NEW YORK – Among the many insults he received on Jan. 6, 2021, as he defended the Capitol in Washington, Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell remembers hearing cries that he was not an American, that he was an immigrant, that he was a traitor.
A year and a half after the assault by thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump, Gonell, who was born in the Dominican Republic, says he regrets that an immigrant like him denounces what happened while politicians and others born in the United States remain silent.
“It is sad that I, as an immigrant, take things more seriously than the same people who swore to defend the country and the Constitution and that those people who were born here have not had the courage to take a step forward, say what they know and say who was involved (in the assault) without having been forced into it by a subpoena,” Gonell, 43 said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Trump supporters who violently stormed the Capitol did so in an attempt to stop the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory.
Many Republicans — even those who condemned Trump and the violence at the time — have opposed efforts to investigate. They say Democrats, through the House Jan. 6 committee, are trying to politicize the issue, gain supporters and push electoral reforms that they consider “radical.”
As the House Jan. 6 committee unveils more evidence, Gonell has become one of the most recognizable figures from the attack, often seated front row at the hearings. He had denounced the assault in interviews with the media, on Twitter and testified to Congress last year about the brutal “medieval” fighting he endured while defending the Capitol.
He has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and has been honored as a “Great Immigrant” by the Carnegie Corporation, but still deals with pain from the blows he received that day, both physical and psychological.
“Sometimes I get to work (at the Capitol) and I spend several minutes in my car, thinking about whether I go in or not,” he said. “To enter, I take the long way. I avoid the entrance where everything happened.”
Trump to this day continues to say that the election result should be overturned, repeating baseless and false claims — debunked by his own attorney general, the courts and state and local officials — that the results were fraudulent. His claim of a stolen election was the motivating force for the mob that stormed the Capitol.
More than 840 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riot. Over 330 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors. Of the more than 200 defendants to be sentenced, approximately 100 received prison terms.
Gonell has testified in some of the court cases and is collaborating with authorities on the investigations.
The Dominican immigrant was born in Guayubin, in the province of Monte Cristi. His father was the first to go to New York in search of a better life, followed by his mother and older brother. Gonell moved to New York in 1992, when he was 12.
In 1999 he joined the Army and in 2004 was sent to Iraq. He joined the Capitol Police Department in 2006.
On Jan. 6, 2021, on the west side of the Capitol, he spent hours trying to stop the wave of assailants from entering the building. He was hit with an American flag pole and a bat, and at one point fell to the ground and was dragged by a group that beat and insulted him. He told House investigators last year he could feel himself losing oxygen as he was crushed by rioters. He recalled in testimony thinking, “This is how I’m going to die, defending this entrance.”
Since the attack, he's undergone surgery on his right foot and his left shoulder, which he still can't rotate, he said.
More than 100 other officers were injured in the attack, and two police officers died by suicide in the days that immediately followed. A third officer collapsed and died after engaging with the protesters. A medical examiner later determined he died of natural causes.
Gonell passed an exam to be a lieutenant but doctors have recommended that he leave the Capitol Police force because of his injuries.
“Instead of planning a promotion, I’m planning my retirement,” said Gonell, who has U.S. citizenship and said he is updating his resume to find another job.
He is also looking for a publishing house for a book he is writing about his life and what happened on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Not many people appreciate the effort we made that day,” he said. Many Republicans who see him at the Capitol avoid him, do not greet him and do not thank him for this service, he said.
“I would like justice,” Gonell said. “The people who attacked me, and who attacked the other police officer, who coordinated or supported the assailants, they should take responsibility and be held accountable.”