MANHATTAN (CN) – A woman who scaled the base of the Statue of Liberty on Independence Day as part of an “Abolish ICE” protest pleaded not guilty to federal charges Thursday.
“Michelle Obama, our beloved first lady who I care so much about, said, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and I went as high as I could,” said Therese Patricia Okoumou, an activist with the group Rise and Resist, addressing reporters and dozens of supporters this afternoon following her arraignment in U.S. District Court.
Okoumou, 44, was arrested a day earlier after she spent about three hours on the base of the Statue of Liberty as fellow activists unfurled an “Abolish ICE” banner nearby.
“Trump has ripped this country apart,” said Okoumou, a Congolese national who became a naturalized U.S. citizen. “It is depressing. It is outrageous. I can say a lot of things about this monster, but I will stop at this. His draconian zero-tolerance policy on immigration has to go. In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.”
Both in court and outside, Okoumou’s supporters burst into multiple rounds of applause for the Staten Island resident.
One shouted in the courtroom: “We love you! We love you!”
Wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “White Supremacy Is Terrorism,” Okoumou had minutes earlier signed bail papers releasing her on her own recognizance pending federal charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and interfering with agency functions.
Okoumou’s acrobatic protest already earned her a night in federal custody, even though none of her charges rise above the level of a misdemeanor. She entered court today through the side entrance reserved for criminal defendants transferred from prison.
Since his appointment six months ago by President Donald Trump, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman has held few press conferences and issued a similarly paltry number of statements. This morning, however, Berman had harsh words for Okoumou.
“As alleged in the information, the defendant staged a dangerous stunt that alarmed the public and endangered her own life and the lives of the NYPD officers who responded to the scene,” Berman said.
“While we must and do respect the rights of the people to peaceable protest, that right does not extend to breaking the law in ways that put others at risk,” he added.
Berman also deployed strong legal firepower onto Okoumou’s case.
With rookie prosecutor Brett Kalikow at the helm, the case is being supervised by Assistant U.S. Attorney Hadassa Waxman, the co-chief of the General Crimes Unit.
Back in 2012-13, Waxman led the case against ex-New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle, dubbed the “Cannibal Cop” after being charged with attempting to rape, kill and eat women. Valle’s convictions were overruled on appeal after the Second Circuit ruled that prosecutors charged the disgraced officer for fantasies protected by the First Amendment.
Okoumou has high-profile counsel of her own: attorney Rhiya Triveda, an associate from the office of legendary civil rights attorney Ron Kuby.
“There are times when justice demands that we transcend the law,” Trivedi told reporters.
“I can think of no better time than the 4th of July, or no better way to draw attention to the violence that is being done in the name of borders than to physically transcend those hallowed words at the base of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddling masses,’” the attorney added, referring to the transcription excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ona Wang read Okoumou her Miranda warnings and said not to commit any more federal offenses while on bail.
If convicted on the three counts, Okoumou faces a possible 1.5-year sentence.
The tough treatment prosecutors handed Okoumou stands in stark contrast to another peaceful direct action at the Statue of Liberty in 1977.
That summer, 30 Puerto Rican activists unfurled the flag from Lady Liberty’s crown and were given seven orders of amnesty. The U.S. Park Police called them a “pleasure to work with” after the stunt.
Okoumou also had a good experience with the U.S. Park Police, a handful of whom appeared in court in black flack vests.
“They’ve been very, very wonderful to me,” Okoumou said. “Talk about ‘Respect, Courtesy, and Professionalism,’ I think that the NYPD could learn a thing or two from them.”
Okoumou will appear in court again on Aug. 3.