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Patricia Okoumou, Statue of Liberty climber, won't go to prison

The judge put Okoumou on probation for five years, warning that she will be imprisoned if she commits any more protest crimes.

Patricia Okoumou, seen in December, climbed the Statue

Patricia Okoumou, seen in December, climbed the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018, in protest of the Trump administration's immigration policies. Photo Credit: Jefferson Siegel

Statue of Liberty climber Patricia Okoumou was spared imprisonment by a Manhattan federal judge on Tuesday.  Her ascending the pedestal of Lady Liberty last July 4  in an immigration protest of Trump administration child separation policies  had forced the evacuation of the park.

U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein ordered Okoumou to serve 200 hours of community service and put her on probation for five years, warning he  would jail her if she commits any more protest crimes.  Her courtroom supporters hissed and groaned at the judge.

“The defendant apparently thinks her cause outweighs any risk she creates for others,” Gorenstein said, citing hazards to police and tourists. “She did not climb to rescue a child in danger on July 4 . . . The law that prohibits climbing the Statue of Liberty and putting others in danger is not unjust.”

The sentence came after Okoumou showed up in court with her face covered in tape to protest what she saw as suppression of her freedom of expression. She objected to jail or probation, did not promise to stop unlawful protesting and warned that “God is taking notice” of American moral decay.

“I was not frightened by the height of the Statute of Liberty, I was frightened by the depth of moral bankruptcy of your country,” she told the judge. “... I do not need the probation and I do not belong in prison because I am not a criminal.”

Okoumou, 45, a naturalized Congolese immigrant from Staten Island, faced up to 18 months in prison for her stunt, designed to draw attention to family separations at the Mexican border. She had previously pledged a hunger strike if she  were jailed, but did not repeat that threat in court.

Her July protest led to the evacuation of Liberty Island, and at one point the judge said she threatened to push over a ladder an officer was using to try to get her to come down. In December, she was convicted by Gorenstein of trespass, disorderly conduct and interfering with government administration.

After her conviction, she twice had to be removed from the Eiffel Tower during protest climbs in  Paris, and was charged with trespass in Austin, Texas, after scaling the headquarters of a nonprofit that housed detained immigrant children. That case is pending.

Gorenstein considered revoking her bail after the Texas incident, but decided instead to order home detention with an electronic monitoring bracelet. He told Okoumou to look for a job so she didn’t have to depend on donations from immigration activists to make a living.

At Tuesday’s sentencing, Okoumou removed the tape over her face when Gorenstein asked her to, but she wore her customary slogan-festooned outfit, including a headband that said “I Care.” Lawyer Ron Kuby told the judge she had found a job at the Salvage Art Institute but had to stay free to take it.

He described his client as a principled dissident following in the footsteps of other demonstrators who have used the Statue of Liberty to protest for “American values” because of its symbolic importance and who have rarely, if ever, been jailed.

“I don’t believe putting Ms. Okoumou in jail is going to promote respect for the law,” he said.

Prosecutor Brett Kalikow asked the judge to jail her for 30 days, with three years probation, saying her repeated behavior showed she needed jail time to deter future crimes. “Good intentions are not a free pass to break the law,” he said. “... The ends and the means both matter.”

Although he gave her probation, Gorenstein chastised Okoumou for what he saw as a lack of remorse. “A person with empathy would have said, 'I’m sorry I risked the lives of others,'” he said. “But she did not.”

Outside court, Okoumou said she was glad she  wasn't going to jail, but offered no regrets about her protest or not promising to stop, smiling as Kuby told reporters, “There are no guarantees in this world.”

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