A former Capitol police sergeant on the personal and political consequences of Jan. 6
Aquilino Gonell left the Dominican Republic when he was 12 in pursuit of the American dream.
He joined the Army, fought in Iraq and became a police officer at the U.S. Capitol. On Jan. 6, 2021, Sargeant Gonell was attacked and beaten by rioters as he and his fellow officers tried to hold the line.
“I raised my hand and swore to protect the Constitution of the United States because this country gave me an opportunity to become anything that I wanted,” Gonell says.
“To be honest, I did not recognize my fellow citizens who stormed the capitol on January 6, or the United States that they claimed to represent.”
Today, On Point: Aquilino Gonell’s new book American Shield – and how one immigrant’s American dream turned into a nightmare.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, former Capitol police officer who was attacked by rioters on Jan. 6. Co-author of “American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy.”
ANTHONY BROOKS: When he was 12 years old, Aquilino Gonell left the Dominican Republic for the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. He moved to Brooklyn with his mom and brother. He didn’t speak English well. He struggled to fit in. And to help pay for college, he joined the Army Reserves, fought in Iraq, and became a U.S. citizen.
And in 2006, he fulfilled a lifelong dream and became a police officer at the U.S. Capitol. Three years ago, on Jan. 6, 2021, Sgt. Gonell’s American dream became a nightmare. Rioters spurred on by former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Gonell and his fellow officers were badly outnumbered. The mob beat them with pipes, sticks and rocks, sprayed them with chemicals, as they tried to hold the line and defend the Capitol and the peaceful transfer of power. Because of his injuries suffered that day, Sergeant Gonell had to retire from his career as a police officer at the age of 42.
Now, he’s written a book about that day and about his life. It’s called “American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy.” It’s co-written with Susan Shapiro. And Sgt. Gonell joins us now from Washington, D.C. And Sgt. Gonell, welcome back. It’s great to have you On Point.
AQUILINO GONELL: Thank you for having me on your show.
BROOKS: Yeah. And I want to thank you, first of all, for the work you did. Especially on January 6th, for putting your life at risk to protect the democratic process. Sincerely, I want to thank you for that, and I’m sorry that you had to go through what you went through. And my guess is that this was a tough anniversary for you.
How did you process what you went through? How have you been processing it three years later?
GONELL: It’s the third year, date of remembrance, not anniversary. Because it’s not something that was pleasant for me and a lot of my fellow officers. We’re still trying, I’m still trying to process a lot of the things, a lot of new information that still keep coming, be coming out into the light almost every day. So it’s ongoing. The process. I had, although it has been night and day from the time, on the immediate aftermath in terms of how I deal with the ramifications of that day, in terms of mental health and how I see and view the day events.
And I want to hear more about that in terms of your mental health and how you’ve been recovering, but I think it would be helpful for us to go back to that day and just to set up a couple of things. I want to play a little bit of tape from January 6th. Here’s former President Donald Trump. He gave a speech at The Ellipse in Washington, where he falsely claimed that he won the 2020 presidential election and urged his supporters to march to the Capitol, where Congress was preparing to certify the results of the election and Joe Biden’s victory.
DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down. We’re going to walk down, anyone you want, but I think right here, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.
And we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. And here’s a little more of what Trump told his supporters gathered at the ellipse on that day.
But I said, something’s wrong here. Something’s really wrong. Can’t have happened. And we fight. We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.
BROOKS: Sergeant Gonell, that was early in the day of January 6th. You couldn’t have known what was about to happen, what was about to explode.
But how worried were you at that point? I know you were aware of the kinds of things that Trump was saying to his supporters.
GONELL: The only thing that I knew at that time was what was being reported on the news, in terms of him directing the people to gather here in D.C. on the fourth.
At that time, I was not on, I had a Twitter account, but I was not very active in social media in terms of finding out what he was saying. But it surprised me that he pointed the people to go to the Capitol in U.S. As he says, let’s fight, alluding to, let’s fight, if you don’t fight, then you don’t have a country anymore, right?
BROOKS: Fight like hell, he said. Yeah.
GONELL: Yeah. And a lot of people took that as marching orders to include breaching and dismantling some of the fences that we had around the Capitol. The Capitol was already closed due to the COVID pandemic and the restrictions that were in place around the country. Those same restrictions came from his own government.
So it bothered me that he pointed the mob or those people to the Capitol.
BROOKS: Yeah. Then you write at around 12:50 in the afternoon, the call came, your radio blared that all officers were needed at the West Front. Send all you have, is what you heard. So you suited up, preparing for the worst and you headed off toward the lower West Terrace entrance of the Capitol.
Can you describe the scene that you saw when you arrived?
GONELL: After I heard that call, I think it was two or three times that it came out on the radio. And like you said, I describe it at length in the book, American Shield. I immediately told my squad members, “Hey, let’s hurry up. Let’s get our gear ready and rush to the West Front.”
By the time I got to the West Front, through the underground tunnels, right where the President comes out in the iconic arch of the Capitol, the minute I opened those doors, you could hear the crowd. Roaring. And some of the officers screaming in pain. Because by the time I got to the area, to the West Front, from the east where I was staged, some of the same mob that claimed to be supporting the police officers, that were beating my colleagues.
And immediately after I got to the inaugural stage, I noticed that there was a seat of people rushing, they’re moving very hard. And I paused for a second and I said to myself, “This is going to be a [expletive] long day,” and it was. By the time I got one flight down to the lower West Terrace, the police officers, my colleagues were getting beat up, pushed, shoved, taken to the ground.
Punched. And by the time, there was no time for me to coordinate and we just began to defend, I began to defend my colleagues and join the fight immediately.
BROOKS: Yeah. And the way you describe it is so vivid in the book. I’m just going to read one sentence here. You write, “The back of my eyes went hot as I witnessed my fellow officers brazenly beaten with pipes, sticks, and rocks by rioters who chanted, ‘Fight for Trump and USA,’ Trump banners outnumbered American flags.”
And you write that for a second you froze in fear. “I’d seen this kind of unbridled rage in Iraq when the base had been under attack. And so I knew this was bad.” So Sergeant Gonell, you literally flashed back to war in Iraq that day.
GONELL: Yeah. And that was the infuriating thing, because I never expected this type of violence happening, especially at the Capitol, our seat of democracy. Where I worked, where I spent many years defending and protecting. And these are the type of things that happen in a third world country, in countries where I come from, the Dominican Republic and others.
We seen those things happen. And I never in my life that I imagined that it will happen here in the United States, especially those acts being done by native born citizens. And here I am, an immigrant, defending the Capitol, something that they are not doing. You write in the book, and you also said this in your testimony before the January 6th committee, that on more than one occasion on that day, you felt like you were going to die.
Can you describe what actually happened that made you feel like you were going to die?
GONELL: Vice President, I’m sorry, the President Biden quoted me on his speech on January 6th, a couple of days ago. And when he says there was an officer that says … my time in the Capitol was worse than my time in Iraq.
And it was in a sense. Because in Iraq, I knew who the enemy were or what to look for in the enemy. And I knew the danger I signed up. Isn’t this war? Anything could happen in war, but here at the Capitol it was surviving. One moment after another. When we lost the police line, I was afraid for not only my safety, but everybody else, including my colleagues and those elected officials inside the Capitol.
Then, as we were retreating, we continued getting attacked, pummeled and beaten up, just for simply doing our job to trying to prevent the mob from going in. Then we go up the stage, where we lost more ground, and then we had to retreat inside the tunnel, inside the tunnel. That’s where we confronted, at least in my part, the most fear, fierce, [fierce]ful fight happened in the Capitol. Where officers are getting crumpled, trampled and crushed to death and multiple things, officers are being pulled into the mob and being up.
So that’s where I almost lost my life a couple of times in there.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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