When they went low, she went high.
An unrepentant activist who scaled the Statue of Liberty's pedestal to protest President Trump's immigration policies said after her arraignment Thursday that she was inspired by Michelle Obama's famous quote.
With the words of the former First Lady ringing in her ears, Therese Patricia Okoumou, 44, a Staten Island personal trainer, said she decided to take a Fourth of July immigration protest to the next level by clambering up Lady Liberty's copper base and refusing to come down. Her one-woman movement caused the temporary shutdown of the statue and Liberty Island.
"Michelle Obama — our beloved First Lady that I care so much about — said, 'When they go low, we go high,' and I went as high as I could," Okoumou, a Congolese immigrant said Thursday outside the Manhattan federal courthouse.
Okoumou was arrested Wednesday after a three-hour standoff that began about 3 p.m. when someone noticed her waving a T-shirt with the words "Trump Care Makes Us Sick" from her perch. She was charged with trespassing, interfering in an agency function and disorderly conduct. At her arraignment, the courtroom erupted in thunderous applause after she pleaded not guilty to the charges.
"We love you!" a supporter shouted during the hearing. A placid Okoumou, wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and black pants, turned to the gallery and clapped along.
Even U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman seemed to show at least a tempered respect for her abilities.
"While we must and do respect the rights of the people to peaceable protest," Berman said, "that right does not extend to breaking the law in ways that put others at risk."
The federal prosecutor said it wasn't just about her.
"The defendant staged a dangerous stunt that alarmed the public and endangered her own life and the lives of the NYPD officers who responded to the scene," he said.
The incident began Wednesday when Okoumou went to Liberty Island with the protest group Rise and Resist with the intention of unfurling a banner that read "Abolish ICE."
At some point, she slipped away from the other demonstrators and climbed to the statue's feet where she vowed to stay until ICE officials release children separated from their parents and detained in facilities across the country. Jamie Bauer, 59, a Rise and Resist activist, was also detained after protesting with Okoumou.
"I was like, 'Whoa!' because you know, we went up with her and we knew she was just climbing with her sneakers and her hands, and that's quite a feat — to be able to do," Bauer said. "She's a very passionate person, as activists by nature tend to be."
Bauer and the others were escorted off the island and were charged with violating federal park regulations. Police eventually apprehended her and brought her down unharmed.
Okoumou thanked the national park police for their courtesy and professionalism, but not the cops who saved her.
"I think the NYPD can learn something or two from them," she said.
The high-altitude activist slammed President Trump outside the courthouse after Judge Ona Wang ordered her released from custody without bail.
"Trump has wrecked this country apart. It is depressing, it is outrageous. I can say a lot of things about this monster, but I will stop at this: His draconian zero-tolerance policy on immigration has to go," Okoumou said. "In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period."
During a rally in Montana Thursday night, Trump indicated that the feelings were mutual.
"You saw that clown yesterday on the Statue of Liberty?" the President asked the crowd. "You see the guys that went up there? I wouldn't have done it. I would have said let's get some nets and wait 'til she comes down. Just get some nets. You see the bravery of them doing that? What a group."
The U.S. Parks Police detained seven people for the banner protest, and they evacuated 4,000 visitors from the island "out of an abundance of caution," spokesman Jerry Willis said. The National Parks Service is reviewing video to figure out how Okoumou got up there, he said. They will also check to see if the statue is damaged.
Statue historian and fourth-generation tinsmith Dennis Heaphy, who has performed extensive repairs on Lady Liberty said it's unlikely Okoumou hurt the beacon's copper skin.
"It's very sturdy," he said. "That's why it's lasted as long as it has."
Rise and Resist disavowed Okoumou's behavior, but said the group stands by her rights and her message.
"The members of Rise and Resist have listened to the criticism of the statement we released earlier Wednesday evening," the group said. "On reflection, we realize that in our haste to complete the statement so that we could continue working to secure the best legal representation for Patricia, we unintentionally led people to believe that we were distancing the group from Patricia. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Rise and Resist said Okoumou's "decision to climb the statue was made independently of the group, without consulting any other member of the group."
"Patricia is our friend, our comrade, our sister," the group said. "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."
Organizer Jay Walker said she has a long history of protesting and joined Rise and Resist a few months ago.
The landmark has seen its share of protesters over the years.
In November 2000, police arrested 11 people for scaling the iconic monument after protesting the Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing exercises. And in August 1988, five Cuban men were arrested after handcuffing themselves to a railing inside the statue to protest then-dictator Fidel Castro.
With Graham Rayman