background_fid (1).jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Capitol Officer Aquilino Gonell Reflects On The Jan. 6 Insurrection

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testifies during a House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Pool via AP)
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testifies during a House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Pool via AP)

The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Capitol and Metro police officers fought hand-to-hand for hours to protect lawmakers and American democracy. They’re still living that day … every day.

Sergeant Aquilino Gonell says there was even more at stake than most Americans realize.

“The nuclear codes, the next three people in line for the presidency. The magnitude, the severity and the threat to our democracy,” Sgt. Aquilino Gonell says. “It was huge. And people need to know that.”

Today, On Point: Sergeant Aquilino Gonell shares his experience of January 6th, and how he sees his country and its leaders now.

Guest

Aquilino Gonell, sergeant with the Capitol Hill Police force for the past 15 years. He was one of four police officers who testified last week before the House select committee investigating the January 6th insurrection on Capitol Hill.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights with Sgt. Gonell

How did your day start on January 6th?

“My day started around 5:30. When I left my house after saying goodbye to my wife and my son that was still sleeping. Took me about 40 minutes to get to work. When I got to work, normally I will be there an hour before everybody else before my shift to gather information to put out to the officers. That way I don’t look like an idiot in front of them asking questions, whatnot and not having the answers.

“But after that, we just did inventory of equipment, make sure we had this, make sure we had that. Put out the information we had at that time regarding the potential not riot, but the demonstrations. And also what possibly could occur. And after that, after roll call, we did some down time, relax … and then we started getting at least half-dressed. So we’ll be ready.”

Was there any information you were given that gave you a hint about what was eventually to come?

“During the days leading up, probably two days before. Some of my subordinates, they have Twitter. I don’t have Twitter. So at that time, they all were telling me, Hey, this is what is coming down on Twitter. This is what they’re saying. I’m like, well, I don’t have anything coming down from the chain on any type of email suggesting that it’s going to be that type of event. And so what I did tell them, wanting to alleviate their concerns, I reached out to my some of my higher ups. Some of them gave me directives in terms of how to approach the situation.

“Some of them, they actually talked to the officer because they wanted to hear from other than me. You know, I’m kind of like at the same level as them, but just a little more pay. I only can provide information that is provided to me. And I don’t want to make things up, and make it worse and have them distrust me. … I had two different chain of command for that particular day, I had a crowd control unit chain command, rather than my normal chain of command.

“So I did reach out to some of my supervisors, some of them already had gotten some of this training, and were [privy] to some information that I wasn’t. So I told them that they want to hear from the other person than me. And one of them did. They came down and talked and we did tabletop training. We talked about what we can we do if things get out of hand. However, we never anticipated this getting this out of hand at this magnitude that it was.”

People began surging towards the Capitol. Where were you and how did you first realize that things were becoming more violent than anyone had anticipated?

“Some of the officers that were watching on their phone as we were on down time, waiting for the call for us to respond and be in place. When we were at the North entrance … and we were like half-dressed. By the time like 10 minutes before the speech ended, I immediately told my guys, Hey, get dressed, this might get out of hand. Because now they are saying that we might be an impediment to them for the goal for Stop The Steal.

“And the day before, too, I told them the same thing. Look, you know, they’ve been here before, this group. Think it was two or three times prior. And we didn’t ever have any issue with them. But however this time around, myself and my other supervisor, we told them the same thing. Look, this time might be different because now they might turn on us because they might see us as an impediment to their goal, which is, as they say during the rally, Stop The Steal. … Ten minutes before the rally ended, I tell my guys, start getting dressed. And within five minutes after I said that, then there was a radio call.

“The crowd started surging on the West Front and they requested a higher gear platoon … which was us. Within five minutes we were down on the West Front. You’re talking about running almost like a quarter mile through the building, all the steps … in full uniform, running with all that gear. And that includes shields, batons, gas masks and all that stuff. So by the time we got there to the West Front with the officers who were on the bottom, which was two squads, they already had been being attacked. They already had been cornered to almost to the right side of the stage. So by then, it was chaotic by the time we got there.”

When you engaged with the insurrectionists, what did you see? What did they say? What happened in those first moments?

“During those first moments after we arrived to the West Front, it was immediately no time for us to give commands to my officers, to go this way or plan to tactically address the situation. Because by then the other officers were being attacked. So we just reacted to whatever was in front of us. What was in front of us? You got people hitting my fellow officers with batons, using bike racks as a ramming tool, hitting them with pepper spray … flagpole, you name it. And then what we were doing was just being defensive, defending our fellow officers. Some of those officers, the initial officers that were in there on the West Front, they didn’t have hard gear. They didn’t have a shield. Did they have a gun? Yes.

“… The judgment from all the officers that were there, the judgment was not to make things worse, not only for themselves, but also to the crowd. Because some of the things that perhaps that was in the back of their mind was, there were reports they had seen from social media that these people were coming here with weapons. We did not see the weapons. So we automatically cannot start shooting at people just because we feel like it.

“We had to see the threat. And the threat was there was not a handgun as of yet. We didn’t see it, but there were reports that people were armed. So once I arrived there, we immediately started fighting these people. … Give them the command, Stay back and go behind this line, behind that one line. So we established somewhat of a perimeter, but then we lost it almost immediately once the crowd became more hostile to us.”

What did you see on their faces and what did you hear?

“You see the determination in their eyes, the level of intent. Things they were saying was like, You are a traitor … you are a disgrace. They also said, remember your oath. Join us. At some point I heard people telling, You are not even an American. Even as I have my gas mask on me, which is hard to tell my skin color because I’m fair, light skin. So they don’t know whether I’m a veteran from the Iraq war. I served for years in the Army Reserves and one deployment overseas, but they don’t know that yet. Yet they’re calling me a traitor. People who clearly, to me, they seem to have military background, law enforcement background. Because veterans, they had on police Thin Blue Line paraphernalia on them.

“And with the same flag that I swore an oath to protect, here they are beating me up. Here they are attacking me and calling me names, yelling stuff at me and my fellow officers. And it was all real. And more important, I’m like, How is this happening, how is this happening in America? Where we are supposedly a model for everybody else in the world as to how to conduct ourselves in the election and democracy. You know, it’s unbelievable.

“Just thinking about that, it drives me crazy. And I swore on my oath. The oaths that I did and the many times I did those, it was to defend the United States, the Constitution. Not to be loyal to a president, not to be loyal to a party, but to the country. And that’s what bothers me the most. Some of these people, they disregarded their oath to defend and protect the Constitution. And to hold the value of this country. Instead, they have sworn an oath or fidelity to this particular individual, who at that time was president.”

You’ve talked about how a law enforcement officer near you was being dragged into the crowd and you tried to pull him back. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

“Going back to the entrance when I tried to help those officers, those officers were Black, and they were defending the entrance. One of the officers, I remember, was pulled to the crowd, then a second officer went forward to help out the other officers. And I know when he fell to the ground, I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back to the police line. And to my knowledge, I don’t remember what happened to the first officer. But then in the process of helping that second officer I went to help, I fell on top of some shields. And I was being dragged to the crowd.

“And here I am calling, yelling, Pull me back, pull me back, take me up, help me. And with my gas mask on, I’m doing all this. I’m waving, pretty much gasping to the officer, MPD officer, metropolitan police officer. He’s above me, fighting for his life as well. Because they were just attacking him. And at one point I grabbed his leg to hold myself. And I was able to kick, and continue to kick the crowd as they were trying to drag me. At one point I tried my last baton one more time. And I said to myself, at that point, if this fails, then I’m pulling my weapon. Because at that time I was just fighting for my life. I did not want to be dragged to the crowd. I know that wouldn’t be feasible for me. I knew that if I’d gone there, they would do things to me.”

You were deployed to Iraq for a year. How did January 6th compare to what you experienced in Iraq?

“See, the thing about Iraq, at least for me, because I was born in the Dominican Republic. So for me, adjusting to the element to seeing some … despair and poverty in some of these places. It wasn’t much of a shock, like some of my fellow soldiers at that time. A lot of them, they got homesick, a lot of them, it was the first time being in another country. So they never experienced that. But for me, the thing about Iraq was more like anxiety, not fear. if I tell you that I feared for my life in Iraq, maybe one or two times, tops two or three times.

“… In terms of here, the Capitol, it was continuous. It was relentless. One incident after another … I was getting attacked along with my fellow officers here in the Capitol, you know, 10 minutes ago, and then go somewhere else and then another attack. And then you’re getting trampled by the entrance of the Capitol, not once, but multiple times. Because now you got the rioters pushing into the building, and the police officer pushing out. And here I am in the middle of both crowds. And I could feel my body getting trampled. I could feel my heart getting harder to breathe, and so on. So it was multiple times. And more intense than my time in Iraq.”

Some members of Congress have stepped back, or denied the intensity of the day. What’s your message to fellow Americans about this? 

“It’s disgraceful. I mean, you have me coming from another country, swore an oath, and I’m taking that oath to defend the country more serious than the member of Congress, and senators and people, elected officials and even civilians here. … Condoning this attack on democracy, condoning this attack on his own vice president, and putting the American democratic system in jeopardy by not investigating.

“And like I said, some of these people who we put our lives on the line to protect them now is telling us, It wasn’t that bad. And it’s shameful, is very unpatriotic. They violated the oath of office by not putting the country above the party. And just because they want to get a tweet from this particular person or the other. Or putting their political life ahead of the good of the country. And it’s shameful.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.