George Washington University: House cancels DC mayor testimony after campus arrests

A student hold a megaphone up as he takes part in a pro-Palestinian demonstration at George Washington University in Washington DC
Protests have spread across campuses at US universities since the middle of April [Getty Images]

Police arrested 33 people at George Washington University (GW) early Wednesday after officers moved to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus.

Washington DC police told the BBC that protestors were arrested for assaults on a police officer and unlawful entry.

University students had been inside the encampment since 25 April.

House Republicans cancelled scheduled testimony by Mayor Muriel Bowser following the arrests after pressuring DC officials to clear the protests.

The police operation came a week after six Republican members of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee visited the GW protest encampment and called on officials to arrest protesters involved.

Wednesday's move to clear the encampment was made ahead of a planned appearance by Ms Bowser and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Pamela Smith before the House Oversight Committee on the city's handling of the unrest.

In a statement, the Chair of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Representative James Comer, announced that appearance was being cancelled and said he was "pleased that the potential Oversight hearing led to swift action by Mayor Bowser".

According to a report on the arrests by GW Hatchet, the university's independent student-run newspaper: "Officers gave their third and final warning to demonstrators to move at about 03:30 local time, saying all who remained in U-Yard and the stretch of H Street in front of the plaza would be arrested."

The newspaper reported that some protestors who refused to leave were pepper sprayed by police.

In a statement, the university said police "conducted an orderly and safe operation to disperse the demonstrators from the illegal encampment on the GW's University Yard".

They added there were no reports of serious injuries during the arrests.

Previously, despite GW's efforts to offer an alternative protest site, the encampment remained.

University officials say they are unsure how many of the demonstrators were students.

"While the university is committed to protecting students' rights to free expression, the encampment had evolved into an unlawful activity, with participants in direct violation of multiple university policies and city regulations," a previous GW statement said.

Tensions had grown in recent days after police removed a large Palestinian flag that demonstrators had raised above a campus building. The university called the flag's hoisting an "aggressive act of lawlessness".

Metro Police told the BBC there has been "a gradual escalation in the volatility" of the protest and, as a result, officers moved in.

"Therefore, this morning, working closely with the GW administration and police, MPD moved to disperse the demonstrators from the GW campus and surrounding streets," the statement added.

GW said it remains open and operating as normal, but additional security personnel have been deployed to University Yard and the surrounding area.

The yard will remain closed until the end of commencement ceremonies on 19 May, the university added.

There have been heated demonstrations at a number of universities across the country against the war in Gaza.

Since the 7 October attack by Hamas and Israel's retaliatory assault, students have launched rallies, sit-ins, fasts and, most recently, encampments against the war.

According to a BBC tally, there have been pro-Palestine protests at 45 states and Washington DC since the demonstrations started at Columbia University in New York on 17 April.

They are demanding that their schools, many with massive endowments, financially divest from Israel.

Many also want their universities to end academic relationships with Israeli institutions.

Previously, President Joe Biden said people had the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos.

But, Mr Biden warned on Tuesday the threat of antisemitism is growing in the US, including on college campuses, joining a heated American debate about Jewish security, Zionism, free speech and support for Israel, in the country with the largest Jewish population after Israel.

Addressing a bipartisan audience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's annual commemoration, Mr Biden said: "This hatred (of Jews) continues to lie deep in the hearts of too many people in the world and requires our continued vigilance and outspokenness," Biden said.

"Now here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven and a half months later, and people are already forgetting ... that Hamas unleashed this terror," he added.

"I have not forgotten, nor have you. And we will not forget."