A Woman Who Takes Lady Liberty Seriously
Reaction to a Fourth of July protest suggests that some people who purport to revere the American monument actually fail to grasp its significance.
Is any time or place better suited to protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policy than the one chosen by Therese Okoumou, the 44-year-old woman arrested for climbing onto the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July?
Lady Liberty stands atop 14.7 acres officially named Liberty Island by an act of Congress. The tablet in her left hand is inscribed with the date when a group of American revolutionaries demanded broader liberty via an explicitly universalist manifesto emphasizing a God-given, unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
A bronze plaque mounted on the monument declares in immortal verse, “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.”
One could object to extolling liberty with a monument; to the universalism of the Declaration of Independence; to the values implied by calling a place Liberty Island; or to the words that this nation of immigrants chose to have inscribed on the monument after they were used to raise money for its erection.
But going to an island so named on the Fourth of July in hopes of drawing public attention to a claim about universal rights, and scaling the Statue of Liberty to protest a president’s antagonism and cruelty toward immigrants, was utterly in keeping with everything that national monument is said to embody.
News that the National Park Service responded by evacuating the entire island still caused many to react by dubbing the protest a “stunt” that wronged tourists, as if the country maintains a monument so conceived to facilitate sightseeing.
In fact, it is maintained as a reminder.
Some bygone Americans broke much more serious laws on the day being commemorated with the similar purpose of drawing humankind’s attention to universal rights––Americans like John Hancock, Josiah Bartlett, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Harrison. (And they weren’t even gathered in a place officially named Liberty Island.)
Most Americans are rightly willing to extol the words those men signed and to admire the grave risks that they took even though some of them were slaveholders.
Whereas Okoumou is at most guilty of three misdemeanors. (On Thursday, she pleaded not guilty to charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct, and interference with government-agency functions.)
Surely we can forgive her that?
If she inspires copycats, perhaps enforcing the laws that she is alleged to have broken will become necessary, next time. The statue’s copper “is only about one-tenth of an inch thick,” The New York Times reports, “and officials feared she could damage the statue.” (Had she damaged it, I’d be all for sending her a repair bill.)
But this time, prosecutors ought to drop the charges against her.
The same goes for any charges filed against the seven arrested beneath the Statue of Liberty earlier that same day for the mere act of hanging “a banner calling for the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be abolished.” And the National Park Service should adjust the attitude reflected in what the spokesperson Jerry Willis told news outlets, producing passages like this:
The Statue of Liberty is also a draw for visitors who have come from around the world, and Mr. Willis said that Ms. Okoumou’s actions, which he described as a stunt, ruined the plans of the many others who tried to visit the island.
“It is their one and only chance to come here,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had to clear the island.”
Setting aside the core purpose of the island––Congress authorized the reception of a statue called “Liberty Enlightening the World” and this was the land chosen as its home––the National Park Service was not forced to close Liberty Island, clearing thousands of visitors, because one woman climbed up to the folds of Lady Liberty’s robe and sat down there. It chose to overreact. (And not for the first time.) That so many news outlets uncritically accepted the talking point that the federal government was “forced” to do this, “prompted by security concerns,” evidences a relationship among liberty, bureaucracy, and “risk management” that is unbefitting a free people, especially as it manifested on (again) the place officially named Liberty Island.
Characterizing her expressive protest, Okoumou borrowed Michelle Obama’s bygone phrase, telling reporters Thursday, “‘When they go low, we go high.’ I went as high as I could.” Right or wrong, she embodied the values of the place where she climbed, momentarily drawing the nation’s attention as if to a lit torch held high. A naturalized citizen who immigrated here from the Congo, she appears to be an exemplary fit for “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”