Jules Witcover: Statue of Liberty protest highlights nation’s divisions

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Last Wednesday, on the 242th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, television and the Internet were dominated by views of a woman protester climbing the base of Lady Liberty in New York, protesting the separation of small children from their asylum-seeking immigrant mothers.

Members of the New York Police Department’s Emergency Service rushed to the historic scene and removed her without injury to anyone. She was arrested, pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct, and was released without bail.

The woman, Therese Patricia Okoumou, 44, a naturalized American citizen from the Republic of Congo living here since 1994, identified herself as part of the protest group Rise and Resist. Earlier it had hung a banner there calling for abolishing ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

She said she had decided “on the spur of the moment’ to climb onto the statue in protest of the Trump regime’s “draconian” zero tolerance policy, adding, “No child belongs in a cage.” She also invoked former First Lady Michelle Obama’s formula in reply to Trumpism: “When they go low, we go high.”

The president’s Independence Day response was to call her “a clown” and offer this advice to the police first responders: “Let’s get some nets, and let’s wait till she comes down.” So much for Gotham’s Finest risking their necks to resolve the situation peaceably.

For a man who has repeatedly demonstrated his wizardry in milking the maximum public relations out whatever comes his way, Trump should have had a modicum of reluctant admiration for the protester’s use of the Fourth of July and the Statue to make her point.

But U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman rightly observed: “While we must respect the right of people to peaceably protest, that right does not extend to ways that put others at risk.” The protest group itself took pains to say the woman acted on her own with no consultation with other members. But a spokesman added they “share her desire” to see an end to the federal detention of the children and their separation from their parents.

The next day, the story that had so captivated television cameramen and the Internet surprisingly got short shrift in some major American newspapers, including the New York Times and more notably the Washington Post.

The latter in its home delivery edition was limited to an eight-paragraph Reuters wire story under the single column headline: “Protester pleads guilty to trespassing.” It seemed a newspaper version of the old street cop on the beat’s admonition: “Move on. Nothing to see here.”

But this latest demonstration of public concern and dismay over a Trump immigration policy that pulls at the nation’s collective heartstrings can be an effective weapon in Democratic hands. It can combat the president’s campaign to cast illegal immigration as a major threat to American citizens’ job security and even personal safety.

The nation’s cultural, racial and ethnic divisions have become core to this administration’s political base as it continues to tear at the togetherness we Americans celebrate with fireworks and other manifestations of our patriotism on the annual holiday.

While Donald Trump daily provides his own divisive fireworks in his self-serving serial lies and circus of governmental dysfunction, scandal clings to it. The hiring of a former Fox News executive Bill Shine as his fifth communications director promises more of the same in his relentless characterization of professional journalism as “the enemy of the people.”

As the current struggle for democratic governance goes through this perilous siege of authoritarianism, the ultimate answer will come at the ballot box four months from now in all 435 congressional districts across the country.

As a referendum on Trump beyond the election of individual federal legislators and their views on immigration to foreign policy, the survival of this country as a beacon of hope and freedom is at stake. Benjamin Franklin said in 1787 that the new Constitution gave us “a Republic, if you can keep it.” That challenge again faces us squarely today.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.