Judge Convicts Protester Behind Statue of Liberty Climb

Theresa Okoumou (center) addresses reporters on Dec. 17, 2018, after a federal judge convicted her for scaling the Statue of Liberty to protest U.S. immigration policy. Defense attorney Michael Avenatti stands at left, joined by Hawk Newsome with Black Lives Matter New York and defense counsel Rhiya Trivedi. (Josh Russell, Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Wrapping up the one-day trial of a woman who climbed the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July, a federal judge found Congolese immigrant Patricia Okoumou guilty on all counts Monday.

Okoumou, 44, had been unapologetic earlier this morning when she testified as the only witness for her defense. Describing her climb as a protest of the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that the Trump administration had rolled out in June, Okoumou said she would make the climb again, “as long as our children are in cages.” 

“Someone has to take a stand and say it’s inhumane and cruel,” Okoumou testified, concluding 20 minutes of direct examination by her attorney, Ron Kuby. 

U.S. District Judge Garbriel Gornstein meanwhile recited a passage from “A Man for All Seasons” as he delivered his verdict from the bench.

“This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then,” Gorenstein said, quoting the play and film.

Explaining why sympathy for Okoumou’s cause should not alter her conviction, Gornstein challenged Okoumou’s defenders to consider someone with completely opposite politics breaking the same laws and asking for leniency.

“I do not doubt the sincerity of her beliefs,” Gornstein said. 

Okoumou faces up to 18 months in prison for the three misdemeanor charges: trespassing, interference with government agency functions and disorderly conduct.

Released on her own recognizance Monday afternoon, Okoumou said she does not regret climbing the statue, “The world got to see the ugly side of our history,” she said outside of the courthouse. “We stand on the right side of history.”

“Our laws sometimes lack morality and this is perfect example of that,” Okoumou, eliciting cheers from the activist supporters who joined her outside in the frigid, windy December afternoon.

 “It’s up to us to stand up as I did on the Fourth of July to do right by our history because our children our are watching, our children are listening and the world is laughing at us,” she said.

Prosecutors say Okoumou posed substantial danger to police officers who responded to the base of the statue to make her come down, after her acrobatics prompted an evacuation of Liberty Island on the busy holiday.

Okoumou testified this morning that she scaled the statue after U.S. Park Police officers disrupted a larger protest organized by the group Rise and Resist and seized their “Abolish I.C.E.” banner.

In contrast to her borderline-performative appearances outside of the Manhattan federal courthouse this summer, Okoumou appeared somewhat subdued on the stand today, using a scarf and jacket to cover up the hand-painted messages that decorated her blue ensemble.

“No Human Is Illegal on Stolen Land,” the outfit said on the back. “Seeking Asylum Is NOT a Crime,” it said on front. 

In a somewhat pointed reference to an outfit that the first lady wore this summer — while accompanying President Donald Trump to a detention camp for immigrant children separated from their parents — Okoumou also wore a blue headband with the words “I Care.”

Government prosecutors declined to ask Okoumou any questions on cross-examination, moving the trial before Judge Gorenstein onto summations following a lunch break Monday afternoon. 

The government’s evidence included testimony from Brian Glacken, one the NYPD officers who took Okoumou into custody beneath the sandals of the statue.

Pressed on cross-examination by defense attorney Rhiya Trivedi, Glacken testified that he was unfamiliar at the time of Okoumou’s arrest with the child separations occurring in Texas at the U.S. border.

Glacken also noted that Okoumou had left “Abolish I.C.E.” stickers on the statue during the standoff.

In a five-minute closing statement this afternoon, Trivedi said Okoumou had not broken the law because she “did not knowingly trespass but sought a pathway to higher ground.” The phrase has roots both in the American civil rights movement and Christian civility.

Trivedi also likened the Trump administration’s family-separation immigration policy to slavery, which she said was the “the original systematic child separation.”

“After safety, the motive, the ‘why,’ is everything,” Trivedi told Judge Gorenstein, “and because of the ‘why,’ I urge you to acquit her of all charges.”

Supporters of Okoumou, including many from the group Rise and Resist, filled both the courtroom gallery and an overflow room to capacity.

A recent community organizer herself who has been practicing law with Kuby for just shy of one year, Trivedi said outside the courthouse she was not surprised today’s verdict. 

“To me, this trial and the result confirms what we’ve always known: that we live under a legal system that not only puts children in cages but punishes the people who stand up to try to speak truth to that power,” Trivedi said.

“I know I for one have never anticipated that the result of what goes in this building or any one like it will be justice or fairness or progress,” she continued, flanked by activists from Rise and Resist, Black Lives Matter New York and other groups.

“Those things are won by movements, and they’re won by organizers, and they’re won by the day-in, and they’re won by day-out fight to make this country actually inclusive, actually diverse, actually fair, actually just,” Trivedi said.

In their call for supporters to show up in solidarity with Okoumou, Rise and Resist called Okoumou “a true modern-day folk hero who risked her life to call for justice.”

Notable supporters in the seats of Judge Gorenstein’s courtroom included attorney Michael Avenatti, actress Ellen Page and the activist preacher Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.

A notable White House antagonist, Avenatti joined Okoumou’s legal team two weeks ago but did not join at Okoumou’s defense table at today’s trial. 

“I am proud to call Patricia my client, and I am proud to call her a patriot and someone who stood on principle,” he told reporters after the verdict.

Kuby, a famed civil rights attorney in his own right, has defended Okoumou’s protest as in line with the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience. Over the summer, Kuby had sought to have Okoumou’s case weighed by a jury, rather than a judge; Gorenstein denied the request in October, setting the December bench trial date.

Gorenstein set Okoumou’s sentencing for March 5, 2019.

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