33 Arrested as D.C. Police Clear George Washington University Encampment

Jordan Tovin for The Washington Post
Demonstrators face off with police on 21st and H Street outside the George Washington University encampment.

After resisting repeated pleas from George Washington University to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment from the school’s grounds, D.C. police on Wednesday became the latest department in the country to forcibly remove such campus protesters, as officers swept through a tent city erected blocks from the White House.

Moving in before dawn, members of the department’s civil disturbance unit arrested 33 people and skirmished with some demonstrators, police said. Officers fired pepper spray three times at people they said tried to push through a line of officers on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just off the Foggy Bottom campus, according to police.

The 3 a.m. sweep came hours before Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Pamela A. Smith were set to testify on Capitol Hill about why they had declined to take action. The mayor and chief said there was no connection between the operation and the scheduled hearing, at which they stood to be grilled by Republicans who have asserted that D.C. is unable or incapable of controlling its streets.

Demonstrators protesting Israel’s war in Gaza have roiled college campuses across the country, forcing cancellations of commencements and causing classes to be shifted from in-person to virtual.

Over the past two weeks, police departments have responded to requests from school officials with force, including Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Los Angeles. In exchanges aired on TV news and in videos widely disseminated online, officers in riot gear have deployed chemical irritants to disperse crowds. These were images that D.C. officials said they wanted to avoid. More than 2,300 protesters have been arrested nationwide, according to a tally by The Washington Post.

Until Wednesday, the D.C. police force had been an outlier, resisting pressure from George Washington University and largely Republican members of Congress to act. Some demonstrations on campuses nationwide have included hateful or antisemitic speech appearing sympathetic to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. At GWU, demonstrators had chanted for the school to cut ties to Israel and for the end of the Jewish state.

The encampment at GWU began April 25 and university officials had asked D.C. police to clear it from their private property, declaring its occupants to be illegal trespassers.

But Bowser said the encampment had remained largely peaceful until Thursday. Smith said conditions deteriorated over the weekend, when she asserted that authorities “began to see an escalation in the volatility of the protests.” Smith said police learned of items that could be used as weapons and uncovered evidence that demonstrators were planning to occupy a campus building, similar to what happened at Columbia. Police said investigators believed demonstrators involved in the protest there had come to D.C.

Smith said she concluded Monday that “we needed to change our posture.” She and the mayor said safety concerns, not the looming congressional hearing, drove their decision, although Republican leaders quickly claimed credit for forcing D.C. police to end the demonstration.

Those leaders cast the initial refusal of the city to act as a failure combat antisemitism. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said that “it should not require threatening to haul D.C.’s mayor before Congress to keep Jewish students at George Washington University safe.”

At the same time, representatives of pro-Palestinian groups accused Bowser of bowing to pressure from Republican lawmakers, citing Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which had called Bowser and Smith to the hearing. “Comer is a Republican bully and Muriel E. Bowser is, too,” said Nee Nee Taylor, executive director of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a local Black-led mutual aid and community defense organization. “Fighting for human rights is not antisemitic.”

Gathered at Freedom Plaza outside the city’s Wilson Building, supporters of the demonstrators also criticized GWU President Ellen M. Granberg and D.C. police.

“The tactics used last night were disgusting, shameful, but not at all surprising,” said the Rev. Dayna Edwards, who had been providing spiritual support to students in the encampment. “[D.C. police] raided the encampment while students slept, escalating unprompted into a full assault.”

Later, Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) spoke in front of the U.S. Capitol, where GWU students shared their experiences in the encampment and during the police raid. “They think they can intimidate and erase the overwhelming voices for peace and justice,” Bush said. “They think they can jail dissenters and silence the wide consensus among people in this country that there should be an immediate and permanent cease-fire.”

D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) called the police action a “stain on the city and on democracy.” He described the encampment as peaceful and said his talks with demonstrators revealed “they made space for multiple truths at the same time,” including the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel and the more than 30,000 deaths in the Gaza Strip during the war that followed.

Officials at George Washington said Wednesday that the school “is open and operating normally,” with final exams proceeding and commencement on schedule for May 19. They said that D.C. and campus police will maintain a presence at University Yard, the site of the encampment, which will be closed until after graduation, and that further demonstrations will require a reservation and be restricted in other ways, such as a ban on sound amplification.

D.C. police and university officials were unable by Wednesday afternoon to say how many of the 33 people arrested are students at the school. Their names were not immediately released. Police and the university asserted that the demonstration had been co-opted by outsiders.

At a news conference Wednesday, Bowser said an earlier D.C. police presence around the encampment had allowed people with varying viewpoints to have their say. She said that for the most part, “as tensions have escalated on campuses across the country, our community has been measured with our words and actions.”

But university officials had pleaded with the Bowser administration to send in police as early as April 26, a day after the encampment began. At that point, city officials described the demonstration as small and relatively peaceful. City officials said police had massed to clear the demonstrators but that Smith called them off at the last minute.

The university then tried other measures. It offered an alternative place to demonstrate, then barricaded the encampment, allowing people inside to leave but no one to enter, hoping it would fizzle out.

Then the university suspended several students. Days later, people in the encampment tore down the barricades and merged their group with other demonstrators on H Street NW, a public street not in control of the university. The tent encampment grew to about 200 people.

On Friday, Bowser praised the city’s response in a statement, supporting the chief’s decision to delay police action as members of Congress – including at least one Democrat – and university officials continued to ratchet up pressure on the city to move against the demonstrators.

On Sunday, Granberg issued a statement saying the school was running out of options. She noted repeated pleas for D.C. police to help and called the encampment “not a peaceful protest.” She said that it “has grown into what can only be classified as an illegal and potentially dangerous occupation of GW property,” and that demonstrators had intimidated students “with antisemitic images and hateful rhetoric.”

Early Tuesday, GWU’s Student Government Association released a statement saying its members “firmly stand behind our students and their right to free speech, assembly, and peaceful protests.” Demonstrators disputed Granberg’s assertions as “deeply misleading” and said she had rejected requests to meet with them, according to the school’s student newspaper, the GW Hatchet.

In her statement, Granberg said the university police force, whose officers have arrest powers, were “not equipped” to manage the demonstration.

Meanwhile, Smith said her officers were keeping a close eye on the encampment. Hints of trouble began Thursday, she said, when a demonstrator assaulted a university police officer by ripping an object from her hand. Later that weekend, she said, a counterprotester reported being assaulted. On Tuesday night, demonstrators marched to the university president’s residence.

Early Tuesday, Smith said officers issued six warnings to disperse from the encampment on private property, and many people did. Smith said 30 people remaining in the encampment were then arrested, 29 on charges of unlawful entry and one on a charge of assaulting a police officer.

Smith said a second group of demonstrators from outside the encampment tried to reach the people being arrested, and officers used pepper spray three times on those who were pushing or punching officers. Three people in that group were taken into custody and charged with assaulting police, for a total of 33 arrests, authorities said.

Granberg also issued a statement Wednesday night, calling the past two weeks “some of the most profoundly challenging times in our community’s shared history.” She said administrators “recognize that many people in our community on all sides are hurting right now,” but she also said “it is unfortunate that the behavior and actions of many protesters ultimately required significant police intervention, and GW will continue to pursue accountability for those involved.”

After the police operation concluded, Bowser told reporters that she had spoken with Comer about the hearing, scheduled for 1 p.m. She said that Comer “expressed his interest in making the sure the city and the chief could focus on this ongoing operation” and that she thinks the hearing was unlikely to happen.

The lawmaker – who visited the encampment on May 1, along with other Republican representatives – confirmed the cancellation but said in a statement that “it took the threat of a potential Oversight Committee hearing for Mayor Bowser to finally act.” He said that before the hearing had been scheduled, “it was apparent that the D.C. police force was not going to do their job.”