On July 4, 2018, Patricia Okoumou shocked the world by climbing the Statue of Liberty to protest the detention of migrant children. She remained on the base for more than three hours, and Liberty Island was evacuated. One year later, as migrant children continue to be housed in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities in conditions that have been described as unsanitary, Okoumou says she has struggled to find support and is now considering stepping back from her activism.
In the year since her Statue of Liberty protest made international news, Okoumou climbed the Eiffel Tower, was arrested for protesting at a school for immigrant children in Texas while out on bail and put on home detention, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service and five years probation for her Fourth of July climb, lost her mother and became pregnant through in vitro fertilization.
Okoumou, now 45, immigrated to the United States from Republic of the Congo when she was 23, and says she became politically active the day after Donald Trump was elected. When Okoumou sat down with TIME to discuss the year she’s had and the events leading up to the July 4 protest, she wore a white dress with the words “I care,” written in black on the front — an outfit she refers to as her uniform and a clear reference to the “I don’t really care” jacket First Lady Melania Trump wore when she visited the border in June 2018.
What happened the day you climbed the Statue of Liberty? What went through your head?
I remember thinking, “God, are you telling me to go on a mission to climb the Statue of Liberty?” I’m very spiritual and I have a relationship with God, and I said if this is something you want me to do, give me a reason. And he or she said, it’s the Fourth of July, the biggest holiday in the U.S., Rise and Resist [a protest group formed in response to Trump’s election] is buying my ticket to go to Liberty Island, I’ve never been there before, and there are children in cages. Nobody knew. I didn’t tell [Rise and Resist] I was thinking of climbing the Statue of Liberty.
On that day we met at Liberty Park, we got our tickets, we enter together, we unfold a banner— it wasn’t easy, it was very windy. We were able to hold the banner for at least 20 minutes before security came in. There was a park police officer or two wearing white T-shirts, they did not want us there, they asked us to leave and they were taking the banner. In fact they were taking us into custody. Somehow I became invisible. When everybody was taken, they were directed to one direction and I just don’t follow them and go to the left. As they’re going down, I’m looking for a way up the pedestal. I was always thinking about the children and why we came there. We came there to protest, but something inside of me felt I could do better than that.
I see an elevator where people are coming in and there’s an officer directing them. Here I am, and I say, “Oh my god, I’m not supposed to be right here, nobody’s here, I’m obviously in an area that is restricted.” The officer doesn’t see me – again I’m invisible – so then I see a door and I cross there, and I find myself outside on the pedestal just below the foot of the statue. It’s very narrow.
I decide to climb on the wall first. And it’s free fall, it’s several feet down, I cannot hold on to much of anything, so I’m using my balance to maintain my position there. I see this tourist with his mouth drop, [laughs] like, “We don’t do that!” Another park officer comes very quickly soon after that. He starts telling me [to] come down, so I decided now to jump to the statue and cling to her. There’s no grips, so I’m using my fingertips and my toe tips. He says “Come down! Come down!” and I’m praying because he can just grab my leg, I’m so low, he can grab my leg and pull me down, but he doesn’t do that for some reason.
The last piece was doing a pull-up, just to pull myself up. Once I’m there, it’s easier, I’m now at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It took officers about 20 minutes to arrive. Altogether I was there for about three and a half hours. I said, “I’m not gonna come down until the Trump Administration releases all the children.”
What are your thoughts on the state of the migrant crisis today?
When we were speaking against Brett Kavanaugh, his nomination for Supreme Court, I saw massive people come out. I saw the outrage. And I keep wondering, where is that outrage for the children in cages? Such a disconnect. The U.S., unfortunately, has had a tradition of accepting abuse towards children, or not reacting to child abuse appropriately. It’s come to the point where people act like it’s normal, they feel like it’s not a big deal, that’s where I feel the bigger problem is. It’s not so much Trump, the Trump Administration, the so-called “zero tolerance” policy, it’s more we the people have no power. Because if we did, no way this would have happened.
Children do not belong in cages. They do not need to be ripped from their parents, especially tender-age children being ripped from nursing moms. Because we went so low, I had to climb the Statue of Liberty as high as I did to raise consciousness, and still, look where we are. We’re still talking about the children in cages. That’s how I know morality is low, or down, or maybe was never there.
What consequences did you face because of the Statue of Liberty protest?
I spent the night in jail. And the next day was very tedious because it took a long time to see a judge. But I had no clue that I was trending. So it changed my life because I did not expect such attention, such coverage. One minute you watch the news, the next minute you are the news. But because it was for the right cause, for the children in cages, it felt good. It felt that I was on the right path with history.
Unfortunately I was a little disappointed because I didn’t go as far as I had planned. In my head I thought really I could make it to the crown [laughs]. I climbed as high as I could.
I find myself kind of regarded as this heroic figure. I’ve been reminded that this will go down in history as something very remarkable, but yet I don’t feel treated that way. People were on social media with Rise and Resist accusing them of having abandoned a soldier, or being racist because they’re a bunch of white people apparently and I’m black. It became identity politics. This is about race now? None of them are talking about the children, and I say, “Guys, you are killing me here, you’re diminishing my sacrifice.” I had people tell me, “You are our black sister, you are fighting the wrong cause, those aren’t our babies.”
Some people were making GoFundMes in my name right after the Statue of Liberty that same day, July 4 and the next day. They made websites in my name. It was only then I opened a social media account and a GoFundMe account to show people a way to support me. What I’m dealing with is a grassroots movement that is not united. I found it hard that I had to reach out to people and remind them I’m facing charges and remind them, “Hey, I’ve been found guilty. If you don’t come to court or support me, I may go to prison.”
Why did you protest in Paris and in Texas?
Let me go back a little bit. On August 3 was the first time I appeared in court again after July 5, and I was wearing that beautiful green dress that went viral. It was trolling Melania Trump – that’s what the media [said]. That day I read to the media a letter addressing President Emmanuel Macron, it was in French and I translated it. My point was that we are facing a humanitarian crisis, yet other countries aren’t paying attention to it because it’s the United States. If it was some country in Africa, they would politicize it and sanction the country and send aid, but here, we cannot sanction the U.S. for violating human rights. France, you gave us the Statue of Liberty. So that’s why I went and climbed the Eiffel Tower, because there’s a connection there. That was November.
So February 20, or February 21, I climbed the school in Austin, Texas, that is owned and operated by CEO Juan Sanchez [former CEO of Southwest Key, a nonprofit that operated shelters for migrant children and has faced abuse allegations and questions about possible financial mismanagement]. I was doing a campaign called Valentine’s Day Action, and I had mobilized a group of people. One of them created this beautiful postcard, and it was on my website for people to download and write words of encouragement and solace to children in migrant cages. There was a designated location in El Paso where they were to mail it. So I started [in] El Paso, picked up the boxes of postcards – there’s like thousands of them. And when I saw the kind gesture, I was so overwhelmed with joy and encouragement. So from El Paso I went to Tornillo with another group and we did a lot of demonstrations and protests — in fact there’s a video of me jumping the fence inside a detention center [laughs].
So from El Paso, to Tornillo, then Austin, Texas. I used my cell phone to go on a live feed. You can see I put up two giant banners. One of them says “Return the children,” and the other one says “We do care.” And the police come, and according to the news, I exhausted them. They left, and I came down on my own. I had been there for eight hours. The thing is, they are profiting off of migrant children.
How do you think about your political activism in relation to your personal life?
I would probably tell young people to think first if you have enough support around you. Because, unfortunately I did not have much support. You see the magnitude of my action on the Fourth of July and then you see the support that I receive — it’s out of balance. It may appear on television and people around me in court, but I had to kick and scream just to get people to pay attention to the fact that, my case isn’t even over, where are you guys? Why aren’t people reaching out? Or groups? Organizations?
It was hard at first. When I was put on home confinement, it was like thank god, I needed a break. The public, people made it hard for me to do my job. I had to reach out to them. Here I am making myself known to the world, about the power we have — we the people — and what we can possibly do together, but no one really was reaching out. If they did, it was early on because of the glamour of the story. The media also did me a disservice when they portrayed me as the woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty, rather than the woman who sacrificed her life for the migrant children.
I attribute it to being a black woman and being an immigrant. People say, “Are you sure?” And I say, “Well, yes, I know so.” If a white woman had climbed the Statue of Liberty for children in cages on the Fourth of July, the story wouldn’t have died.
People are expecting me to get back to work, they’re forgetting quite a few facts. I’m on a five-year probation, my travels are restricted. They see me go to Africa, they see me go to Europe – hey, I went to Africa because my mom was in a coma and my attorney worked overnight to get my passport from the Department of Justice and the next day I was on a flight and my mom did pass away and I buried her. And I went to Europe — I’m not going to tell people I’m going for a procedure to get a baby, but they’re going to say, “Oh, Patricia’s traveling again.” They don’t have a clue about what’s going on with me, what my needs are.
What are you considering for your future? Will you continue to protest?
When I’m called a celebrity, I’m the poorest celebrity out there [laughs]. Thank god it was always Rise and Resist who has been there for me, despite the criticism, the backlash they received. They got me the attorney that I have, pro bono.
The work is tremendous. I think I need to focus on my child and on my self, because I do not have the resources to do this work. I just don’t. I came in as a full-time activist, and people enjoy the work that I did, and they donated, I appreciate that. They came to court. But look around you. I get people asking, have you heard from Oprah or Michelle Obama? I’m like, “Was I supposed to hear from them?” [laughs] It didn’t happen. The expectation, whatever they think I am or have become, and the way I’m being treated, it’s madness.
I will have to take a job, whatever it is, which means time and attention away from activism. I will have to go with the flow and see what door opens. I really loved being out of the country. When I travel, I see what this country is lacking. It’s lacking decency, as if decency never existed in the country. It’s not that I’m anti-American like some people may believe, it’s just truth.
God hasn’t dictated what comes next, but I feel if God gives me the opportunity to refocus on myself and my child, then I should embrace it.