Like many, activist Patricia Okoumou was moved by the images of children being ripped away from their parents after seeking asylum in the United States, and she decided to do something about it.
Over the past few months, the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies have resulted in nearly 3,000 children being separated from their parents, sparking demonstrations across the country. On Independence Day, Okoumou and a group of about 40 activists from Rise and Resist headed to the Statue of Liberty to demonstrate their objections.
“I had thought, ‘It’s the Statue of Liberty, it’s the Fourth of July and there are children in cages, we are doing a protest but I want to send an even stronger message and this is the perfect day for it,’” Okoumou told The Guardian in an exclusive interview.
As an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Okoumou wanted to do more than just hold up a sign. So after finding the courage to act, the personal trainer decided to scale the iconic statue to make an even stronger point.
“My heart told me to do it,” she said. “I tried to go like Spiderman. But it didn’t work. My legs were shaking, I was dizzy, it was windy. I said ‘God, please help me up.’”
Initially, Okoumou hoped to make it all the way up to the statue’s torch, but between the slippery surface and windy conditions, she made it to the structure’s base where she remained for hours.
“I was thinking of Lady Liberty above me, you are so huge, you have always been a symbol of welcome to people arriving in America and right now, for me under this sandal, she is a shelter,” Okoumou said.
While clinging to the statue, Okoumou was spotted by police who attempted to get her down from the structure.
“I said ‘Don’t come up.’ He said ‘I care about you.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t, you could shoot me the way you shot Claudia Gomez and killed the trans woman,’” Okoumou said. Gomez, a 20-year-old woman, was fatally shot by a border patrol officer in June, and Okoumou was afraid she could be next.
In spite of fear, she remained on the statue.
“Trump is inciting violence and division and the Republican party should not tolerate him,” Okoumou continued. “It’s impeachable – you don’t talk about human beings as ‘an infestation’ as he has done. It’s disrespectful of the Founding Fathers and I don’t sleep well at night thinking about those babies crying for their parents.”
Eventually, Okoumou was removed from the statue and arrested. She was charged in federal court with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and trespassing and was released without bail.
Okoumou, who immigrated two decades ago and is a U.S. citizen, said being detained was worth it. “I felt peaceful, that I was with those children in spirit.”
She also said she took inspiration from her climb from former First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Michelle Obama – our beloved first lady that I care so much about – said, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and I went as high as I could.”