by Avery White in News on Mar 18, 2019 3:48 pm     

Patricia Okoumou at her Staten Island apartment (Avery White / Gothamist) 

Patricia Okoumou is known around the world as the “Statue of Liberty Climber,”  but over the last year, she has climbed the Eiffel Tower, a Border  Patrol Museum in San Antonio, Texas and a migrant detention center in  Austin. For the last 17 days, Okoumou has been under house arrest in her Staten Island apartment for violating her parole during the Austin action.

“I’m still visible and I’m still an activist, even though I’m not  outside,” Okoumou told Gothamist. “I’m still working behind closed  doors, the government cannot shut me up. The confinement of walls will  not stop me, and that includes prison walls.”

On Tuesday, Okoumou is scheduled to go before U.S. Magistrate Judge  Gabriel Gorenstein at the Manhattan District Court House to be sentenced  for the three misdemeanor charges related to her Statue of Liberty  climb: trespassing, interference with agency functions, and disorderly  conduct. She faces up to 18 months in jail. “We live in a rotten system  and the courts are no exception of that,”; said Okoumou.  

Judge Gorenstein recently took a trip  to the Statue of Liberty with a full accompaniment of court clerks,  Okoumou and her legal team, government officials, and park workers to  assess the danger of her climb. 

“I’ve never seen this in 35 years of my experience, and it was a  first for everyone that I’ve spoken to,” said one of Okoumou’s  attorneys, Ronald L. Kuby. “Judge Gorenstein is taking the sentencing  part of this case extremely seriously. That may be a good thing for  Patricia, or not.”

All four of her harness-free climbs were in protest of the Trump administration’s separation and caging of migrant children at the U.S. border. “I was born fearless,” Okoumou grinned.

Okoumou was born in the Republic of Congo, was a young woman when  civil war broke out in 1993. “My country was going through turmoil. We  wanted to embrace democracy as a country and we wanted change.” She  recalls walking to school and passing a group of soldiers carting off a  dead body in a wheelbarrow. “I realized then that I was a courageous  woman.” 

In 1994, Okoumou moved to the United States, where she began working  various jobs, including as a staffer at a battered women’s shelter, a  physical therapist, and a personal trainer. She began addressing issues  of injustice she saw unfolding all around her. She has waged multiple legal battles  against racial discrimination, protested the New York State Department  of Labor (that resulted in a misdemeanor charge), and stood for hours as  a lone protester at Trump Tower in Manhattan after the 2016 presidential election. 

However, it was during a Rise and Resist protest on July 4th, 2018,  that Okoumou captured the world’s attention when she climbed the Statue  of Liberty. “When we started putting people in cages that was the straw  that broke the camel’s back,” Okoumou said. “I had had enough and I  didn’t care about the repercussions. We have gone so low as a country I  had to climb as high as I could on the Statue of Liberty to raise  consciousness.”

Immigration authorities are still not clear on the exact number of  children that have been separated from their parents and detained in  cages. In December 2018, according to NPR  nearly 15,000 migrant children were being held in detention centers  across the country. In December, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, Jakelin  Caal Maquin, and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo both died in the custody of federal immigration officials.

Patricia Okoumou (Avery White / Gothamist) 

Her climbs have helped draw global attention to the humanitarian crisis, making Okoumou a hero to many. A Go Fund Me page to support Okoumou has raised $23,535 to date.

“First and foremost, Patricia, ‘Ms. Lady Liberty’, is the most prominent  black voice in this immigrant rights movement right now,” said Black  Lives Matter Greater New York Chairman, Hawk Newsome. “When a lot of  people think of this movement they think of the brown children, but we  have to remember that 4 out of the 8 countries on Donald Trump’s ‘no  fly’ list were African countries. So when you think about immigrants  it’s not just Latinx people and when you think about Muslims, it’s not  just folks who would be considered non-black by the mainstream media.”

Kuby noted that Okoumou’s Statue of Liberty climb resonated with  “thousands, if not millions of people” because it happened “on America’s  most important symbol, on America’s most important day.” 

“Her acts served to remind us all as we ate cheeseburgers and tofu  dogs at the beach and enjoyed ourselves, that there were children  forcibly separated from their parents, living in detention camps, in our  name,” Kuby said.

At her bail revocation hearing, Gorenstein voiced concerns about  Okoumou’s Go Fund Me efforts. “In order for people to be inspired to  make donations, she has to break the law,” Gorenstein said, according to Court News.

Okoumou countered that being confined to her Staten Island apartment  makes job searching especially challenging so she’s published an open  call for support finding work on her website.

“He implied that activism is not a real job and if I don’t find a job  by Tuesday he will throw me in prison, but I want to be a full-time  activist,” Okoumou said. “Why does he care about how I’m feeding myself.  The people who donate to my cause believe in my work.” 

If she is detained or imprisoned on Tuesday, Okoumou says she will immediately begin a hunger strike.

“Patricia has always been very clear that her protest of family  separation is unceasing,” said Rhiya Trivedi, another of Okoumou’s  defense attorneys. “When she says she’s going to do something, she does  it, so I have no reason to doubt that that’s the case.”  

“If she’s prepared to stage a hunger strike while she’s incarcerated  then I personally will join in with her and encourage others to do it,”  Newsome added. 

“We could reach peace by simple acts of kindness, peaceful protest,  and civil disobedience if we wanted to, but we are complicit,” said  Okoumou. “If each one of us did a fraction of what I did the world would  find peace. We have to stand up. We are the people, we have the power,  let’s use it.”

Avery White is a photojournalist based in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Instagram.

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