The 44-year-old woman who scaled the Statue of Liberty during a Fourth of July protest against the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policies said Thursday she was inspired by former first lady Michelle Obama's adage to "go high" when "they go low."
Patricia Okoumou, of Staten Island, pleaded not guilty to trespassing and disorderly conduct and was released without bail after spending the night in custody following her hours-long standoff with cops on Independence Day.
After her federal court appearance Thursday afternoon, Okoumou told reporters she was protesting the separation of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and that her climb was spontaneous. She had participated in an earlier protest in which members of Rise and Resist New York unfurled an "Abolish ICE" banner at the Statue of Liberty. Around 50 members of the group attended Okoumou's court appearance Thursday in a show of support.
Speaking to reporters afterward while dressed in a shirt that read "White Supremacy Is Terrorism," Okoumou thanked the police officers who got her off the statue and said it had been "a wild 24 hours."
"I will not do it again. The judge told me not to," she said, adding she felt the message had been sent.
She continued, "Michelle Obama says when they go low, we go high, and I went as high as I could."
Okoumou, a personal trainer and known activist, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who came from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1994.
"This zero-tolerance policy on immigration has to go," she said. "We do not put children in cages. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages."
President Donald Trump, during a campaign rally in Montana, called her a "clown."
"You saw that clown yesterday on the Statue of Liberty. You see that guys that went up there. I wouldn't have done it," the Republican president said Thursday night, praising the bravery of police officers who ascended the statue's base and persuaded her to climb down.
He added: "I would have said, 'Let's get some nets, and let's wait till she comes down. Just get some nets.'"
Okoumou "staged a dangerous stunt that alarmed the public and endangered her own life and the lives of the (New York Police Department) officers who responded to the scene," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement.
She was captured Wednesday after an hours-long standoff with police who tried to coax her down. She climbed the statue around 2 p.m. that day, after protesters from Rise and Resist New York unfurled an "Abolish ICE" banner there; she made it to Lady Liberty's base.
Liberty Island, crowded with more than 4,000 visitors on the holiday, one of its busiest — if not the busiest — tourism days of the year, was evacuated. Parks officials say Statue Cruises will handle all refunds and ticket exchanges.
Meanwhile, the focus is turning in part to security. Parks officials say they believe Okoumou likely climbed from a ledge over one of two public entrances to the deck from what's known as the 6P level of the monument, which is the highest level people can access with pedestal tickets. There are park police officers and rangers in that area, but no alarms were triggered when Okoumou went out on the deck because it is accessible to the public.
As for how she got up to the base, Rise and Resist members who know her said she simply free-climbed the statue, adding: "She must be very skilled."
Okoumou was seen at various points pacing back and forth on the base of the statue, then lying down and casually kicking her legs. Police officers watched from below as they attempted to coax her down, then brought out a ladder and other climbing gear to physically get to her. NYPD's highly trained emergency services and aviation units responded along with U.S. Park Police.
Rise and Resist says it has arranged "expert legal options" for the court process. The group, which initially denied any connection to the climber, later claimed her as a member and said she had been to meetings in New York. They described her actions as "rogue," though, and said that had not been part of the planned protest.
"Patricia is our friend, our comrade, our sister," the statement said in part. "From the moment that we realized that this amazing woman whom we have gotten to know, love, and respect was the person who had climbed to the foot of Lady Liberty, we had three concerns: one for her safety from falling, second, for her safety as a woman of color who was about to be engaged by law enforcement, and third, to find her the best legal representation that we could."
Jamie Bauer, a spokesperson for Rise and Resist, said at Okoumou's court appearance Thursday the group was supporting her and "we're here to make sure she's safe and released to our group."
Some acknowledged that her actions put lives at risk, including her own. But they insisted attention needs to be paid to the border crisis.
"The symbol of peace and freedom and liberty that we have doesn't mean very much when we have a system that is incarcerating children and families," said Blair Imani, a supporter.
Okoumou has been arrested in the past during a protest: in August 2017, she was charged with misdemeanor assault and trespassing, and when police say she was asked to leave a building, she instead threw herself to the ground, kicked her legs and flailed her arms, making contact with an officer.
Neighbors in her Staten Island community say Okoumou is very outspoken about her activism. Fellow Rise and Resist members said she was especially vocal about immigration.
In the Statue of Liberty case, Okoumou faces up to six months in prison and/or a fine on each of the three counts. She's due back in court on August 3.
Meanwhile, the seven people arrested by the United States Park Police after unrolling the "Abolish I.C.E." banner at the statue will be charged with unlawful protest, U.S. Park Police said.
The protest came a week after a Wisconsin congressman introduced legislation to abolish the ICE in a demand for change that has become a campaign cry for some Democrats this primary season.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., introduced the bill following a trip to the southern U.S. border, where he noticed the “cruel, inhumane and un-American policies taking place at the border that are now a direct result of actions by [President] Donald Trump.”