Protest — like death, illness, and taxes — never comes at a convenient time. After the fireworks and patriotism of Independence Day, I was struck by the news of a lone protester at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. The woman, Therese Patricia Okoumou, is Congolese and an American immigrant. Although she is a member of the organization Rise and Resist, she protested alone. She scaled the statue’s base and reached the hem of Lady Liberty’s garment. During her three-hour protest, SWAT was called and visitors were turned back. She was there to protest policies affecting immigrant children, most of whom were brought by their parents for asylum. Her simple demand: that children be returned to their parents.
With visitation of close to 22,000 on this day alone, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty represent a promise of freedom and American ideals. Many visitors attend with their children as a learning experience, taking time to reflect on history and the real meaning of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
With this as her backdrop, Okoumou, legs crossed, sat at the intersection where our symbols meet practice. An immigrant herself, she was teaching us a lesson by examining the space between inscribed ideals and actual action.
In the wake of her protest, national reporters on CNN and other stations lamented that her position required that we postpone fireworks and other activities. This apparently was not a convenient time to protest.
She could have waited for rational policy from federal leadership or waited for a day of organized protest. She, however, chose to act on a date that marks freedom from oppression. She could have waited and asked for permission. Instead, she placed herself in possible danger as a call to action. She is calling for us, the total civic body of the United States, to bridge the space between glorified American ideals and a grossly unjust reality.
As a black woman living under real threat of violence for simply existing, I join her in seeking a shift from symbolic honor to real empathy through sustained action.
Locally, as we still reel from protests after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, the strong echoes of fear cast by 287(g), and the constant threat to liberty that exists in Charlotte, we should all be moved to act – without regard for convenience.
In the past two years, Charlotteans seem compelled to do so to a degree I have seldom seen in my close to 20 years here. There have been community actions, response petitions, vigils, community-police collaborations, and neighborhood initiatives launched for community policing. It certainly wasn’t convenient for anyone to respond and protest — yet that inconvenience offered opportunities for reflection and positive action.
I am committed to doing the work required for Charlotte to reach its potential as an inclusive place. We can become the kind of place that considers the implications of hosting the RNC — choosing peace and civility over profit.
Let us not be so overwhelmed by constant conflict that we despair. Let us hold accountable leaders who pursue turnout for votes yet decry turnout for peaceful protest as uncivil. Let us reflect on our freedoms, our ability to hold our babies close, and how we can and should protect these cherished values and experiences for all — without thought to convenience.