Therese Patricia Okoumou: Black Women’s Bodies and Public Protest

Patricia Okoumou, Pride March Parade, New York, June 28, 2018, (Elvert Barnes, Flickr)

Tomorrow, March 19, Therese Patricia Okoumou will be sentenced for her protest climb of the Statue of Liberty this past fourth of July. The Congolese-born, Staten Island resident drew an international audience when she scaled the national symbol to protest Trump’s 2018 family separation policy and its literal separation and incarceration of undocumented children in the U.S. She was demonstrating with fellow members of the organization Rise and Resist at the monument before making her climb. In looking at aerial images of Okoumou nestled beneath the sandal-clad raised right heel or her Black body on the backside of the coppery green statue, I was struck by how Okoumou’s use of her body brings so many pressing issues of this national moment into conversation and how she speaks about them. As we wait to see whether she will serve time for her misdemeanor charges, I offer a few thoughts on how we might engage with this Black climber.

Since her July climb, Okoumou has continued her activism on behalf of migrant children. In November, she took her message to the heights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris where she dropped the banner “Abolish Ice”—the acronym for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency—among others. In February, she came to Texas and participated in a ten-day journey beginning in El Paso, and stopping at detention camps including one where she and other activists offered Valentine’s Day cards and wishes of love to the children within. She ended the journey in Austin, the state capital and my place of residence, where she was arrested after climbing the four-story headquarters of Southwestern Key, an organization operating twenty-four detention centers and receiving large quantities of federal dollars to hold undocumented children. There she displayed a banner “#ReturnTheChildren.” Due to her arrest in Austin, Okoumou is currently under house arrest in New York State for violating the terms of her bail.

The federal magistrate judge that placed Okoumou under-house arrest described her as having “a climbing problem.” Okoumou says she climbs because she “find[s] it hard to sleep while [children] are in cages.” In a press statement, following her arraignment back in July, she summoned Michelle Obama’s words to orient her actions with the observation: “When they go low….I went as high as I could.” She cites climbing as an innate part of her activism and that as a child in the Republic of Congo she free climbed structures near the airport in Brazzaville where her family resided. Her father was a pilot for the President of the Republic, Denis Sassou Nguesso. She linked her capacity to climb with her health and the inspiration she drew from the president’s leadership. These indirect connections hint at the personal story from which she sources her physical and political expression, although she is open about the deep faith guiding her actions. Okoumou is similarly discreet about the reasons she left the Republic in 1994 to the U.S. on a temporary visa. According to one account, she became undocumented when her visa expired, receiving a green card in 2010, and became a naturalized citizen in 2016. While she does not refer to her history as the basis of her activism, she addresses contrast in the ideals of the U.S. that attracted her and the reality she found living in this country saying, “I had that false notion of diversity and inclusiveness.” Even through the aspects of her biography that Okoumou does not elaborate, she nonetheless, by way of the speech of her body, both in form and word, carries many messages.

Okoumou’s words transmit her awareness and critique of the broader systems of dominance that keep her and so many from climbing. Following her first arrest and release, Okoumou pointedly described in an interview her interactions with the police as they approached her on the base of the monument. One officer said, “I care about you.” To which she replied, “‘No, you don’t, you could shoot me the way you shot Claudia Gomez and killed the trans woman.’” Okoumou was referring to Gomes who was a young Guatemalan woman shot in May by border patrol in Texas, and Roxana Hernández, a transgender woman from Honduras, who also died in ICE custody this past May. In one sweeping and self-protective statement, Okoumou linked her protest of child detention with intersecting issues of state violence systematically enacted against vulnerable bodies, including her own. Her speech animated a Black feminist praxis observable in the ways she drew a structural analysis of racial and patriarchal forms of mortal power with a personal experience of fear not generated merely by the heights of her posture but the reach of the institutional power enacted in that moment.

Such a linking was also on display in France as Okoumou simultaneously used one of the country’s national symbols, the Eiffel Tower, to return to the question of liberty by hailing France as the Statue of Liberty’s gifter. The “Abolish Ice” banner she unfurled on the tower stated: “#ReturnTheChildren” and “Christopher Columbus did not discover America! End patriarchy.” Again Okoumou’s message represented by her Black body in these higher places, juxtaposed the Western ideals of democracy and freedom with Western nations’ histories and practices. It is as if her climbing enabled her to articulate a higher vantage on the intersections of the systems of power that result in detained children.

There is also something resonant in Okoumou’s climbing of recent women occupying elevated spaces, if only momentarily out of society’s reach. I’ve seen that perched place in the activism of Nutty, the pseudonym of a young woman, still unidentified, who lived for 57 days last year atop a 50-foot pole in a tiny monopod to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a fracked gas pipeline, being built across Virginia and West Virginia, including the Jefferson National Forest beneath her. Nutty’s occupation was also supported by other women’s actions, including among others a professor locking herself to construction equipment and a mother and daughter, who placed themselves in trees to non-violently impede construction and speak to the intersections of the preservation of life, land, and the structures of power destroying them. Nutty was veiled in black remaining anonymous and offering writings, via Facebook, on the experience and ideological end of her protest. In her final reflective and committed post, she wrote, “This fight didn’t begin with this pipeline and it won’t end until the destruction of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, governance, everything wreaking destruction on the earth and waging constant war on certain human beings to create empty structures of wealth and power. Let’s let what we learn in this struggle reach into every corner of our lives, even as our lives and relationships meld inextricably with our actions.” Okoumou embodies this call and her words spread a similar message of hearted and vision-filled fight.

Nutty’s anonymity and her covered face contrast with Okoumou’s blackness. While we don’t know Nutty’s racial identity, Okoumou’s darkness paired with her “Africanness” atop these pointed symbols of the West, visibly and directly compel a racial encounter with the range of issues about which she speaks. Such meetings, for example, are announced when she has donned a black t-shirt with the words “white supremacy is terrorism,” “Trumpcare makes us sick,” or an olive green dress with “I really care why won’t u?” as a response to the green jacket Melania Trump wore with “I really don’t care do u?” on the back when visiting Texas detention centers in June of 2018. Okoumou’s activism in high up places as well as on the ground invites conversation on a range of additional themes not discussed here: the long history of protest on the Statue of Liberty; contemporary women’s activism across the globe; and the racial disparities facing Black undocumented immigrants.

In addition, Okoumou brings faith into her activism, rarely failing to mention that it is a God force that gives her courage and a moral compass. Reverberating with the long legacy of the spiritual dimensions of Black activism in the U.S., Okoumou has an unabashed commitment to a collective future she locates in children.

Tomorrow we will learn of her sentence. As much as Okoumou’s Black body has acted as a canvas and expression of her activism, it also makes her a moving target, potentially for stricter punishment. She and her lawyers have called for no time behind bars and a month of house arrest and community service citing the precedent of not criminalizing the many individuals who have used the Statute of Liberty as a critical site of protest. She has already reflected that while in federal custody following her initial arrest she felt peaceful and with detained children in spirit. As Okoumou’s activism continues, I will continue to watch the ways her climbing instructs the direction and orientation of our politics and issues. Her climbing embodies the motion-driven ways of capturing the human imaginary and deepening our consciousness as well as our conscience.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.