Nov 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Protests and threats over Israel-Hamas war rattle Congress

Capitol Police face off with pro-Palestinian protesters outside the Democratic National Committee's headquarters on Nov. 15. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Members of Congress in both parties are grappling with an increase in threats, disruptive protests and unnerving security incidents spurred by the Israel-Hamas war.

Why it matters: The recent tumult comes against the backdrop of lingering security fears among lawmakers after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and a general rise in threats toward congressional offices.

Driving the news: Several House Democrats, including members of leadership, were trapped inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters on Wednesday as law enforcement clashed outside with demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

  • Protesters attempted to block the entrance to the building, prompting Capitol Police to push them back in a scuffle that left 90 protesters and half a dozen police officers injured.
  • "We have handled hundreds of peaceful protests, but last night's group was not peaceful," the Capitol Police said in a statement. "The crowd failed to obey our lawful orders to move back from the DNC, where Members of Congress were in the building."
  • "When the group moved dumpsters in front of the exits, pepper sprayed our officers and attempted to pick up the bike rack, our teams quickly introduced consequences," the statement added.

What they're saying: Members who were in the building described being gripped by a fear and uncertainty some of them haven't felt since Jan. 6.

  • "They crossed the line where they were trapping ingress and egress ... and trapping people," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told Axios. "It was disturbing."
  • Another lawmaker present framed it as part of a broader trend of unusually aggressive tactics from the pro-Palestinian side: "I have had death threats, been doxxed, protested."

The other side: IfNotNow, one of the left-wing groups leading the protest, said Thursday that the Capitol Police "responded to peaceful protesters with overwhelming violence, and without any prior warning or request to disperse."

  • "Protesters were nonviolently engaging in civil disobedience by attempting to block some of the doors to the building while chanting 'Ceasefire Now,'" they said.
  • "Police violence will not deter us from continuing our peaceful and nonviolent protests, ... We will continue making good trouble."

The big picture: Jewish lawmakers in both parties told Axios they have been experiencing a surge in threats and disturbing incidents since the onset of the war last month.

  • "There's unquestionably a heightened threat environment," Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) told Axios. "People are getting threatened on their phones, their emails. Staff are getting threatened. Staff are getting cursed at and verbally abused."
  • Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) said he "never received an antisemitic threat" until Oct. 7, but has since had "threats on my life. I have threats on my wife's life, and I have threats on my [15-day-old] baby girl's life."
  • Miller added that he owns "a lot of weapons" but he never used to be armed in public. Now, he said, "I carry a weapon on me every single day, because ... I am not going to be a victim."

Several aides to Jewish members described a new "intensity" in the volume and tenor of phone calls their offices have received about the war.

Zoom in: Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.), one of the most progressive Jewish members of Congress, had an event in Burlington last week disrupted by hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters urging her to support a ceasefire.

  • "They surrounded the building, they were pushing and banging on glass, we thought the windows and the doors were going to break. There was no way to get out," Balint told Axios on Thursday. "Every single person in the building felt unsafe."
  • "I understand the passion ... [but] this kind of blurring of the lines between what is peaceful protest and threatening behavior is incredibly disturbing," Balint added, saying she received "terrifying" advice from a colleague about how to conduct herself in her district "so I'm not at risk."
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