Woman who climbed Statue of Liberty in immigration protest found guilty

Victoria Bekiempis in New York

Magistrate judge Gabriel Gorenstein says Therese Patricia Okoumou’s political and moral motivations did not trump the law

Okoumou said: ‘We stand on the right side of history. I am not discouraged.’ Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Reuters

An activist has been found guilty of a series of federal crimes after she climbed on to the base of the Statue of Liberty this summer to protest against the US policy of separating migrant families and holding children in detention.

Magistrate judge Gabriel Gorenstein convicted Therese Patricia Okoumou, who goes by Patricia, on Monday afternoon after a one-day bench trial in New York, asserting that the protester’s political and moral motivations did not trump the law.

Okoumou had grown teary on Monday as she told a judge in New York about how the treatment of children at the US-Mexico border prompted her to scale the statue in a high-profile protest on the Fourth of July this year.

“I wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages,” said Okoumou, on Monday morning at the start of her trial at the Manhattan federal court.

But in convicting her, Gorenstein wasn’t swayed, saying upon his guilty verdict that if he didn’t uphold the law simply because of a lawbreaker’s motivation, than it would undermine law in general.

“I would violate the oath of my office,” he said.

After the trial, Okoumou stood outside the courthouse, thanking friends, her fellow members of the activist group Rise and Resist and supporters in an upbeat tone.

“We stand on the right side of the history. I am not discouraged,” she said.

“While migrant children who simply came to this country, like our ancestors did, to seek happiness, freedom and liberation. Instead of welcoming them like Lady Liberty symbolizes, instead of treating them with kindness, what we showed them is cages. So if I go in a cage with them, I am on the right side of history.”

Okoumou, an activist, climbed the Statue of Liberty on 4 July. Photograph: AP

Okoumou, a Congo-born naturalized US citizen who lives in Staten Island, was found guilty on charges of trespassing and interfering with government agency functions, as well as disorderly conduct, in relation to her climb. She pleaded not guilty.

The charges collectively carry punishment of up to 18 months behind bars. She will be sentenced at a later date.

Okoumou’s main concern – as it has been since her climb, when she had to be retrieved by law enforcement officers attached to ropes – is the children, she said.

Although an executive order last summer reversed the policy of separating children from their parents upon crossing the border unlawfully, the Trump administration reportedly continues to do so by various means, also detaining children who have crossed the border unaccompanied, in hopes of claiming asylum or joining relatives already in the US.

Several thousand migrant minors are being held at a growing detention camp near El Paso, Texas. Meanwhile, many children languish in deteriorating conditions on the Mexican side of the border.

And as Trump clamps down on asylum applications, many migrants find themselves in an administrative – and humanitarian – limbo.

“It would never happen in my country – we don’t treat children like political bait,” she said. “I just have had nightmares and night sweats.”

One of Okoumou’s lawyers, civil rights litigator Ron Kuby, asked Okoumou whether she would make the climb again.

“Yes,” Okoumou replied.

Kalikow did not ask Okoumou – who wore a cobalt dress with the words “Seeking Asylum is NOT a Crime” for her court appearance – any questions.

Earlier in the day, opening statements foreshadowed the tenor of the trial – while prosecutors would focus on rules, Okoumou’s supporters would focus on conscience.

“She knew that what she was doing was wrong and illegal,” Kalikow said in his opening statement. “Whether one sympathizes with the defendant politically and morally is not at issue in this case.”

Kuby responded in his opening that the family separation policy “created in her an imperative to act”.

“She did so on America’s most important day on America’s most important symbol.”

Lawyer Michael Avenatti, who has joined Okoumou’s legal team, sat in the front row of the gallery.

The prosecution lauded Gorenstein’s verdict, calling Okoumou’s protest a “dangerous stunt … that endangered herself and the NYPD and US Park Police officers who rescued and apprehended her”.

Kalikow said: “The act of climbing the base of the Statue of Liberty went well beyond peaceable protest, a right we certainly respect. It was a crime that put people at grave risk. We commend Judge Gorenstein’s decision to hold Therese Okoumou accountable for her dangerous and reckless conduct.”

After the verdict, Hawk Newsome, who heads Black Lives Matter NYC, said: “It’s the government versus Patricia – it wasn’t the people. If it was the people, she would be free.”

Avenatti said the verdict was not surprising.

“But sometimes you have to stand on principle. History will be incredibly kind to Patricia,” he said.