Law Enforcement stand along H Street after clearing out a Pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University's University Yard on May 8, 2024 in Washington, D.C.

Law Enforcement stand along H Street after clearing out a Pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University's University Yard on May 8, 2024 in Washington, D.C. Kent Nishimura via Getty Images

DC’s response stands out among nationwide campus protests

The capital city’s police department cleared an encampment at a local university following pressure from House Republicans to be more forceful. But the District’s reluctance to take action sooner underlies lessons officials learned decades ago about the perils of aggressive enforcement.

Police in Washington, D.C., ended a two-week standoff with administrators from George Washington University Tuesday night, clearing an encampment of protesters on the private school’s campus just hours before congressional Republicans planned to confront city officials about the delay in taking action.

The chairman of the U.S. House Oversight Committee canceled a hearing set for Wednesday in response to the police moving on the encampment, which included the arrest of 33 people. 

But the initial reluctance by the Metropolitan Police Department in many ways reflected the capital city’s approach to First Amendment demonstrations, which is more accommodating to protesters than their counterparts in other cities. The District’s restrained response reflects the lessons city officials learned two decades ago about what can go wrong when police overreact to demonstrations.

The triggering event was 2002, and anti-globalization protesters had gathered in Pershing Park outside a meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Skirmishes between the police and protesters took place throughout the day and culminated in the arrest of 400 people, a group that included demonstrators, tourists, bystanders and journalists. Some had their wrists bound to their ankles on a police gym floor for 24 hours, according to a later lawsuit.

Peter Newsham ordered the arrests that day. Years later, as chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, he would be charged with carrying out a different set of policies that the city council put in place to avoid another situation like Pershing Park. Newsham’s stint as chief came during some of the most intense demonstrations in D.C. in a generation, including the demonstrations around President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the subsequent 2017 Women’s March and the mass demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“There are different rules in different jurisdictions, but I do think that the overall approach of trying to facilitate peaceful First Amendment assemblies is one that everybody should take,” said Newsham, who currently heads the police department in Prince William County, Virginia. At the same time, he added, departments have to determine a way to respond when “small groups become violent.”

In a Tuesday interview before the George Washington camp was cleared, Newsham said police would likely have to get involved at some point because of health and sanitation concerns. 

“Whenever you have people who decide that they’re going to camp out in a public space for prolonged periods of time, now you’ve got another safety issue,” he said. “If you get to that level, then the government almost has a responsibility to go in and to ensure that that area is cleaned out.”

But the fact that D.C. police took so long to intervene at George Washington, whose campus is a mile from the White House, even as both the university administration and congressional Republicans pressed them to take swift action, illustrates the department’s markedly different approach to protesters from that of agencies in other cities.

A Prolonged Standoff Comes to an End

For two weeks, D.C. officials declined to clear the encampment, explaining their decision in terms of protecting First Amendment rights.

“I think here in the District of Columbia, we allow people the opportunity to have freedom of speech, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” said Pamela Smith, the city’s police chief, last week. “There has been no violence, no violent behavior, no confrontations.” 

But Ellen Granberg, the president of George Washington University, disagreed.

“What is currently happening at GW is not a peaceful protest protected by the First Amendment or our university’s policies. The demonstration, like many around the country, has grown into what can only be classified as an illegal and potentially dangerous occupation of GW property,” Granberg wrote in a statement.

“As a university, we are not equipped to single-handedly manage an unprecedented situation such as this,” she continued. “The GW police force is, and should only be, prepared to protect our community during normal university operations and to respond to routine and urgent incidents. When unlawful activities go beyond these limits, we must rely on the support and experience of the Metropolitan Police Department. At this time, the District is in communication with the university, and the Metropolitan Police are providing an increased security presence on and around University Yard.”

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who chairs the House Oversight Committee, called for a hearing on the dispute, with Smith and Mayor Muriel Bowser lined up to testify.

He said the committee was “deeply concerned” that the police force declined the request for “help in removing the radical, antisemitic, and unlawful protestors occupying the campus and surrounding public lands.”

“MPD’s refusal to assist GWU in their efforts to protect the Jewish student body is disturbing and unacceptable,” Comer added.

But he canceled the hearing following the police action on Tuesday. “I had a good conversation with Mayor Bowser,” he said in a statement. “I thanked her for finally clearing the trespassers off the GW campus. It was unfortunate the situation at GW forced the Oversight Committee to act; however it was apparent that the D.C. police force was not going to do their job.”

Bowser and Smith said at a briefing Wednesday that police decided to disperse the protesters because of indications that the gathering there was becoming more violent. One protester assaulted a campus police officer, they said, and others appeared to be probing the security of university buildings in anticipation of trying to take them over. The city officials said protesters were gathering items that could be used as weapons, and at least one protester from Columbia University had indicated they would join the group.

They said police gave protesters six verbal warnings that anyone who remained on GW property would be arrested. Police officers did use pepper spray outside of the main encampment, when members of the public tried to cross police lines and punched officers in an attempt to get to the people who had been detained.

“As tensions have escalated on the campuses across our country, our community has been measured with our words and actions and we have demonstrated and upheld our values and constitutional responsibilities,” Bowser said. “MPD, as you've heard me say, is the best in the business in keeping people safe during the exercise of First Amendment demonstrations.”

The scrutiny on Washington, D.C., comes even as police departments in other jurisdictions face criticism for overly aggressive tactics.

In New York, police first raided an encampment at Columbia University in mid-April, but the sweep inspired similar demonstrations at college campuses across the country. And protesters at Columbia returned and occupied a campus building, leading to hundreds of officers in riot gear converging on the campus late at night to dislodge them last week. One officer fired a gun while clearing a building there.

Demonstrators supporting Gazans at the University of California, Los Angeles questioned why police took so long to respond when counterprotesters attacked them. Two days later, police wearing body armor and face shields launched flares over the encampment before arresting more than 200 people in the pro-Palestinian camp.

Police have also faced scrutiny for roughly handling protesters at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Texas, Emory University in Atlanta and other campuses.

Hard Lessons Lead to Changes

After the Pershing Park protests, the D.C. City Council in 2004 rewrote the rules governing how police handle protests. The law prohibited police from rounding up protesters without giving them warnings and a way out. It outlawed handcuffs, zip ties and hog tying of those in custody once they are at a police processing center. The law banned the use of riot gear at protests unless the commanding officer determines there is an imminent danger of significant violence.

The District eventually settled several lawsuits over police tactics at protests in the early 2000s for $22 million.

Kathy Patterson, the city council member who sponsored the law and is now the D.C. auditor, said much of it codified orders that the police department had initially issued following the anti-Vietnam War May Day protests of 1971. But the police department put aside those policies in the early 2000s because of demonstrations that turned violent during a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

The 2004 law has prompted the police department to take a less aggressive approach, Patterson said. “From 2004 [on], they have been training on these policies, and then practicing these policies during hundreds of demonstrations. I candidly give our department a lot of credit for taking these issues seriously, but they also know that there were folks looking over their shoulder, either from the council or [lawyers bringing] litigation.” 

Policing Under a Different Paradigm

When Newsham was the chief of police in D.C. during the George Floyd protests in 2020, the department cleared an encampment at L’Enfant Plaza. A line of police officers went through the area to move out the protesters. Then workers from the Department of Public Works came through and collected the property that was left behind, which the demonstrators could pick up later in a different location.

During the Trump inauguration, a group of protesters walked onto an interstate to disrupt traffic. Police provided an escort to prevent any injuries and to make sure emergency vehicles could get through. But the officers also helped steer the crowd off the highway onto other streets.

Newsham said getting officers to adapt the less confrontational tactics required both training and practice. Often, protesters will run up to a line of police officers and insult them, but the officers have to learn to resist the urge to respond. “We’re only going to make arrests when we have a clear violation of the law,” he said, “and running up to a police line and screaming at a police officer or saying really cruel things to a police officer is not illegal.” 

Likewise, the instructions on when to use riot gear can be “unsettling” for police, because that means that an officer usually has to be assaulted before anyone can break out the protective gear. “We certainly don't want the officers to get hurt. On the same token, we don't want to exacerbate an otherwise peaceful situation,” he said.

But even with the stricter rules in place, D.C. police have had notorious run-ins with protesters. In June of 2020, officers detained 200 protesters on Swann Street, a small side street about a mile north of downtown. Police surrounded the area and would not let the demonstrators leave. Many took refuge in a house overnight. 

Newsham said the police action in that incident didn’t violate rules about leaving protesters with no escape route because they were all warned in advance of a citywide curfew, with frequent messages including an alert to people’s mobile phones. The police followed the group from downtown because someone set a car on fire and other protesters were throwing bottles. “This was on the heels of two or three days of probably the worst riots I've seen in Washington D.C.,” he said.

An internal investigation cleared the police of wrongdoing last year, and a federal lawsuit filed by several protesters was dismissed.

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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