Patricia Okoumou: “In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.”

Patricia Okoumou

“The root of the word memory stems from the word mourn.”
Valarie Lee James

On July 4, Therese Patricia Okoumou, who goes by Patricia, celebrated “Independence Day” by scaling the pedestal of the Statue of Libertyand climbing to the robes, to protest family separation, zero tolerance, abuse of children, and, generally, the assault on democracy. After four hours, Patricia Okoumoucame down and was arrested. Outside of court the next day, Patricia Okoumou explained, “In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.

Who sat with Patricia Okoumou on the toes of Lady Liberty? No one. While she may have felt the support of all those who rally to what is called the Resistance, in fact, materially, Patricia Okoumou sat alone. I thought of that being-alone-in-resistance the other day when a South African friend turned to me, apropos of nothing in particular, and said, “So Trump is horrible, maybe the worst ever. Where are the burning tires?” While I had some unpersuasive response, the question, like smoke, lingers. Where are the burning tires? Why did no one join Patricia Okoumou when she started climbing?

I am not talking here only about those who were protesting with Patricia Okoumou at the base of the Statue of Liberty. I am talking about all of us. On July 6, columnist Ross Ramsey asks, “If kids separated from their parents can’t hold our attention, what will?” On July 7, columnist Jessica Valenti responds, “The US government is abusing children – we can’t stop being urgently ashamed”. The obvious implication is that “we” might very soon stop being urgently ashamed, or ashamed at all. Meanwhile, also on July 6, it is reported that Jimena Madrid, the 6-year-old Salvadoran immigrant child who “riveted people around the world when her voice was captured on an audiotape after she was separated from her mother inside a Border Patrol detention facility”, is still not with her mother and the two may never be reunified. Are we paying attention? Are we urgently ashamed? Where are the burning tires?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

Patricia Okoumou sat and lay on the Statue of Liberty for four hours. At one point, she napped briefly. When she awakened, the police had set up a ladder. A police officer at the top of the ladder said his name was Brian and he was there because he cared about Patricia Okoumou. Patricia Okoumou answered, “No, you don’t, you could shoot me the way you shot Claudia Gomez and killed the trans woman.” Patricia Okoumou was invoking, and mourning,Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Guatemalan refugee shot in the head by ICE agents in Texas; and Roxana Hernández, a 33-year-old Honduran transgender woman refugee who died in ICE custody in the detention center commonly called the ice box. Both women were killed, or better executed, in May. Patricia Okoumou refused to forget them. Memory begins in mourning.

Repeat after me repeating after Patricia Okoumou: “In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

Who sits with Patricia Okoumou?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

Where are the burning tires?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

If kids separated from their parents can’t hold our attention, what will?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Joanna Walters)

Michell Joyce Raduvha said NO to the trauma of child detention … and won!

June 1st 1987. International Children's Day

June 1st 1987. International Children’s Day

On April 6, 2008, two police officers arrested 15-year-old Michell Joyce Radhuva and her mother and held them in custody overnight. Michell’s father came to the police station to secure their release, to no avail. Both were released the next day, without imposition of bail, and ultimately no charges were filed. But Michell and her mother knew the arrest was wrong, and so they immediately sued for wrongful arrest. They lost, repeatedly and at various levels, until last week, when the highest court in South Africa unanimously ruled that Michell’s rights, as a child, had been violated in the arrest and detention. The Court decided South Africa’s Constitution “seeks to insulate them [children] from the trauma of an arrest by demanding in peremptory terms that, even when a child has to be arrested, his or her best interests must be accorded paramount importance.” Amen to that.

The case is fairly straightforward. Two police officers came to the Raduva house to arrest Michell Joyce Raduva’s mother. Michell tried to intervene. The two were then arrested. The daughter was arrested for obstruction of justice. They were taken to the police station, booked, and held overnight. Whether the police knew Michell’s age at the time of arrest, by the time they arrived at the police station, they knew she was a minor. Not that that matters, since the police said, in court, that they would have arrested and detained her anyway, minor or not. To this, the Court responded, “What is more disconcerting is … a lack of knowledge and appreciation by the police officers of their constitutional obligation when arresting a child to consider her best interests as demanded by section 28(2). They demonstrate that the police officers did not care whether the applicant was a minor or not. Sergeant du Plessis said it expressly, that even if he knew that the applicant was a minor, he would still have arrested her. This is because he considers it to be his job to arrest. The fact that the arrestee is a minor would make no difference.”

According to Judge Lebotsang Bosielo, who handed down the Court’s decision, while the situation may be messy, the Constitution is clear: the best interest of the child is paramount. Period. In the balance of rights, the best interest of the child is paramount. In the actual existential moment, the best interest of the child is paramount. In this, the South African Constitution agrees with human decency and common sense, but, too often, not with State practice, not in South Africa nor the United States nor Australia nor England, where the State “considers it to be his job to arrest” and detain.

Judge Bosielo notes, “Under any circumstances an arrest is a traumatising event. Its impact and consequences on children might be long-lasting if not permanent … Detention has traumatic, brutalising, dehumanising and degrading effects on people … The applicant was seriously traumatised by this experience. Her detention has left her with serious psycho-emotional problems. Wounds that are still festering. These are the deleterious effects of incarceration against which the Constitution seeks to protect children.”

Being arrested is traumatic; being detained is traumatic … for anyone. For children, each can be catastrophic, and combined they can be life altering in the extreme. Michell Joyce Radhuva and her mother sued so that we might all know that, so that we might all remember that children are children are children. Children are children are children. Each child is a child and must be treated, and respected, as a child. That’s the law.

 

(Image Credit: South African History Online)