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Fallout from campus protests felt on Capitol Hill

Progressive staff group ‘stands alongside’ protesters for Gaza

A Palestinian flag is wrapped around a statue of George Washington amid a George Washington University encampment protest on April 25. As campus protests unfold around the country, lawmakers in Congress are weighing in.
A Palestinian flag is wrapped around a statue of George Washington amid a George Washington University encampment protest on April 25. As campus protests unfold around the country, lawmakers in Congress are weighing in. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As protests of the war in Gaza roil college campuses, the issue has reverberated through Congress, provoking strong emotions and political sparring.

Progressive staffers came out in support of encampments that Republicans — and some Democrats — have rushed to condemn, a day after police arrested around 300 people in New York City and opposing protesters clashed at UCLA. 

“As we watch students standing up, coming together, and speaking truth to power about the bombardment and blockade of Gaza, we see a generation of unheard voices rallying for justice in the same way civil rights and anti-war protestors have throughout American history,” the Congressional Progressive Staff Association said in a statement Wednesday.

The staff group “unequivocally stands alongside these nonviolent student protesters and their efforts to raise the alarm about the complicity of both their colleges and of the United States in the War on Gaza,” the statement continues.

The protests have raised questions about free speech on college campuses. And they’ve put Democrats in an awkward political position, especially as scenes have escalated and police have cracked down.

“You have an absolute right to free speech in America, you can protest. But the First Amendment does not give you the right to break windows, to vandalize buildings, to take over private buildings and to make students who happen to be of Jewish descent feel unsafe,” said California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu during a Tuesday House Democratic leadership news conference. Lieu was referring to a group of protesters at Columbia University who occupied an administrative building. Police in riot gear responded to take back the building that night.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress have seized on the unrest to score political points.

On Wednesday, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton held a news conference with a group of his GOP colleagues condemning the “hate-filled little Gazas.” 

“It’s time to stop these antisemitic, pro-Hamas mobs today. And if liberal college administrators won’t take action, the mayors and the governors of these campuses should. And so should [President] Joe Biden,” Cotton said during the news conference.

Speaker Mike Johnson on Tuesday announced a “House-wide effort to crack down on antisemitism on college campuses” during a news conference with Republican committee chairs. A week earlier, Johnson and a group of House Republicans visited Columbia’s campus and called for the university’s president to step down. Johnson also suggested the National Guard should be called in “if this is not contained quickly.” 

On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee announced a hearing slated for May 8 on Washington, D.C.’s response to protests at George Washington University, following a report from The Washington Post that the city’s police department rejected calls from school administrators to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment. 

“MPD’s refusal to assist GWU in their efforts to protect the Jewish student body is disturbing and unacceptable,” Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., said in a statement. A group of House Republicans from the Oversight committee, including Comer, visited the GW encampment Wednesday to call on local officials to secure the campus.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Republican Rep. Clay Higgins posted on X a bigoted take on the keffiyeh, a traditional scarf that has come to symbolize Palestinian solidarity, shortly after Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib appeared on the House floor wearing one around her neck. 

Tlaib, the lone Palestinian American in Congress, questioned the use of police force to tamp down protests and denounced the bloodshed in Gaza on Wednesday, ahead of a vote on a bipartisan bill that would broaden the definition of antisemitism in federal anti-discrimination law. That bill passed the House, 320-91.

“I like this whole Hamas terrorist scarf thing that Democrats are doing,” Higgins posted, adding that “those dishcloth rags” make it easy for “Patriot Americans” to spot “a Hamas loving idiot.” 

Wednesday’s statement from the progressive staffers was the group’s first official foray into the war between Israel and Hamas since it started on Oct. 7. Hamas launched a terrorist attack that day that the Israeli government says killed around 1,200 people. Palestinian health authorities say more than 34,000 Gazans have died in the months since, under a barrage of counter-attacks from Israel that have drawn increasing condemnation from the international community and, notably, on college campuses in the U.S.

Tensions between progressive congressional staffers seeking a ceasefire and their often more moderate bosses have simmered since the start of the war. 

A group of staffers held a vigil on the House steps in November. And in February, an underground group of Hill aides dubbed Congressional Staff for a Ceasefire Now organized a fundraiser to support aid agencies in Gaza. Congressional staffers signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire, and administration officials have left their jobs in protest of the U.S. government’s support for the war.

Michael Suchecki, spokesperson for the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, didn’t deny that antisemitic incidents had occurred at some of the campus protests. And the group’s statement makes the point that “in these protests, as in any nonviolent movement, there is no room for hate, discrimination or threats of violence.”

But Suchecki, who said his twin brothers were at the UCLA encampment Tuesday that was allegedly attacked by pro-Israel counterprotesters, said violence and antisemitism have not been the norm.

“What we have seen is that the vast majority of these protests and these protesters have been incredibly inclusive, incredibly supportive of individuals of all nationalities and of all faiths in participating in and joining their encampment to protest the war in Gaza,” Suchecki said.

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