The public hearings for the House select committee's investigation into Jan. 6 begin tonight. When Americans tune in, some, for the first time, will learn the full extent of what happened on that infamous day.
But Capitol Police Staff Sergeant Aquilino Gonell was there at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. He held the line along with his fellow officers, taking punches and kicks, getting sprayed in the face with chemicals and verbally threatened—and three times on that day, he says, he believed he was going to die.
Tonight, Gonell will be in the televised hearings in person. He tells Daily Kos by phone that his greatest hope is that audiences listening and watching the hearings understand how close the nation was to losing its democracy.
“If not for the multiple people who were willing to sacrifice themselves, like myself, for the greater good and for the right thing, we would not be where we are today,” Gonell says. “Because the alternative was possible assassinations inside the Capitol that day on behalf of a losing president.”
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Gonell says that he has no doubt that Jan. 6 was a planned event, pointing to Trump’s reaction on Election Day in 2020 as the start of it and even going back to years before.
“Immediately at midnight on the day of the election, the former president went and declared that he was a winner. And if he [were to] lose, everything was rigged,” Gonell says, adding that between bogus claims of election fraud, faulty voting systems, and Trump’s refusal to give up power and concede, everything was aimed at an insurrection and, ultimately, martial law.
“If you look at it on Jan. 6, that's exactly what they wanted. They wanted to have a reason for [Trump] to declare martial law. And I think if we would have fired indiscriminately on the mall, that would have been a perfect scenario for him to declare martial law,” Gonell says. “One of the things that I think the Proud Boys and the other right[-wing] groups were counting on was that [Trump] would do so [declare martial law]. That's why some of them had caches of weapons here in Virginia, across the river from D.C. Some of those people, the rioters, were armed with firearms.”
More than anything, Gonell says that even if he were to give Trump the benefit of the doubt—“Which I don’t,” he adds—he wants to understand why, when a mob was attacking his own branch of government, Trump was unwilling to do anything about it.
“I remember when Benghazi happened. They moved heaven and Earth to investigate it for three years. This happened in the Capitol, just 16 blocks away [from the White House], and they don't even want to do anything about it. Which tells me that their claim to be supporting law and order, and being pro-police, is fake. Because when you have officers that died that day protecting them, and they don't even want to bother to investigate what happened in a bipartisan way, and then come back and say, ‘Thank you.’ For me, that's disingenuous; it's indifferent. And anything else that they stand for is not truthful.”
Gonell is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He says that during his time in Iraq, he knew there was a possibility that he might not return home alive. He says he even broke up with his girlfriend at the time so she wouldn’t have to face the possibility of his death. But what he faced on Jan. 6 was worse than his time as a soldier in Iraq. What retraumatizes him daily is that the same lawmakers he was protecting continue to downplay the violence that he and his fellow officers experienced.
“When we were fighting in the lower west terrace entrance, that to me was a pivotal moment that allowed a lot of the members of Congress and senators to escape from harm… We put our lives on the line, as we should have done. It didn't matter what party we supported. Our job is to protect the members of Congress and the legislative branch and everybody who works there—regardless of our political affiliation,” Gonell says.
I ask Gonell if he’s worried about our country. After a long pause, says he is “concerned” because “it could happen again.”
“This person [Trump] is very influential. You have people and political officials asking for favors for not investigating the death of my colleagues. And what they tell me with their inaction is, ‘Your service was not wanted. Thank you. Go away.’ And I would like to think that the sacrifices that we made—both with sweat and blood, and even the death of [Capitol Police Officer Brian] Sicknick and the others—that sacrifice means a lot, not only to me but to most of the American people who are reasonable,” he says.
Today, Gonell is back at work, something he admits isn’t easy for him. He gives tours at the Capitol Visitor Center to groups in some of the same rooms where his life was in jeopardy.
He says when he sees some of the lawmakers who downplay the significance of Jan. 6 in the halls, they see him, but they look away.
“Even though they recognize me, they look away. I don't know if maybe they think that I will approach them or harass him. I won't. I mean, if you want to talk to me, you talk to me. I don't have to put my sense of honor and duty for this country on display. I did it—both here in this country and overseas. I don't have to prove anything to them. They're the one who needs to come to me and learn from my experience and ask me, ‘Hey, what are your injuries? Talk to me. Help me prevent this from happening again.’ They don't. They just shy away and then pretend I’m not there,” he says.
Gonell sustained multiple injuries on Jan. 6. He’s undergone shoulder and foot surgeries and has said he has flashbacks of the attack.
“People need to learn what happened to us, what happened to the Capitol. It was not a tour. It was not a concert. It was dangerous, and without any safeguards, it's bound to happen again.”
Gonell’s service is extraordinary, even among officers who fought back Trump’s mob on Jan. 6. But there’s a deeper hurt for Gonell in Republican lawmakers’ dismissal of the violence he endured protecting the Capitol. “I was not born here in this country, and I've displayed more loyalty to this country for the greater good than some of the people who I’m protecting. And I think they shouldn't be elected officials anymore, if that's how they want it. They shouldn't choose party over country.”
Gonell is currently working on a book about Jan. 6, titled American Treason.
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