The Capitol’s Defenders In Their Own Words

Scenes from a “peaceful” protest.

A televised congressional hearing is not typically an occasion for national catharsis. But at the opening session this week of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, and Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, fought back tears. On Twitter, viewers used words like “numb,” “shaken,”so raw,” and “profoundly sad.”

What brought this on was testimony from four witnesses from the U.S. Capitol Police and D.C.’s Metropolitan Police: Aquilino Gonell, Michael Fanone, Daniel Hodges, and Harry Dunn. These four heroes and their colleagues defended the U.S. Capitol from an angry mob hell-bent on murdering Vice President Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and stopping the House and Senate from officially counting electoral votes to declare Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the winners of the November presidential election.

Hear their names. Know their stories.

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell

Gonell was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States in 1992. The first member of his family to attend college, he became a U.S. citizen just before his 21st birthday. He praised “this country” for giving him the opportunity to “become whatever I wanted.”

Gonell said he was more fearful on January 6 then when he was deployed in Iraq. In Iraq, he was scared to go in convoys or supply missions to Iraqis, but he knew the risks. At the Capitol, he didn’t. How could he? “I did not recognize my fellow citizens,” he said. He heard threats against Pelosi and Pence, and realized his own life was at risk. “The rioters called me ‘traitor,” he said. They shouted that he should be “executed.” These were not peaceful protesters: “The mob brought weapons to try to accomplish their insurrectionist agenda.” These included hammers, rebar, knives, batons, bear spray, and pepper spray. They wore tactical gear. Some seized officers’ batons and shields. One rioter attacked an officer with an American flag.

Rioters pulled Gonell by his leg, shield, and gear. “My survivor’s instincts kicked in,” he said. He hit a rioter who was grabbing him. Then he stood and fended off “new attackers as they kept rotating and attacking me again and again.” It was “like a medieval battle, fighting hand to hand.” The rioters were shouting “Trump sent us. Pick the right side. We want Trump.” Gonell heard an officer near him, whom he later learned was Hodges, scream in pain. He thought “this is how I’m going to die.”

Gonell wiped away tears as he described learning later on that his family had been texting him frantically because they saw the turmoil. Returning home in the middle of the night, he had to tell his wife not to hug him because of the chemicals on his uniform. His body was burning. He showered, barely slept, then returned to work at Capitol around 8 am.

“I’m still trying to recover from my injuries,” Gonell said. Both of his hands, his left shoulder, and his right foot were injured. He needed surgery on his right foot and now needs it on shoulder, too. He’ll likely require rehab for at least a year. He wants to know why the U.S. Capitol Police had all the support it needed during Black Lives Matter protests but not on January 6. “We don’t want medals,” he said. “We want justice and accountability.”

Michael Fanone

Fanone decided to join D.C.’s Metropolitan Police force after 9/1l. He works undercover in the narcotics unit and has faced many “dicey” situations. But what he witnessed on January 6, 2021 was unlike anything he’d ever seen. He was attacked, beaten, and tazed. He heard the mob chant “kill him with his own gun.”

Fanone has worked as a plainclothes officer for years. On January 6, “for the first time in nearly a decade, I put on my uniform” because “I could not ignore the numerous calls coming from the Capitol” for backup. His partner Jimmy came, too.

In the lower west terrace tunnel, Fanone saw a police commander struggling to breathe. The commander shouted “hold the line.” It was, he said, “inspirational.” Officers used their bodies to hold back the onslaught of violent attackers. “The tunnel is a narrow and long hallway,” he said, not an ideal spot (if any exists) to be drawn into combat with a violent angry, armed mob.

“Thousands upon thousands of people” (as his body camera showed) were “determined to get past us by any means necessary.” Fanone recalled: “I heard someone scream, ‘I got one!’” The rioters stripped off his badge, stole his taser, and tasered him with it again and again. That’s when he heard them shout, “Kill him with his own gun.”

“I said as loud as I could manage: ‘I’ve got kids.’” Some people in the crowd pulled him out of the fray, then some fellow officers rescued him. Later Fanone learned he was unconscious for four minutes. He had a heart attack. Also a concussion, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD.

After all of this, Fanone said it pained him to hear the very members of Congress he defended “downplaying or outright denying what happened… The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.” He slammed the table for emphasis. “That is the worst of what America has to offer.”

Daniel Hodges

Hodges is on the civil disturbance unit of the Metropolitan Police Department. On January 6 he watched Trump’s rally on Constitution Avenue and noticed many men in tactical gear who looked like they were planning for more than just listening to speeches in a park. One guy asked a colleague of his asking whether this was all the officers they had. We’ll never know, Hodges said, how many of them were carrying arms and other lethal weapons.

Listening to his police radio, he heard a transition from peaceful assembly to what he described as “terrorism.” His orders changed around the time a bomb was discovered near the Capitol. Hodges went to his van, put on hard gear, drove to the Capitol, and headed toward the West terrace.

The first resistance he noticed was verbal; the crowd booed the police and shouted “traitors.” But as he and other D.C. cops got closer to the terrace, they came under attack. “You’re on the wrong team,” one man shouted as he tried to take Hodge’s baton. “You will die on your knees.” Something heavy was thrown at him and he suffered a concussion. Someone kicked him in the chest. Now he was on his hands and knees, his medical mask pulled over his eyes. A fellow D.C. cop helped him up. Looking at the crowd Hodges saw many American flags and Trump flags. He also saw “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President.” There was mace in the air.

Noticing that Hodges was white, another white man in the crowd shouted, “Do not attack us, we’re not Black Lives Matter.” Someone told him to show solidarity or “we are going to run over you.”

Someone grabbed his face, put a thumb in his eye and tried to blind him. A red smoke grenade burned at his feet. Other police officers wrestled a guy who had a hunting knife in his belt and took it. “It was a battle of inches.” They thought they were holding it all back; they didn’t know the crowd had broken windows and doors into the building elsewhere.

While he was being crushed between metal doors, an attacker stripped away his gas mask and bashed him in the head, rupturing his lip. Hodges knew he needed to “fall back.” He feared he would black out, but he couldn’t signal those behind him, so he screamed for help. An officer near him pulled him free.

Hodges repeatedly referred to the rioters as terrorists. When asked to explain, he cited a statutory definition. He considered it a white nationalist insurrection. He saw known white nationalist groups there like the 3 Percenters, and “the crowd was overwhelmingly white males.” They insulted his black colleagues and anyone not white.

One member of the committee, Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy of Florida, thanked Hodges for protecting her. She was in the area right beyond the corridor while he was getting crushed in the door frame. “You were our last line of defense,” she said.

Hodges furnished the only laugh of the day after Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, observed that some of his colleagues called the insurrectionists not “terrorists” but “tourists.” Hodges replied: “If that’s what American tourists are like, I can see why foreign countries don’t like American tourists.”

Harry Dunn

Dunn, a private first class with the Capitol Police, said he started to worry about the crowd moving from the Ellipse to the Capitol when he heard about a suspicious package turning up at the Republican National Committee headquarters. He put on a 20 pound steel chest plate. When he got to Capitol he was “stunned by what I saw.” Rioters were beating police with flag poles and metal bike racks. He heard many of them scream that they were blinded by chemical irritants.

Inside the Capitol, he saw rioters carrying a Confederate flag, a red MAGA flag and a Don’t Tread on Me flag. One rioter said, “No man, this is our House. President Trump invited us here. We’re here to stop the steal.”

Dunn, who is African American, said he was subjected to a stream of racist invective. This was a professional first, he said: “No one ever, ever called me a N—– [while I was] wearing the uniform of a Capitol Police officer.”

During Trump’s February impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 riot, an audio recording was played of a police officer calling desperately for backup from the west front of the Capitol. “We lost the line,” he said.

We’ve lost the line. All MPD, pull back. All MPD pull up to the upper deck. All MPD, pull back to the upper deck ASAP. All MPD come back to the upper deck. Upper deck…. We have been flanked and we’ve lost the line.

Early in the hearing, welcoming the four witnesses, Chair Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, said, “You held the line that day.” And so they did. They saved our republic. Only time will tell, as Benjamin Franklin said, whether we can keep it.

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Jennifer Taub

Jennifer Taub, author of  Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (Viking), is a professor at the Western New England University School of Law