeline the Trump administration followed to “return the children.” They argued that a probation sentence in this case would essentially be like that of rapper Meek Mill’s — a “long sentence on an installment plan,” during which the court maintains “partial control over citizens.” They argued that, though it is not jail time, Okoumou’s probation would add her to the count of millions of Americans with probation for misdemeanor charges.
Okoumou then gave her final statement before the judge deliberated, and it was the first time she spoke all morning. “This is a case against injustice,” she said, adding that she believes President Trump has terrorized families without impunity. “While the world watches in horror, God is taking notes. When children are ripped from mothers, we place the children at risk for sexual abuse, physical abuse… our country went so low.”
Okoumou addressed the judge and the country: “You have lost your common sense. You are lacking in basic human dignity… My fight will continue in the cages [if I’m put there, too]. My goal is to work to get justice for the vulnerable.”
“I am not a criminal,” she concluded.
After a brief recess, Judge Gorenstein handed down his decision, noting that he visited Ellis Island himself to determine the risk of climbing Lady Liberty. He said that Okoumou’s initial 11-foot climb was made more serious, and therefore of greater risk, to others the higher she climbed. He noted that the way she evaded rescuing officers would not have given officers proper tools they’d need to navigate getting Okoumou and themselves to safety. Gorenstein argued that Okoumou felt entitled to climb monuments, citing both her actions in Paris and Texas.
“I’d expect to hear, ‘I’m sorry I risked the lives and safety of others for my cause, I just believe in it so strongly,'” he said. “I did not hear empathy, nor that she wouldn’t risk the lives of others yet again… The defendant thinks her cause outweighs risks she imposes to others. She did not climb [the Statue of Liberty] to save a child [who was up there], but to gain publicity for her cause… Therefore, she must be punished to promote respect for the law… Probation would ensure she worked to prevent future crimes.”
Rise and Resist on Instagram: “#FreePatricia. #patriciaokoumou. Patricia Okoumou enters court for sentencing. The Judge gave her 5 years probation.”
Considering all mitigating factors, including her confirmed job offer, Judge Gorenstein ruled that jail time and home confinement was not necessary, sentencing Okoumou to five year’s probation and 200 hours of community service, plus a mandatory special assessment and no fines. Further crimes will amount to revoked probation and a potentially lengthy jail sentence. She has 14 days to appeal her case if she disagrees with the ruling, and, Gorenstein said, if things “went swimmingly, a motion to terminate probation would be considered.”
With Black women making up 14 percent of the female prison population, it is clear that they are disproportionately subject to mass incarceration. Prison Policy Initiative reported in 2018 that up to three out of four women under control of any U.S. correctional system are on probation. While probation is sometimes billed as an improved alternative to incarceration, it is often set with unrealistic conditions that undermine its goal of keeping people from being locked up. For example, probation often comes with steep fees, which, and women are historically in the worst position to afford them. An inability or failure to pay these probation fees is often considered a violation of probation.
Joseph Sellman, who is affiliated with Black Lives Matter, prepared a statement in advance of Okoumou’s sentencing date: “We condemn the hateful and outrageous zero-tolerance immigration policy of the Trump administration and we express our indignation of the unjust sentence that Judge Gorenstein intends/has imposed upon Patricia,” it reads in part. “We are here today because Patricia has chosen also to bring awareness to the Trump Administration’s racist policies. There is no evidence to prove that any harm was done to anyone as a result of Patricia’s civil disobedience on July 4th of last year. Nevertheless, we view this case as a stark reminder of the double standards within our legal (in)justice system, as it relates to white privilege, as opposed to what a Black, Brown or persons of color would receive as punishment from the system. Patricia, we love you and you have our continued support.”
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Following the verdict, Okoumou embraced dozens of her supporters, dragging the weight of the ankle bracelet attached to her with every step. “They’re going to kill me,” she said.
Brittany King, an NYU graduate student, has known Okoumou for the past five months, having first reached out to interview her for a college class project. The two remained in touch, and King helped Okoumou plan rallies and actions. “When people believe Black women, they’re always right,” King said. “[Civil rights activist] Fannie Lou Hamer, when she said, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, she was talking about the civil rights movement and the plight of the liberation movement. If Patricia was white, one, she would be celebrated, and two, she wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. Later on, people will understand what Patricia has done. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen too late.”
Photo via Getty