Interview
Photo: Joe Penney

In Conversation: Patricia Okoumou is the Immigrant Rights Activist Facing Jail time for Climbing the Statue of Liberty

We talked to the Congolese-American activist through the window of the apartment where she's currently under house arrest.

When I went to interview Patricia Okoumou, the Congolese-American woman who scaled the Statue of Liberty last 4th of July to protest the child separation policy, she asked me to bring her a large, black, dark roast coffee from Au Bon Pain. This is not the most unusual request, but I had to hand her the coffee through the window of her ground floor apartment in Staten Island, New York where she is being held under house arrest. On March 1st, she was found guilty on three misdemeanor charges, and faces up to 18 months in prison.

In December, she climbed the Eiffel Tower, and in February, while delivering Valentine's Day cards to separated migrant children in Texas, she decided to climb the Austin, Texas headquarters of Southwest Key, which operates child detention centers. The Austin action violated the terms of her bail, and she is now under house arrest wearing an ankle bracelet until her sentencing on March 19th, making the conditions of her bail now more severe than that of Harvey Weinstein. U.S. authorities have forcibly separated at least 2,855 children from their parents or guardian at the border since April 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I spoke to Okoumou through the window of her apartment on a chilly afternoon marking International Women's Day.


How did you get into activism?

My father was, as long as I've known him, the pilot of the president of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso. So he got to travel throughout the world: Asia, Africa, you name it. We were raised in a wealthy environment, particularly by the airport, where only the wealthy people built their houses. It was my playground. I had the liberty to express myself physically by climbing those construction sites. Everybody knew that was me on the roof—nobody punished me for it. I never thought I needed to be punished for it. It was just what my spirit drove me to do.

I joined the activist group Rise and Resist because the year prior (to the Statue of Liberty action), I was arrested. I was at the Department of Labor protesting outside, not to anyone in particular, but I had been upset with my former employer, Asphalt Green, who discharged me unjustly, only because I was complaining of my wages. And when I made them aware that I took my complaint to the Department of Labor, they retaliated. So for me to fight the system, to fight the injustice, I began my protest on the street, which was lawful.

However, someone had called the police when they saw me in the lobby, and there was this moment of unconscious bias where the cop came without reading me my rights, without telling me to leave, just assumed that I was causing trouble, when the video shows that I was just calm and trying to speak to my attorney at the Department of Labor.

Patricia Okoumou, the Congolese-American woman who scaled the Statue of Liberty on July 4th, 2018 to protest the child separation policy, poses for a picture through the window of her apartment where she is under house arrest in Staten Island Photo: Joe Penney

Why are you so passionate about the issue of child separation?

My parents divorced when I was two years old, so I did experience family separation. My mother was young, she got into a marriage and he was abusive, and he used his wealth and authority to take custody. She never had a chance. My stepmother unfortunately did not like her stepchildren. My father embraced her children as his own, but she was not able to do that to us unless she could own us somehow emotionally.

I saw that with the youngest child of my mom and dad, my brother. He was confused, he didn't recognize his real mother because the stepmother tried to just steal him. So I knew as a child something was wrong there, you can't do that. I've always remembered that I have a mom, and she loves me and cares about me regardless of her poverty and regardless of the distance from how far she lived from us.

When I first arrived to this country, one of the things I noticed is we had this governmental agency called ACS, Administration for Children Services. I didn't understand how a government can strip someone of their right to be a parent. We don't have such a system (in Congo). That's why it puzzled me that this country can be behaving in that manner. We don't just have that. We take care of our own. We don't have nursing homes, we take care of our elders, the community gets involved to raise a child.

What were your experiences coming to this country?

Prior to coming here, I was a teenager. My dad noticed my passion for learning English. He even gave me a tiny little dictionary that was French-English, English-French. I was exposed and influenced by American culture, just by listening to the music on the radio, watching American movies and admiring their way of life. One thing I was blinded by was watching movies for example where everybody in the movie was white, except for example a couple of people, and it was always the chief of the police department that was a minority. And I was blinded by this sense of diversity, the inclusion.

I came to this country believing in the Statue of Liberty and what she stands for: liberation, freedom, and a welcome venue for immigrants and all people. However, my experience hasn't been that way. It dawned on me that I was lied to. I call it false advertisement.

I came on August 2nd, 1994 with a visitor visa, which was to last for six months, and I overstayed it. Before my papers expired, I applied for social security and received a letter in person. The social security that was promised to me in two weeks never arrived. Policies were changing all the time, so I found it very difficult to navigate through the system to sustain employment.

But I also experienced discrimination, especially at work. At home we are very outspoken, we express our feelings toward one another, we may even get into physical fights, but that's part of people being able to say how they feel and move on. But here, you're not allowed to express your feelings, say how you truly feel, or be honest. You have to joke. And I found that very alienating. Why are people joking when they're telling you the truth in your face? So it's something I just have not been able to adjust to.

Photo: Joe Penney

Like cynicism?

There's a lot of cynicism. There's a lot of feelings that get hurt. Americans are thin-skinned. Almost like Donald Trump, pretty much. They get their feelings hurt—they don't want to verify what you mean, why you did or said what you did, they just move on and get offended. I find them moody.

In December, you also climbed the Eiffel Tower?

I was asking and pleading with French President Emmanuel Macron to help the migrant children in our country, because France gave us the Statue of Liberty and I really felt that they could have a say in it.

You got really high up, I saw a picture you posted!

Oh yes, that's the highest you can go. Beyond that, it was foggy and it would've defeated the purpose of being visible.

And you didn't have a harness or anything.

No, I don't believe in harnesses (laughs). Because I think it's a false notion of security. Because if you're gonna fall, you're gonna fall and die. You're gonna break your neck, you're gonna explode your head.

What about Obama's deportation policy? Is it something worth addressing as well?

Barack Obama was called the deporter-in-chief for his record number of deporting immigrants, I assume illegal immigrants—I don't like the term illegal because no human being is illegal and we shouldn't be calling human beings aliens because our children our listening and it sets a bad precedent. He went after criminals. He didn't go after babies, and we didn't have babies in cages. What we have here are concentration camps and I am opposing that.

While I'm in my own home, if I open the door to someone, whether they're friends or a stranger, I'm responsible to a degree to what's happening in here. It's all about how we tolerate other people's behaviors and conduct.

Is there anything else you'd like the public to know?

The pre-trial services have recommended three months in prison and one year supervision. We don't know what the judge will decide on March 19th. But when this is all said and done, I pray that God gets me the hell out of here, that I go live in Canada or France, or in Africa, in my country, where there are some things we hold dear. Our culture, our values, where people live in kindness and compassion. There's really no compassion here.

The bottom line is, I'm being treated this way for one reason, and one reason only: for my race. I'm a black, immigrant woman. If I had been a white woman who had climbed the Statue of Liberty on a day like Independence Day, for the voiceless, the story would never have died. Every time they mentioned the border and the detention centers and the children, my name would've came up. But that is not the case. All the politicians have turned their backs. If we don't have public pressure, I will face prison.

There's a letter to be downloaded on my website to be printed, signed and mailed to US Attorney Berman. He is the man who is responsible for dropping these charges.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

popular
Adamawa State Governor Bindow and the 21 freed girls (c) Adam Dobby

Isha Sesay’s Bold New Book Forces Us to Remember the Chibok Girls, Even If Social Media Has Forgotten

In 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' the Sierra-Leonean author offers "the first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the girls' abduction.

Five years ago, 276 schoolgirls were abducted from their school in northern Nigeria by a group of Boko Haram militants. A global outcry ensued with social media and the international press proclaiming their devotion to the missing girls. #BringBackOurGirls became the digital rallying cry for the movement. Even the most famous of public figures—the likes of then First Lady Michelle Obama—stood behind it. This level of attention was unique, and frankly rare for a tragedy occurring in Africa, and it seemed that the help of the entire world was exactly what was needed to topple the threat of growing extremism in Northern Nigeria, and bring the girls home safely.

Then, the world moved on—with the exception of a few. Sierra Leonean-born journalist Isha Sesay, the host of CNN Africa at the time, was one of the foremost voices covering the events taking place in Chibok, following and reporting on every painstaking detail about the girls and their possible whereabouts, even earning the network a Peabody Award in 2014 for her coverage. Her commitment to their story didn't wane—even when it was clear that the news cycle had moved on. For Sesay, the threat of erasure was further motivation to continue following the girls' story. As new developments occurred, beginning in 2016, Sesay hit the ground. She traveled to Chibok and followed those who'd been freed, while continuing to advocate for the immediate release of the 112 girls who are still missing.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Watch the Trailer for Wale's New Studio Album 'Wow...That's Crazy'

He says this sixth studio album will be his last.

This year has been a phenomenal year for Nigerian artists both on the continent and those part of the diaspora. Nigerian-American rapper, Wale, recently took to social media to announce that he'll be dropping his sixth studio album Wow...That's Crazy on the October 11th. This new project comes after he released three singles this year including "Gemini (2 sides)", "BGM" and "On Chill", a track he worked on with Jeremih. While fans are excited by news of the upcoming project, Wale has indicated that this will be his last album.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Still from YouTube

Watch the Music Video for Stonebwoy and 'Ololo' Featuring Teni

A fire collaboration!

Ghanaian rapper Stonebwoy enlists Nigerian artist Teni the Entertainer for his latest single 'Ololo,' his latest since dropping "Tuff Seed" earlier this summer.

The duo shine as they exchange loving lyrics atop sultry, upbeat production by Prinx Pappi. Stonebwoy opens the track with a fiery verse about giving his all to a love interest, while Teni brings the her usual high-energy to the second verse as she delivers passionate lyrics directed at a lover. Their musical chemistry, making for a catchy jam-worthy track.

Keep reading... Show less
Video

Seyi Shay & Teyana Taylor Connect For 'Gimme Love' Remix

An afrobeats-inspired take on R&B.

Seyi Shay comes through with the new remix of "Gimme Love" featuring none-other-than Teyana Taylor.

The new remix sees the Nigerian singer linking up with the GOOD Music star for an afrobeats-inspired take on R&B, as the two artists trade romantic verses over the Sarz-produced beat.

The new music video for "Gimme Love Remix," follows Seyi Shay and Teyana Taylor to Harlem, New York. They head to brownstone homes, bodegas and bars as they get courted by their 'love.' It was directed by Walu and produced by JM Films.

"Gimme Love" is the lead single from Seyi Shay's upcoming EP, which was executive produced by Sarz and Harmony Samuels, and is due in November.

Watch the video for "Gimme Love Remix" below. The single is available everywhere now.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.