One of the messages GW Students for Justice in Palestine projected onto the Gelman Library at George Washington University. (Algemeiner) (Algemeiner)
George Washington University.

DC police have cleared out protesters who had taken over part of the campus for nearly three weeks.

By Dion J. Pierre, Algemeiner

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington, DC has dispersed an unauthorized demonstration at the George Washington University (GW) in which pro-Hamas protesters commandeered a section of campus and lived there for nearly three weeks.

“This morning, working closely with the GW administration and police, MPD moved to disperse the demonstrators from the GW campus and surrounding streets,” the Metropolitan Police Department said in a statement following the action. “MPD will continue to be supportive of universities and other private entities who need assistance.”

Numerous social media reports indicated that officers arrived on the scene early Wednesday morning, prompting a clash between them and the protesters, many of whom chose to assault the officers or otherwise resist their efforts rather than obey orders to evacuate the area. In response, officers deployed pepper spray and arrested 33 protesters. According to Metropolitan Police, charges have been filed for both assault of an officer and unlawful entry.

MPD’s involvement in restoring order came two days after GW president Ellen Granberg issued a public plea for help in which she explained that the pro-Hamas encampment had “grown into what can only be classified as an illegal and potentially dangerous occupation” of school property. Metropolitan Police had previously denied her request for help in quelling the demonstration, a decision that was excoriated by members of the US Congress and prompted the calling of a hearing on Capitol Hill — which has since been cancelled.

“When protesters overrun barriers established to protect the community, vandalize a university statue and flag, surround and intimidate GW students with antisemitic images and hateful rhetoric, chase people out of a public yard based on their perceived beliefs, and ignore, degrade, and push GW Police officers and university maintenance staff, the protest ceases to be peaceful and productive,” Granberg said. “Finally, it is clear that this is no longer a GW student demonstration. It has been co-opted by individuals who are largely unaffiliated with our community and do not have our community’s best interest in mind.”

Granberg’s fears that outsiders had infiltrated the encampment can be confirmed by The Algemeiner, which accompanied social media influencer and Jewish rights activist Lizzy Savetsky on a walk through it last Friday. Older men — many of whom wore masks to conceal their identities — with body tattoos, as well as other older adults who appeared to be under the influence of drugs, idled inside the encampment. Students there appeared unbathed, and no sanitary facilities were immediately visible.

The group of students and non-students signaled their potentially violent intentions just hours before the police arrived on Wednesday. A crush of them marched to Granberg’s home shouting, “Granberg, we’re at your door, complicity no more.” Standing outside the property for nearly an hour, they clamored for a face-to-face meeting with Granberg, who is Jewish, and demanded that she accept their terms for ending the encampment, which included GW’s adoption of the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. Chants of “Guillotine, Guillotine, Guillotine,” an apparent reference to the tens of thousands of people who were beheaded during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, have also been widely reported.

Aside from threats to physical safety, GW students have said that the encampment severely harmed the learning environment, upending the final weeks of the academic year, a time most students spend studying for final exams and writing end-of-term papers.

“Students have been unable to study for finals, and for those who have studied thus far, some professors decided to cancel exams due to the raucous,” senior Sabrina Soffer tweeted on Wednesday, noting that “academic standards are being lowered” because calming the campus “took far too long.”

Soffer continued, “Permission to violate university policies and the law demonstrates weakness — and the impression of weakness is provocative. The lesson learned is that swift and serious action must be taken from the onset to avoid escalation.”

Pro-Hamas demonstrators have tested George Washington University’s will since Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7, an event which set off an explosion of antisemitism around the world.

Just weeks after the tragedy, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) projected a series of messages on the eastern perimeter of the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. They said: “Free Palestine from the river to the sea,” “GW the blood of Palestinians is in your hands,” “Divest from Zionist genocide now,” and “Glory to our martyrs.” The scene attracted dozens of students, Jewish and Muslim, who spectated while the GW Police Department and a campus official negotiated terms for an end to the demonstration.

Students told The Algemeiner at the scene of the incident that the act was laden with symbolism. Before her death in 2009, Estelle Gelman was a GW board of trustees member and board member of the United States Holocaust Museum and other Jewish nonprofits. Her husband, Melvin, was an endowed chair in GW’s Judaic Studies Program.

In April, an SJP spinoff group staged an unprecedented protest of a talk by US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield that was held at the school’s Elliot School of International Affairs. In a pamphlet distributed to everyone who showed up to the event, the students accused Greenfield of being a “puppet,” alluding to the fact that she is a Black woman holding a distinguished presidential appointment. It also compared Greenfield to Black enslaved persons who had been assigned, against their will, to work as overseers of other enslaved persons on cotton plantations.

While the university has suspended SJP for its conduct, the group has continued to operate under new names.

GW has been one of several universities to be engulfed by a wave of anti-Israel, pro-Hamas demonstrations over the past three weeks, with students and faculty members taking over sections of campuses by setting up “Gaza Solidarity Encampments” and refusing to leave unless administrators condemn and boycott Israel. Footage of the protests has shown demonstrators chanting in support of Hamas, calling for the destruction of Israel, and even threatening to harm members of the Jewish community on campus.

“GW staff have cleared the yard,” the university said in a statement issued after the last of the encampment tents were cleared from University Yard on Wednesday. “During this time, given heightened safety concerns related to the recent illegal demonstrations as well as the ongoing exams, all activities, including activities of free expression on campus, will require reservation through the Division for Student Affairs. In addition, no sound amplification will be permitted for such events on campus.”