Episode 011: Climbing the Statue of Liberty and Fighting Immigrant Family Separation with activist Patricia Okoumou
On July 4, 2018, Patricia Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty. Okoumou was born in the Republic of the Congo and became a naturalized US citizen in 1994. She was at the Statue of Liberty on July 4 as a part of a direct action against the Trump Administration’s harsh and inhumane tactics of family separation at the US-Mexico border. She arrived with the group Rise and Resist, but trailed off on her own, inspired by a vision and purpose, and began to climb. She says she did so for the children locked in cages, for their parents who were separated from their children. The pictures, the helicopter live video footage from the day were remarkable, documenting a climb that appeared like a near-impossible task, and became iconic.
At the feet of the Statue of Liberty, literally clutching the robes, under the raised heal of the symbol of American possibility and the struggle of exile, it felt like she stopped time. Okoumou was present, with patience. She held up messages on T-shirts, “Rise and Resist.” She became one with the monument.
After her climb, Okoumou became a symbol in her own right. In a press conference a day later, she famously cited former First Lady Michelle Obama: She said, “When they go low, we go high. I went as high as I could.”
Afterward, she was arrested. Okoumou faced charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct, and interference with agency functions. She was found guilty in December, and now will be sentenced March 19. In the days before her sentencing, we spoke with Okoumou in Staten Island. She offered detailed accounts of her time on the monument, her time spent recently near the US-Mexico border, and her climbs on other symbols of power — the Eiffel Tower and the headquarters of a For-Profit Immigrant Detention Center operator in Austin Texas, just weeks ago. During our conversation, she was generous with her time and shared glimpses into her struggle to end family separation.
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Paul Farber: Patricia Okoumou. Welcome to the Monument Lab Podcast. Thank you for being here with us.
Patricia Okoumou: Thank you for having me. It's such a pleasure to see you in person.
Farber: Likewise. I just want to express extra gratitude for your courageousness, for your conviction. We've been following your story and your work and it's really an honor to be here with you.
Okoumou: Thank you.
Farber: We're here in Staten Island and we're days away from sentencing related to your climb of the Statue of Liberty last year. How are you holding up?
Okoumou: I am holding up because I have my friends and supporters behind me. A month ago it wasn't the same story. I was feeling abandoned and isolated. In fact, this story had gone quiet. Like mute. Nobody was really talking about it. Many people didn't even know what I looked like. But it's hard to describe. It's like yes and no [Laughs]. There is support and there isn't support. I don't know why it's the case. I feel like I am kicking and screaming at times, throwing things at the wall just to get people to pay attention to my story. As you say, as we're approaching sentencing it seems like now the world is paying more attention to the story they were watching on the Fourth of July. Because at the time, for my belief, the story was nationally widely published, but not worldwide. I have people from London, from Africa, from all over the country, from the world following me and just giving me support emotionally and financially. It's great. It's been good.
Farber: Days ago, the judge in your case, Judge Gorenstein, went to the site of the Statue of Liberty.
Farber: Were you there with him?
Okoumou: I was there. All parties were present [Laughs].
Farber: It seems like a rare occurrence that a judge will go to that site. For you, what was that experience like going to the Statue of Liberty with the judge in your case right back at that site where you climbed?
Okoumou: It was something. First it was something to hear that a judge wanted to climb the Statue of Liberty to assess the risk involved either to people around me that day or to myself. I mean, everybody was shocked. Like, "What is happening?" I heard from my attorney's I was invited to come but I didn't have to come. I decided to go. It was very early in the morning. It was quite an experience. It was like here we go again. We still talking about the Statue of Liberty and the events that followed that day. I knew I wasn't going to climb. I did get the attention to the story about the children in cages needed to be out there and I wanted the judge to make his assessment and his decision. It wasn't really my place to interfere, I just went there as the defendant to witness to the proceeding. It was a hearing, a proceeding outside in open.
Farber: You shared online some of your feelings about that interaction and saying it seemed like you felt respected in that moment, but it's still a proceeding. It's still steeped around this intensity of the case did you feel respected or did you feel the pressure of the case around you?
Okoumou: I felt maybe not the word "respected." I felt that I was being watched. I felt that I was someone important, kind of, because there are feds. I mean, they had the military there in uniform guarding us. There was one in the back, one in the front, and even when I asked to go to the restroom I was escorted by a fed. Whatever you call them, those people in uniform that look like the police [Laughs]. I knew they were equipped. They're physically fit and they were there because I'm sure somebody instructed them to watch out, any move, pick up the gun and shoot. But you know, I'm just kidding. That's how it feels like when you are surrounded by police or federal agents. They are trained to carry weapons and to use them when they feel threatened. A black woman, an immigrant, who is in that position is aware that they could use that weapon and shoot at any time if they feel threatened. It doesn't really matter what my behavior may be, or may not be. Often times it goes deeper than that. What is going on inside this person's head? How do they feel at that moment in front of this perceived threat? Because a black person in this country is a perceived threat. I was aware of that. It's not a joke guys. I mean, I tell my followers, this is not cheerleading. I'm not looking for that. This is serious business and by that I mean, I could have died on that day on the Fourth of July. The moment was exciting, it was thrilling, but that moment represented life and death. I want that remembered because it means the American's children in the cages life is at risk. That's the message I wanted to pass on. But it hasn't been my experience every time I meet people who approach me that I hear the thrill and the excitement about how I inspired them on that day, how courageous I was. But I don't hear them talk about the plight of migrant children and that's kind of disappointing. That's what I was saying. You're going to hear yes and you're going to hear no [Laughs]. It is what it is.
Farber: You have become a leading voice in that protest and push against the inhumane detention of immigrant children and families. You've been a leading voice and you continue despite the threat and the pressure on you to lead that conversation, in part, in our country and be an important figure in that. You identify as an activist and I'm curious how you kind of came to that identity for yourself and at what point did you kind of realize that this is part of your work, part of your calling?
Okoumou: That's a great question. Some of my role have been attributed by other people. When I climbed the Statue of Liberty I became a Shero to a lot of people. My designer Suze GX Designs, started making outfits, wristbands, and bandanas with the word "Shero" in it. It doesn't come from me, sometimes it comes from other people. My focus has always been on fighting for justice, long before the Fourth of July. I've always stood for what's right around me. Whether it was on a job. I did suffer a lot of retaliation for that, but I keep pressing because the work has to get done. I believe when I was called on to do community service on the case that happened in 2016 involving the police trying to restrict me and handcuff me in a way that was a violation of not only my rights, but total disrespect of my person as a human being, and a woman. Because I don't think the treatment of me in that case and any case before that, would have been done, performed if I was white, a white woman. There's a lot of lack of respect. On that case it was a criminal case. I was told to go and do some community service. The charges was kind of dropped on this condition and that's how I meant Rise and Resist. On April 10 I went to Rise and Resist meeting and I said, "Hey I'm here to talk about the service, I want to get to know what you guys do" and it started from there. By the time I submitted a letter to court, to the criminal court. I had perform 15 to 25 activities, protest activities. I had gone to several events. That qualifies me alone as an activist. On my way here today, I posted on one of the comments on my social media account, Instagram and Facebook, that I am a die hard activist and I don't get intimidated. That's how I feel.
Farber: Was that case involving community service [in 2016], it seems like that had a pivotal role in the way that your work here in New York and perhaps elsewhere got to another level?
Farber: What did it push for you or compel you to do?
Okoumou: That's interesting. I had been a personal trainer. I have a bachelor’s degree in human services dating back to 2000, 2003. What I'm describing is around 2015 I graduated from Columbia Greene Community College as a physical trainer. I had an associate degree in science and my first job was with this facility downtown, Battery Park City as a personal trainer. I worked there two years and I wanted to follow not only the law, or the policy, but I just wanted to be a good person, which I am. Just focus on my work. But it turns out they were cheating me out of my pay and they more I complained the more they retaliated. When they find out I was complaining to the New York City Department of Labor they fired me. I was let go unjustly and the records show that I was arrested because I was protesting, but it's not the case [Laughs]. I was arrested by asking for an attorney, my own attorney who was representing my case at the New York State Department of Labor. It's not like I was in that building just trespassing, no, I had an attorney there and I was requesting to speak to my attorney. While I was outside doing my protest against nobody in particular, not the company, not the New York State Department of Labor. Just me, feeling a sense of belonging to my own community, a sense of justice. Maybe there's nothing I can do about this case because it's in the hands of the authorities but I feel comfortable leaving my home and engaging a form of active protest. You can say that's where it started pretty much. By the time I was unjustly arrested I used that arrest as unconscious bias. One of those cases, like the Starbucks situation where someone calls the police on you and the cops come and overreact and they escalate the situation instead of de-escalating it. That's what happened. I was asking to speak to my attorney but the cop came acting like a jerk, put handcuffs on me and one of them got injured. One of them broke his collarbone in that interaction. The case went on and on and at the end as I was telling you, I was ordered to do community service and that opened the door to my activism. It just worked out just fine.
Farber: When you connected with Rise and Resist what was it like for you? And what do you feel you learned from them and what do you feel like you brought to that circle of activists who do direct action?
Okoumou: That's interesting you used the word "connect" because I was protesting this vile administration the moment Trump won the so called Trump victory, when he won the presidency, it's hard to believe, it's hard to say the words. But I decided to leave the couch on day one after the election. If the election was on November 8, day one I was out there after I had [been] done with my personal training which was part-time. I started work as early as 5:30 AM and by the time I made it home it may have been 11:30, took a shower, fixed dinner, got my backpack and I was out there on front of the Trump Tower on 5th Avenue. The story goes, when I get there the first time I asked the UPS driver, may I use your cardboard? It was a brand new one. He was like, sure, he gave me a cardboard and next door I got myself a marker and I wrote down, "Not my President." I stood in front of the Trump Tower. Oh my god. The picture, people, visitors, a lot of them foreign visitors would just take tons of photos of me. I look like a celebrity at that point. I was like wow, I like the fact that I'm bringing attention to this demagogue who is in the White House. Cenk Uygur, the host of the young Turks happened to walk by one day looking for protestors because he's heard about them on television. He comes there and there's that one person [Laughs]. You can see in the video how he approaches me and says you were the one protestor that I find here. What makes you so passionate about this issue? We're talking about November of 2016, correct? That was November 21 or 28. I said well, you know I started talking about my country a little bit because some of the things, yes you know Trump say he referred to my country as a "shit hole country." What people don't understand is when they're minimizing third-world countries for the poverty, the lack of modern age technology, what they're missing is that we hold dear to our values. Okay? We don't put children in cages in my home where I was born and raised in the Republic of Congo. So that's why I feel so passionate about fighting this evil government because the country stooped so low as far as putting children in cages that I had to climb so high, as high as I did on the Fourth of July to raise consciousness. Even after I've done that, it's like nobody cares to reach out. Really, seriously. Just look at my website. Go under endorsement, you'll see the people who have publicly endorsed me. The first person was Michael Avenatti. There's Rise and Resist, there's Freedom Socialist Party, and that's just a few people. It's always after you've asked them, "Can you do this for me?" It's always me going to different events and supporting others. How many of them come? If we can count the number of events I've been to and the people that attended those events you see the lack of support at my court hearings, right? All you have to do is look at the videos from the first day. The first day would have been an exception. It's like okay, I just came out of the coma and I don't know where everybody is. When I ask they say, well we were the first time. I said okay, I was in a coma, it was hectic for Rise and Resist, it was hectic for myself. The people wanted us or they had questions and they wanted to connect to Rise and Resist and myself. We were not prepared, we were overwhelmed. Nobody saw anything like that happening and I did not. Certainly I had not told a soul about me planning to climb the Statue of Liberty because it came at a spur of the moment. I was not expecting to be on national news at all, so that day on the July 5th when I came out in front of the press and everybody was kind of there, then the question was,"Where are they" the second time I went back? I went back on August 3rd wearing this dress. Look at the pictures. It's like where did you go? Same thing. It's a yes and no thing, feeling. If you look at July 1st just recently, when I went to my court hearing in which the prosecutor was looking to revoke my bail on the condition that I had broken those conditions right?
Farber: This is the March 1st...
Okoumou: Yes, hearing. There was a lot of support, we still had an overflow courtroom because even though it was an emergency hearing, it was not scheduled. People what was scheduled was March 19th my sentencing. People had that date on the calendar. They did not know about March 1st because it came out of the blue. What I'm seeing is the fight that so many people show up unexpectedly at an event that was unexpected, that the prosecutor just threw out there, it shows the community support is increasing. It shows that people don't want this brave woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty on behalf to the voiceless to face prison because I'm not a criminal.
Farber: As you are putting yourself out there on the front lines advocating for immigrant families and children, what have your conversations been with other advocates, including those who are working near the border or in cities where there are these strict and oppressive immigration policies being implemented?
Okoumou: Well [Exhale, Laughs], you bring me to another long topic where I'll probably be talking for awhile and you'll be doing the listening. It looks like you've been following my story.
Farber: That's right.
Okoumou: You know what's going on. Let me take you back to the moment I was the base at the Statue of Liberty. There was in-fighting on Twitter, Facebook, I don't know, Instagram, all social media. People were mad at Rise and Resist. They were accusing Rise and Resist of having abandoned a soldier because when you go to a fight a war no soldier should be left behind. They felt like because of the color of my skin, Rise and Resist, being white, a bunch of Caucasians or white people. They felt that it was racial because Rise and Resist say we don't know who's up there on the statue. The truth is, they didn't know. How would they know? I didn't tell a soul. When the Liberty Island was being evacuated I was waving at boats thinking that the Liberty Island was just closing. Because we were told they close at 4:30, 4:00, 4:30 and I had started my climb around 3:25. It was just natural to believe they were leaving because the Liberty Island was closing. I didn't know it was being evacuated. I was still happy and waving at people. One boat was like, they look mad [Laughs]. They were not waving back. I'm like, what's going on? Why are they so upset? I heard later on that every time the boat docked they would interview people and each individual was interviewed to find out if they knew who was up there and what they were doing. Rise and Resist say, we don't know who's up there and we did our event and we were done. That's what they were criticized for and it never stopped. It turned out to my belief it was more a racial thing, identity of politics, or whatever else is out there that you may call it. That week after July 4th when I was released I heard from kind of both stories complaining about the in-fighting and I was told they say they're coming, we'll see you there. They were making reference. They means some of them identify themselves as Black Lives Matter and they say see you there to Rise and Resist. That means they're coming in person at our regular meeting. (The meeting where I attended for the first time on April 10, 2017.) When they came they seems to be back and forth. Some of the people who came I appreciate their gesture because it showed concern for one of them in the community a black woman. They wanted to make sure I was treated right. Some of the concern on Liberty Island on that day was that the police could do anything to me behind closed door, even suffocating me and killing me and no one would know what actually happened. They were afraid that a black woman surrounded by police like that and the island was being evacuated for no one to see what was happening. They flooded the courtroom the next time, the next day. A week later, Tuesday, we have our meeting and I say, "Okay guys, this is breaking my heart because none of you are talking about the children." And when that happened as a country that means they're minimizing my life and my sacrifice, they're taking it lightly. If anybody honors my sacrifice then they will remember I did that for the children, and they will talk about the children, the migrant children. They will realize that I could have died in the hands of police or I could have fallen. It's a risk that I took in the name of democracy. It was a patriotic gesture, yet it gets minimized and it gets taken lightly even within a week, even on that day as it was happening. Fast forwarding back to your question about how it looks like when I go to the border, right? I went to the border by the grace of God. That was just recently. February was Valentine's [Day] and I had been wanting to go to the border, I wanted to go to the detention center all along. I was asking for help. It wasn't coming. All this time, how hard could that be? If I am a Shero, then show it. Instead, I'm treated like veterans when they come back from fighting for our freedom in other countries. We don't treat them right. They have to fight for housing, for employment, for a healthcare. When they're in a nursing home nobody hardly visits them and when they die, how many go and bring them flowers at their graves? Maybe we're selective, the ones we think are worth making the news, make it on the news as if we're remembering them. I knew the hypocrisy was happening to me because you don't think you can experience it until you do. There it was. It was sad, a disappointment. I was withdrawing but I had to continue to work to continue reaching out. When I knew it should have been the other way around. I get asked, "Well this Ocasio-[Cortez] contact you? Did the ACLU contact you?" No. Nobody has. There are people who treated by me doesn't mean they're reaching out to me. Michael Moore, for example, on September, came out with a new movie and I'd been telling my sister, hey I saw you on Michael Moore's movie. When I went to see it for myself yes, he did use my footage but here I am looking for help and the help is this platform where you've given me right now to tell my story, to talk about the migrant children. He could have given me an interview, simple. He could have helped me get on television to tell about my story. A lot of people want to hear from the Lady Liberty climber. It's historic. We are living history, we are living history as we're speaking, but yet, we're not treating the person making history as her story should be recognized. I think that happened to Martin Luther King Jr when he was arrested, I'm sure was he not arrested?
Farber: He was.
Farber: Multiple times.
Okoumou: Multiple times for civil disobedience which is a peaceful form of protest protected by our Constitution and first amendment right. But there are people out there when you get arrested they turn your back simply for the fact that they think you are a criminal and they don't want to reach out, but they wait for you to die and then they have a holiday in your name and they celebrate your courage. I, a person, who put my body on the line for the voiceless. I did what many dream of doing, yet I'm not being treated right as I should. I should not be complaining, spending all this time on the interview comparing about the treatment because it's not there. If it was there, that's what I mean, I would not have been complaining about it. I would have been talking about everything else. The trip at the border happened because only one person, not a selective of people, one person said, "You know what? I have frequent flyer miles that you have been asking for, I can get you to the border, I can even get you a hotel with your frequent flyer miles. I'm going to come with you and we're going to rent a car." That person then came with the idea of doing a Valentine's Day postcard campaign in which a friend, Mary Hawkins, designed the post cards. It became a coalition, really really fast. Just reaching out to people and those people who were trying to reach me early on but me, being one a person staff, it was hard for me to jog all the responsibilities that comes with the life of a public figure. Then we had it. We planned it, we had this resources and the means to make it to the border.
Farber: You talked about the climb and really the uncertainty and the danger that you were in. When you were in that moment of the climb, what was going on in your mind and what did you experience from your perspective, from your vantage point?
Okoumou: I moved to this country on August 2, 1994. I've pretty much early on settled on Staten Island and I take the ferry every single day to get Manhattan and the other boroughs. Sometimes more than one trip, right? I see the Statue of Liberty all the time. Before coming to this country she represented freedom, liberty and the welcoming venue for immigrants. To me, that's what America was as a young woman. A place where diversity was embraced, where there was a community of people living lives in togetherness. But that wasn't my experience anymore the moment I started living in this country and right at the site of this Lady Liberty. People were coming and it was used as a gift shop. I was inspired to climb the Statue of Liberty by God. When I was asked to do this deed for the country, I was given three reasons. One, you can do it because there are children suffering in cages. Two, Rise and Resist are going to bring you there because you guys have your event on the island. They're buying the ticket. Three, it was the biggest holiday of the year so what could go wrong? It was a worthy cause and I say, "Okay, if anybody can do it it's me, I will do it." But I wanted God to still show me the way. The question that remained was how to climb that monument? [Laughs] At Rise and Resist we gathered outside to plan our event and once we enter we had a group of individual with t-shirts and letters that says "A-B-O-L-I-S-H I-C-E." They were on the ground, that's where when you get to the Liberty Island that's the first thing you do. You're on the ground and those people were going to give us a signal once they were ready and in position for us up there on the top to unfold the banner. The banner also said, "Abolish ICE." Those people up there at the railing of the Statue of Liberty just below the base were going to get involved in civil disobedience. They were risking arrest, but that doesn't mean they wanted to get arrested or that they were going to do anything to get arrested. I was one of those people, I told the group I'm not going to get arrested, I don't want to be arrested and they talk about it to this day [Laughs] because I had a case where the court gave me an ADC [Adjournment in contemplation of dismissal], if I'm saying it right. That means you stay out of trouble for six months and it was April, I was supposed to stay out of trouble until October, and this can be on the record because the Judge Gabriel Gorenstein has heard it already from the prosecutor trying to use that as an argument against me. It was July 4th and I guess you can say I did get in trouble, but it was God's trouble, good trouble. In fact, John Lewis, in Congress has a hashtag that says good trouble because he gets in good trouble [Laughs]. When the group of people I was with at the railing of the Statue of Liberty was apprehended I was one of them, but I didn't want to get arrested so I slipped away. It wasn't that hard, it was just we were all there. The Federal park police came. They were shuffling the banner going back and forth. I was holding the banner because we didn't want to lose our banner. I was one of those people who was saying, "No give us our banner" [Laughs]. When they took the banner they escorted everybody off the property. I just stayed back, like I'm not coming with you and they said nothing. I saw them leave and at the same time, I went to the left, they went to the right. There's only one exit to that location and I didn't know, so I'm going to the left around the statue just to find myself back to the right where the people were going down the stairs and it was an awkward moment like, "Uh oh, what do I say? What do I do?" Because now I'm going to be taken for sure. I decided to just wave as a diversion and it worked, because the people from Rise and Resist, the members were confused like, "Why aren't you...?" Well, I don't know. They had that look that was confusing in their face. But the park rangers, the police officers said nothing to me. I was like okay, that's God message that it's time to do my action by checking it out. We're just going to start with checking it out, the surroundings because I didn't do research. This came out of the spur of a moment. I didn't Google how the Statue of Liberty looks and if anybody had climbed it before. That was my moment. God was going to show me if this is possible or not. I went back to the little area where we were apprehended with the banner and I saw an exit that goes to the pedestal, to inside the statue. It was actually an exit to where people were coming out. I had to go to Liberty Island you need two tickets, one to stay on the ground and another one if you want to go up so I had two ticket that day because I was naturally supposed to be on the railing, except this time phenomenally God was going to make it possible for me to be up there but on the outside where no one is kind of allowed. I began my climb and soon after that, I mean there were no cameras but there was an NYPD chopper that would go back and forth and I wanted to wait for them to go away to give me time to start my climb, to buy myself time to start my climb. There was one park officer who came in a white shirt and he was asking me to come down. I said, "God, You're going to have to show me better than this. [Laughs] This is not good enough, this is not doing it. I'm not going to get arrested for this." I mean, he could probably grab me by now from where I was standing. I was not high enough.
Farber: Had you started your climb at that point?
Okoumou: Yes. I did.
Farber: Where were you at that moment when you first saw that ranger?
Okoumou: I had just left the fence. It's hard to describe it, but it's an enclosure where people don't get to fall. I had climbed that first, and I jump on the statue, clinging myself to her at that point when this guy was asking me to come down. At this point, I'm embracing the monument and I know I have to cling to Lady Liberty tight enough so that I can accomplish something bigger than what was happening at that moment. At that moment I know this park police officer could possibly grab me by the feet and interfere with God's work. I am praying, "God, I'm not going down for this. There's a message here to be sent and I need to be able to climbing and finish this." I do one pull up, that last pull up was like all I need to give me the uplift to keep on going because it's a difficult maneuver and using only my forearm, no grip at this point, I was able to lift my butt up [Laughs] with one leg followed by the next leg. In the frog position, I'm clinging to the Statue of Liberty. I'm up where I am confident I cannot be grabbed by the leg and nothing can bring me down. I wasn't going to fall. I'm athletic, I wasn't going to fall.
Farber: Once you got to the feet of the Statue of Liberty, what was going through your mind? Were you able to kind of see where you were? How did you keep your composure in that moment and at that place?
Okoumou: Before I was comfortable, the way you saw me on television, I was attempting to climb a little higher. The way to describe it is her robes don't have grips for you to climb up, but they kind of come together like a plie. That gives a little hole, it looks like a hole, like a valley where there's two mountains kind of come together. I used my hands, my left side and my right side to start climbing facing her like Spiderman. I see myself going up but as a personal trainer, and I train many people with different various physical limitations, I know how the muscle works. It can give you a boost and it can tire easily as well. I say, "I don't want to go too high." There isn't much room to go anyway. But it's not like I can go up there and be comfortable and stay and hold that moment. I had to come back and descent eyes closed. If I had fallen, I wouldn't know where I'm falling to on the ground, which spot to land on.
Farber: You were aware that you could fall?
Okoumou: I was aware that I could fall, but I knew that I was conscious enough to not fall. In another word, you use one hand and it's not like you let go. It's like climbing anything, like a mountain. People do that for hobby, luxury. They know that if you're climbing it's one hand after another, you always grabbing into something. You don't let go. I decided that was a decision to come down and I wanted to attempt it one more time by facing the view with my back on Lady Liberty. That was a little easier. The body is naturally going to give you signal of danger, you know we're not fools. Children learn by walking even when they fall. In fact, let me tell you something. There is more elevator accidents than there are shark accidents but yet, people fear sharks and they don't fear elevators. Police officers rescue kittens all the time using our taxpayer dollars as resources. We don't tell them they're doing wrong and why are they wasting resources and all this time rescuing a kitten. Kittens do what they do, they climb and they go high up there and they can come down. I knew how to come down [Laughs]. I climb up and I knew how to come down. But their defense was, they came to rescue me. No they didn't. They didn't come to rescue me. They came to arrest me. Once I was down and I was sitting on the foot of Lady Liberty, I made myself comfortable, I checked my surroundings. It was really high. She was magnificent and a multitude. She was humongous. I was aware that she...I was comfortable because it wasn't slippery. People have all kinds of imaginations [Laughs]. Their fear of height, they're going to tell you anything to convince you that it's dangerous, but one, it was a sunny day, I was not burning in the heat. It was actually breezy. There was a lot of wind, however because of this, this was God's plan, I knew where to sit or stand. You didn't see me standing that much anyway. I was always holding on to her or crawling or sitting because it was windy. The base itself is very narrow, it's not a flat surface. It goes down, it's like a steep that's flat down. It wasn't slippery. But in time the officer came and I didn't know if they were going to be aggressive and they say I was a little combatant but nobody witnessed that because I was being filmed from almost early on. There was no sign of aggression on my part. That was a peaceful protest, peaceful civil disobedience. I was actually concerned for their safety and I was telling them not to come up there and that there was no need for all this attention towards me. In fact, we started having cordial conversations. The officer was telling me about his family and his religion and he thought it was meant for him to come there that day and be there and have that conversation with me.
Farber: I mean, speaking of connection, you are one with one of the most important symbols in American culture but also in this really uncertain moment and you're talking about the kind of interactions. In that moment, were you thinking that you would stay up there as long as you could?
Farber: Yeah, so what was going on in your mind even as you're having those interactions with those officers. What you're supposed to be doing for yourself?
Okoumou: I didn't have food with me. I had cashews and I had a bottle of water that was like almost empty. But I knew that the human being can survive a week without food and maybe three or four days without water. I was determined to take it all the way. I'm just the type who doesn't know fear. Fear is not innate in me, I've said that many times. I was not born with that element so that climbing the Statue of Liberty when people see it as risky and dangerous, to me it was not. In fact, by the time I was arrested and taken into custody just to find that the world was actually watching me and people were like "What?" And I'm like "What!" It's like when you see a ghost for the first time and their screaming and you're screaming and both of you are screaming. I was just like, is this what they're like? I mean, this is like piece of cake. I didn't expect that attention. I didn't know that it was a big deal to climb up the Statue of Liberty the way I did and that I was making history. No, no that was my intention.
Farber: You had, this is going back a bit, but you said that you felt a calling.
Okoumou: Yes, deeply.
Farber: Was that a calling that came to you before you arrived to the island or when you were there on July 4th?
Okoumou: This is a calling that if you, Monument Lab, had decided to take it to Africa and visit my mom and interview her. Before you would get the mic to her mouth, the neighbors would say, "Oh she knew, we all knew, she predicted it." My mom is visionary. She's very spiritually and deeply connected to God. She has vision. When I came to the US I knew I was coming here with that mission, that vision she had. But you didn't know when it was going to happen. The impact, it wasn't until I knew that I wanted to climb the Statue of Liberty I'm saying that my mom knew I would make a big difference in this world. To this day, today she was interviewed by a fellow investigator this morning. This is a woman who saw what everybody didn't see. I'm one of those people, she read my palm like some people like to play with your hands sometimes and say, Hey give me your palm." They will have an expression like, "Whoa, there's something deep in there." If you were a friend of mine and you just met me or you had a sense that there was something about me that was out of the ordinary. I'll give you an example, and this is not to be grandiose, aggrandizing myself. I don't listen to music for example. I don't watch TV and a lot of people who have made a difference in our lives whether they were scientists or poets have those similarities. None of my family is in the US so you can say I live a life of isolation, but I'm not lonely because you pretty much see me everywhere [Laughs] mingling and interaction with people, just like I'm doing here with you. When I was called on to take this mission I knew I was the right person for the job because I don't experience fear and I don't lose my cool. I just didn't lose my cool that day. I was cool as a cucumber [Laughs].
Farber: In one of your press conferences in the days after you famously sited former first lady, Michelle Obama saying, "When they go low, we go high, I went as high as I could." Was that an inspiration, that phrase, was that running through your mind when you were at the Statue of Liberty? Either way, how does that sentiment still inspire you to do the work that you're doing now?
Okoumou: I think I remember my conversation with God around Barack Obama's presidency when he announced his candidacy. I saw a connection, not only because he was black but also the man part of him originated from Africa where I'm from. This is a continent that has been raped of it's resources and there's been a lot of corruption in Africa. I was born and raised there. I know that attitude is that the white man is superior, even amongst my own people. I came here and I saw still that to be truth even though I wasn't raised to believe that. My father was an airline pilot, so he was kind of advanced for his time. His leadership inspired me. This is someone who was black in Africa but yet had was financially secure. He had the ability to travel the world and so he was intelligent. I wasn't raised seeing us as inferior. As the world around me, tried to convince me, that Africans are inferior, that black people are inferior. When Barack Obama was out there trying to win the presidency I told God, show me the sign because this is it, this is what I want proof that I'm heading in the right direction in my life. There's got to be something bigger than this. It's always a part of me, in the inner me, wants to be a social change agent. When he won I was like yeah [Laughs], that's what I was talking about. He broke that glass ceiling that tried to push my people down and oppress and suppress us and keep us down. To me, that didn't exist anymore. I was that Patrica Okoumou who was free in her home land of Republic of Congo to roam around because I did climb when I was a child. I would climb one house to the next in the way that the children didn't do, but nobody punished me for it. It was just look around and look up and there she is on top of something. When he won, I knew that it was significant and when Michelle Obama on the campaign trail was warning, I was hearing her message. She was trying to tell us we're heading in the wrong direction as a country because there are some things you don't compromise, like our values and traditions. Our democracy was going down the drain. They are significant in my life, that couple. I knew with conviction that I was not alone and that if I took a courageous act because I had people like them to model after. This saying, when they go low, we go high resonated with me on that day as I was on top of the Lady Liberty and I got to witness how humongous she is. Man, I wanted to go higher. [Laughs] I just didn't make it up there because it's not possible from the outside.
Farber: You've climbed some of the most important and iconic monuments to freedom and liberty and the Statue of Liberty and also the Eiffel Tower.
Okoumou: Oh yes. I forgot about the Eiffel Tower [Laughs].
Farber: You know, you talked a little bit about this but I'm curious for you, what do they symbolize and how do you connect your power with the power of those monuments, of those sites?
Okoumou: My power was taken away from me. The white man tried to take it away from me with colonialism. As a child, I really felt or thought we were inferior. They were indoctrinization. Even Christianity, I was born Christian. My father raised me with my step-mother and I will be forced to go to church and catechism, I did it all. But it was my mom on the outside who would try to connect me to God so I can have a relationship with God and listen to the inner self. When I would watch TV for example, and I would see the whole black man and white man play in the movies I was given the false impression that there was justice, unity and social justice and equality because there you saw a movie for example, about cops. A lot of them, almost all of them are white in the movie but except for the chief of their police department. He was black. That was the first notion that there was black empowerment or some kind of equality but I was brainwashed to believe that. I saw Lady Liberty as she represented a welcome venue for immigrants. I felt that I could go to the US and pursue my happiness and my freedom and liberation as a person. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case so by the time I climbed the Statue of Liberty and became a symbolic figure and I was history, I wanted to take my cause worldwide. It seems to me we were not at the place where I was satisfied as a person because if we had all this stooped low, as low as caging migrant children and not months after the Statue of Liberty, my climb, people seemed so complacent. Here I am, I'm not being mentioned on the news every time they talk about the border. Watching TV for me or listening to the radio has a different tune now. It's even going to some of the events where heroic figures are honored. When we asking people, like Michael Moore has done on different television channels, be brave. Sometimes you got to put your body on the line, and I'm not paraphrasing, but that's what we ask for people to do. To be patriotic, be a good civilian, stand up for what's right and how you do that, you put your body on the line or you show courage. Here I am, I'm a perfect example of that and I'm not being recognized for my struggles and for the work that I'm done because the work never stopped on the Fourth of July. It continued and it needed so much help, so much direction. Where is the grassroots movement? That's my question. They should be reaching out and saying hey, what is it you need? Or better yet, we have done this before, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Here's where you should be heading. When that wasn't happening I took my cause worldwide and I knew the UN had convened in September but they didn't address the migrant children's plight, the plight of immigrants. On August 3rd when I was wearing this dress in front of the press I read a letter addressed to President Emmanuel Macron. I was serious about my message to him. It was that, "Hey, you gave us the Statue of Liberty why don't you take a stand? Maybe take it back or give us some warning so we can get our act together" [Laughs]. But the media focused on my dress and the message didn't reach them, so I decided to go to France and climb the Eiffel Tower and deliver that letter myself, which I did.
Farber: You've spoken about recognition. What would recognition look like or feel like to you in the ways that would can fully enliven the work that you're doing and the circumstance that you're in?
Okoumou: It would like the phone call we had in which we were interrupted during this interview. It was a good phone call. One of my friends and a supporter was letting me know she was mobilizing her own community and taking a rally to my home since I'm confined and I can't get out. That's good. I mean, let's not wait for people to go to prison to visit them. I don't want to go to prison and I know the Trump administration and the Department of Justice, the government wants to use me as a political prisoner, they want to send strong message to discourage young people from watching and advocating for their rights. But if I'm doing right by you, then why aren't you here doing right by me? I was the voice of the voiceless, now it's time for you to be the voice of Lady Liberty climber. This is what it looks like. This is what democracy looks like. When people can reach out to you and say, "Hey, this is what we're doing. We're going to rally for your freedom in solidarity with the migrant children." Why is it happening now? I appreciate it but it should have been happening the next day and continue on. We need to be united. My experience tells me that we could do better. We can stand for what's right consistent in our methods and our strategies. We need to be a united force in solidarity with the children. Until we do that, we will never see democracy. We're pursuing it, but we won't reach it because we don't want to work together, there's too much in-fighting.
Farber: In these days leading up to your sentencing, what is your state of mind and how do you stay focused on care of self, but also this continued advocacy on behalf of those children and families detained at the border? How do you balance where you are and your purpose?
Okoumou: I'll try to stay positive. I try to read what God is telling me around me, because I trust and believe in the path he has me on right now. I don't think he would expose me to any experience that is too difficult to handle. There comes a time when what goes up must come down. I've worked really hard going to so many events. If you see my YouTube account I just have a few of those moments where I was almost everywhere. To see things in a light way, in a light perspective, right now I'm on house arrest, I'm wearing shackles. Modern-day lynching a form of what we call "ankle electronic monitor." It's maybe God's will saying, "You know what? Child, you have done a lot now it's time for you to rest and I'll have others do the work." That's self care, there's nothing wrong with that. When my judge Gabriel Gorenstein makes a claim such as I like to climb to commit crimes for attention and money. I think we may not see history the same way because we're witnessing history. By the end, history will be kind to me because I'm on the right side of history. I'm doing what everybody should be doing, standing up for our rights. Immigration is a basic human right, migration is a natural phenomenon. No person should be called "alien" or "illegal" because our children are watching and they are listening to us. I'm here to set a good example for our children and our future.
Farber: Patrica Okoumou, thank you so much for your time and for your work.
Okoumou: Thank you for having me and giving me this platform to continue my work and be a voice for the migrant children in cages.
Farber: Just one last note, what are ways that our listeners and readers can support you?
Okoumou: I have a GoFundMe account. It can be found on my website, www.patriciaokoumou.com. I have a PayPal button that you can click and donate. In fact, you can even communicate with me through letters, my PO box is right there. Patricia Okoumou P.O. Box 10060 Staten Island, New York 10301. Anybody can reach out to me and so we can work in unity.
Patricia Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty on July 04, 2018 to protest the Trump Administration Zero-Tolerance immigration policy. Patricia came to New York City from the Republic of the Congo on August 02, 1994. She experienced family separation during the first couple years of her life, and that motivates her to advocate for The Children. Her father was an aviator, serving as a pilot for the President Denis Sassou Nguesso.
Patricia has a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Metropolitan College of New York (formerly Audrey Cohen College) and an Associate’s Degree in Science from Columbia-Greene Community College for Personal Training. She has been involved in social justice for most of her adult life.
Recently, the 45 years-old Naturalized citizen of Staten Island, New York, known as Lady Liberty Climber was live streaming herself on the roof of one of CEO Juan Sanchez’s facilities called Southwest Key in Austin, TX. Patricia personally delivered Valentine’s Day Postcards that were written and colored by her friends and supporters from all over the world in the spirit of dia del amor y la amistad. Southwest Key is one of the largest detention centers housing migrant children separated from their families.