No Jail Time for Statue of Liberty Climber Patricia Okoumou

Patricia Okoumou, the activist who climbed the Statue of Liberty last July 4, won't be facing jail time for her act of protest against the United States' policy of border separation.

On March 19, Okoumou was sentenced to five years of probation and 200 hours of community service. She appeared at her sentencing wearing tape wrapped around her face, according to the New York Daily News — a sign from her that her free speech was being suppressed. She also wore a headband that read “I care.”

Before sentencing, Okoumou explained her motivations. “I am frightened by this country’s moral bankruptcy,” she said. “Your society is not an advanced civilization, your honor. Donald J. Trump terrorized immigrant families entering the country legally.”

Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein, warned Okoumou that she would be jailed if she “commits any more protest crimes,” AM New York reported. The judge suggested that Okoumou look for a job so she didn’t have to depend on donations from immigration activists to make a living.”

Over the past few years, Okoumou has made a name for herself protesting the actions of President Trump and his administration, specifically over the subject of immigrant children detained while trying to enter the United States legally.

Last month, she climbed the walls of the Austin, Texas, headquarters of Southwest Key, a nonprofit that sheltered immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. Last Thanksgiving, she scaled the Eiffel Tower in Paris in another message to the United States — the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France.

Okoumou is one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of activists who saw Trump's election as a wake-up call. As president, Trump's rhetoric against immigrants and people of color turned into action. In the first years of the Trump administration, Separating families at the US border quickly became a feature of a new policy determined to keep would-be immigrants from attempting to come to the country.

The plan to separate families included those that had legally tried to immigrate to the country or had applied for asylum. The children would be removed from their parents and reclassified as unaccompanied minors, as they were kept by themselves for an undetermined period . The government did not have plans to reunite the families that had been separated, according to a CNN report from June 2018. The details are even more startling:

Ms. C, as she is known in court filings, was apprehended crossing the border illegally in late August 2017 and prosecuted in El Paso, according to court documents. She asked for asylum, and during the legal process, the government took her 14-year-old son from her, sending him to a Health and Human Services facility in Chicago. They were separated for months.

Children and babies separated from their families have been kept in facilities that have come under scrutiny. In June 2018, Customs and Border Patrol released photos of children held in cages and sleeping in foil blankets on cots. Senators who toured the facilities were shocked at what they saw, with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley saying that the children have been “traumatized.”

Additional reports of abuse and neglect continue to surface. Just last week, Yahoo reported that government inspectors found “inadequate medical and dental care, [and] improper use of solitary confinement” at a private detention center in California. The same report detailed “perhaps more shockingly, braided bedsheets facility staff called 'nooses' hanging from ceilings in detainee cells.”

In the past two years, at least 22 people have died at detention facilities, according to NBC News, including two children who were under federal custody when they died. In other facilities, workers have been charged with sexually abusing immigrant teenagers, according to a New York Times report.

This caused Okoumou to act. “I was having nightmares about the children in cages,” she told Public Radio International. “Having been born and raised from the Republic of Congo, I used my background as some sort of encyclopedia to become a check of (sic) balance on what I'm witnessing around me.”

It's not yet certain what will happen to Okoumou, who, despite escaping jail time, is still on thin legal ice. That's something her lawyer recognizes.

“Patricia’s repeated recidivist climbing is making my job that much harder,” Okoumou’s attorney, Ron L. Kuby, told PRI. “History is made by people who are willing to take risks, who are single-minded, who are zealous. And those people by nature, they’re not the people like us who sit around and dither. They’re the people who act. And yes, sometimes they're a little kooky.”


About the Author

Jeremy Binckes is an experienced writer and editor who has reported on news, politics, culture and sports. He was most recently a news editor at Salon, and he has written articles for a number of publications.