House hearing on George Washington University protest canceled after police clear out encampment and arrest over 30

Washington CNN  —  The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, cleared out a pro-Palestinian encampment on George Washington University’s campus early Wednesday and arrested 30 protesters there and three others in a separate altercation, Metro Police Chief Pamela A. Smith said. The action took place hours before Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and Smith were set



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The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, cleared out a pro-Palestinian encampment on George Washington University’s campus early Wednesday and arrested 30 protesters there and three others in a separate altercation, Metro Police Chief Pamela A. Smith said.

The action took place hours before Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and Smith were set to testify at Congress for the House Oversight Committee on the response to the encampment. Yet after police cleared the encampment, House Oversight Chair James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky, announced the hearing was canceled and took credit for spurring action.

“I am pleased that the potential Oversight hearing led to swift action by Mayor Bowser and MPD Chief Smith. We will continue to hold DC officials accountable to ensure our nation’s capital is safe for all,” Comer said in a statement.

GW is one of a number of universities across the country at which pro-Palestinian protesters have set up unauthorized camps and demonstrated against Israel’s war in Gaza and US support for the country. Police have arrested more than 2,400 people on US campuses since mid-April amid polarized debates over the right to protest, the limits of free speech and accusations of antisemitism.

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GW’s encampment was set up about two weeks ago in the University Yard, a grassy square on campus surrounded by a food hall and university buildings. A partner community of tents spread on the neighboring public street, and the two demonstrations merged after protesters, in an act of defiance, removed metal barriers erected around the initial encampment.

The encampment has drawn criticism from GW President Ellen Granberg, who said it was “unauthorized,” disrupted normal academic activities and created safety concerns.

Early Wednesday morning, Metro Police said in a statement they had “worked to pursue non-arrest methods to deescalate tensions” to protect students and the GW campus, but there has been a “gradual escalation in the volatility of the protest.”

“Therefore, this morning, working closely with the GW administration and police, MPD moved to disperse the demonstrators from the GW campus and surrounding streets,” police said.

Police said the arrests were for assault on a police officer and unlawful entry.

Officers deployed pepper spray three times

People sit to listen as activists and students protest near an encampment at University Yard, George Washington University on April 28, in Washington, DC. 

Smith said there were signs Monday that the demonstration was becoming “more volatile and less stable,” highlighting an assault reported to GW Police, the presence of “covert” counter-protesters in the crowd, students from other universities joining the encampment and “items that could potentially be used for offensive and defensive weapons … being gathered.” Protesters were given six warnings to disperse, and many complied, Smith said.

As police cleared the encampment, officers deployed pepper spray during a skirmish at a nearby intersection, Smith told reporters. MPD Executive Assistant Chief Jeffery Carroll said law enforcement used pepper spray three times as demonstrators tried to push past officers to reach other people who had been arrested.

GW was notified that police were going to clear the protest encampment when GW Police Department’s chief got a call from MPD at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to a source with knowledge of the school and police communications.

The university issued a statement midday Wednesday describing the police action as “orderly and safe.”

“We do not have any reports of serious injuries during this operation, and we are grateful for MPD’s assistance in this matter,” GW said.

Ahmed El Masry, a demonstrator at the GW encampment, said he left the encampment at about 2 a.m. but rushed back about two hours later when he heard police were working to clear the space. He said that when he arrived, he found “over 20” police cars and said, “It looked like a warzone.”

“I come back at 4, and the whole camp is gone, and I’m seeing people that I protested with … being rounded up in vans,” he said.

“I’m angry, like we’ve been here peacefully protesting,” he said. “This was our camp… It became a community, like we were here speaking up for something noble.”

Dante O’Hara, a lead organizer of DC for Ceasefire Now Coalition, a group critical of Israel’s war in Gaza, issued a statement calling on the House Oversight Committee to halt military aid to Israel.

“Congress is creating this crisis. Pressuring local elected officials and university leaders to increase police action deflects from Congress’s own responsibility for causing the protests like at GWU,” O’Hara said.

The university is open and final exams will go on as scheduled, but police and security personnel will maintain a presence on University Yard and the surrounding area, the school said. The yard will remain closed through the end of commencement on May 19.

Police action at UMass-Amherst and FIT

Why pro-Palestinian protests have been growing across the U.S.

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Also Tuesday night into Wednesday, police cleared out encampments and arrested protesters at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

At FIT, 50 people were arrested on Tuesday evening after a large crowd gathered outside the school during a pro-Palestinian protest, according to the NYPD.

The arrests came after the school issued a 7 p.m. deadline – later extended to 9 p.m. – to dismantle an encampment in the school’s courtyard and end the occupation of the school museum’s lobby, according to a statement from FIT President Joyce F. Brown. Before the deadline, spokespeople for the protesting students called for a rally in front of the school, and a group of protesters heeded their call, according to Brown.

“The NYPD maintained crowd control and tried to ensure that the rally did not escalate further. However, as expected, the insistence by some students to continue the occupation resulted in further action by the NYPD,” Brown said.

The NYPD was not able to confirm how many of those arrested were students.

The UMass-Amherst arrests occurred after the chancellor asked police to dismantle an encampment, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian reported.

“Moments ago, I asked the University of Massachusetts Police Department to begin dispersing the crowd and dismantling the encampment. Let me be clear – involving law enforcement is the absolute last resort,” wrote Chancellor Javier Reyes in a message to students obtained by the paper.

In a Wednesday statement obtained by CNN affiliate WGGB, Reyes called the decision to bring in police a “difficult” one, but said it was guided by values of “safety and well-being of our students and other members of our campus community.”

According to the chancellor’s statement, 132 people were arrested – 70 of whom were UMass Amherst students and 6 of whom were faculty.

“I know how challenging these events have been for everyone. Safety, wellbeing, and a sense of belonging are paramount for our community’s ability to thrive, and I recognize that there is work to do as we restore trust with those who feel harmed by the university’s actions,” the statement added. CNN is reaching out to Reyes’ office for a copy of the statement.

At universities across the country, police have used a range of tactics to disperse demonstrators from occupied school buildings and take down on-campus encampments. Law enforcement experts told CNN police have been largely measured in their approach and showed restraint in using force – a direct result of lessons learned during the widespread protests after the police killing of George Floyd nearly four years ago.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified who was set to testify. It was DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Metropolitan Police Chief Pam Smith.

CNN’s Annie Grayer, Maria Sole Campinoti and Melissa Alonso contributed to this report.