‘American carnage’: U.S. Capitol Police officers recount violence they suffered during Jan. 6 riots

The officers, in Pa. to stump for Joe Biden, talked about facing down the mob and why they are concerned about a repeat under another Donald Trump presidency.

File photo: Insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

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U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell served in the U.S. Army for eight years and deployed to Iraq in 2003. However, even the war zone did not fully prepare him for the “American carnage” he experienced at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

On that day, he was beaten, punched, kicked, hit with his own baton and crushed with a police shield over the course of several hours. He and his fellow officers were also sprayed with chemicals, including bear spray, pepper spray, WD-40 and fire extinguisher contents. At one point, Gonell was hit by an American flag pole — with the flag still attached.

Much of the time, he was afraid for his life, he told WHYY News.

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“Never did I think that something like this will happen here in the United States of America,” said Gonnell, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was 12 years old. “When I hear a lot of people deny what happened on Jan. 6, it triggers that PTSD, triggers that moral injury, because we did what we were supposed to, despite our injuries.”

Gonell was in Bala Cynwyd on Thursday to tell voters the events of that day did happen and to campaign for Pres. Joe Biden.

“The choice was made for me when the GOP and Donald Trump sided with the people who attacked me and are using Jan. 6 as a badge of honor,” he said. “During his inauguration, he ended his speech, ‘I’m going to end American carnage.’ How did his four-year term end with American carnage at the doorstep of the Capitol?”

Gonell, who is now on medical retirement as a result of his injuries, was joined by Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny and fellow former U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn. Biden awarded Gonell and Dunn the Presidential Citizens Medal last year.

“I will never forget the images that I saw on Jan. 6 as Donald Trump encouraged a violent mob to storm the Capitol. Donald Trump made clear that he will do everything he can to hold onto power, even encouraging a violent assault on our nation’s Capitol and our law enforcement,” Kilkenny told the audience.

Donald Trump is currently facing four federal charges related to the incident, to which he pleaded not guilty. The trial is currently on hold after his lawyers argued that he has immunity during his race for president. A U.S. House committee investigated the incident and recommended the Justice Department pursue criminal charges against Trump for his role in the attack, and that he should be barred from holding office.

Meanwhile, Trump appears to have embraced his connection to the event, which he has called a “beautiful day.” At rallies, he plays songs by the J6 Prison Choir — defendants accused of participating who he has called “hostages” and “patriots.”

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The FBI estimates that 2,000 people stormed the Capitol, causing nearly $3 million in damage and injuring 140 officers who were on duty. More than 1,400 people have been arrested on federal charges; at least 100 of them are from Pennsylvania, including Riley June Williams of Harrisburg, who was charged with stealing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop, and Samuel Lazar of Ephrata.

The Keystone State was also the site of accusations of election interference that fed the rally but were ultimately deemed baseless. Bucks County became a center of division and several arrests.

Dunn told WHYY that he was spared much of the violence Gonell and other officers suffered. He added that he was just doing his job.

“I don’t believe many officers were thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got to save our democracy; we were saving each other and trying to get home to our families and our loved ones,” he told WHYY News.

Only later did Dunn realize how monumental it all was.

“As ugly as it was, Capitol Police, along with the Metropolitan Police Department, were able to achieve the goal, and the bad guys lost that day because their goal was to stop the certification of the election and it didn’t happen,” he said. “So that made me really proud that our police officers were able to defend the institution of Congress.”

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