It’s hard to overstate the body blow delivered to the entire right-wing project in the form of the four battle-scarred police officers who testified about their brutal experiences combating the mob of insurrectionists who Donald Trump unleashed against this country’s institutions on Jan. 6, 2021. Much as the nation’s armed forces, who the conservative multiverse leaps to lionize on every possible occasion, the country’s police represent its natural allies, their useful, quasi-military attack dogs against those Black people and brown-skinned immigrants who are the source (and ultimately the target of) nearly all their grievances. It’s a key component of their “us vs. them” philosophy, in which they reassure themselves who is a “real” American and who is not.
So it’s understandable that the spectacle of these police officers not only impugning the Jan. 6 mob’s actions as criminal but as fundamentally un-American, literally describing them as “terrorists,” evoked such a visceral negative reaction among the right. That interpretation, one which not only right-wing media, but nearly the entire Republican Party has struggled mightily since Jan. 6 to preempt, strikes at the very heart of the conservative mindset. And it’s even more intolerable—galling, even—when that inescapable conclusion presents itself in via an immigrant police officer and Iraq war veteran.
When he got off the plane at New York City’s JFK airport in 1992, setting foot in the country that would eventually become his home—the same country that he would sign up to defend and would send him to Iraq for 545 days—Aquilino Gonell had no idea he’d one day be assigned to protect the U.S. Capitol. Or that 30 years after he came to the U.S., he’d be testifying in front of a congressional panel and television cameras about injuries and attacks he’d sustained in an unprovoked, vicious attack on the foundation of his adopted country’s democracy.
Gonell didn’t know that he’d be called upon to explain, in vivid detail, the barrage of physical blows, hurled objects, racist taunts, and screaming insults disparaging his loyalty to this country that he’d receive at the hands of an all-American mob, bent on killing members of Congress. A mob that a cynical, criminal thug of a president incited into attacking the Capitol for the sole purpose overturning a fair and lawful election in his favor.
The sergeant, now 43, could not possibly have foreseen that after immigrating from the Dominican Republic, he’d ultimately prove himself to be a far better, far more genuine American than millions of others who proudly boast of their citizenship and supposed loyalty to this country, somehow deemed more sincere simply by virtue of their being born here.
James Hohmann, writing for The Washington Post, patiently explains the difference between Aquilino Gonell and the thousands of so-called Americans who found time to take the day off from their busy schedules on Jan. 6 to put on their little baseball caps, pack up their metal pipes, rebar, tasers, mace, and bear spray, and and point their shiny $40,000 pickup trucks into the heart of this nation’s capitol for the purpose of inflicting violence and terror on the American people and its representatives.
Barbarians who ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 called Aquilino Gonell a “traitor” and told him he’s “not even an American.” Those slanderous words wounded the Capitol Police sergeant, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, as badly as the pole someone attacked him and fellow officers with, which was flying a U.S. flag. But Gonell is a bigger patriot than Donald Trump and all the insurrectionists incited by the then-president — combined. He is the one who truly understands — and embodies — what makes America great.
Of the four wounded officers who testified before the congressional select committee to open up its investigation into the attacks of Jan. 6, it’s impossible to say whose testimony was the most affecting. All of them, speaking in unsparing, sometimes truncated and often bitter language, vividly described what transpired that day as the rabid crowd of thousands descended on them, furious that they’d encountered resistance to their well-laid pans for carnage. As Officer Daniel Hodges explained, the officers were constrained by the fact that none of them could know whether the attackers were armed with live weapons (doubtlessly many were), or had set up pipe or other bombs primed to detonate (someone had), and for that reason they could not use their own weapons, since a firefight would inevitably lead to a mass slaughter. More importantly, as they were vastly outnumbered by the mob, if a firefight broke out the police were likely to lose, leaving the Capitol and everyone in it open to attack.
"There were over 9,000 of the terrorists out there with an unknown number of firearms and a couple hundred of us, maybe. So we could not -- if that turned into a firefight, we would have lost," Hodges told the committee. "And this was a fight we couldn't afford to lose."
As Hohmann reports, Gonell, like his fellow officers, described the onslaught and what he experienced.
He described experiencing hand-to-hand combat like “something from a medieval battle,” scarier than any of the 545 days he served in Iraq. The invaders, chanting “Trump sent us,” used hammers, knives, batons and shields. Gonell was punched, pushed, kicked, shoved and bear-sprayed.
Each officer’s testimony provided unique insight into the barbaric nature of the Trump-inspired mob, the blatant racism, unconstrained hate, and the sickening, plainly gleeful and eager exercise of violence displayed to the nation on Jan. 6. Officer Harry Dunn’s testimony in particular explicitly revealed the explicit, virulent racism of that mob, collectively taunting him with a vile racist slur to punctuate and amplify attacks on his person. No officer’s testimony was anything less than wrenching, riveting and disturbing. All of them performed heroically under unbelievable odds, and the trauma each of them has endured was obvious.
But the irony of Gonell, a naturalized American citizen, defending this nation’s Capitol against a braying crowd of self-styled “true Americans” who told Gonell he was “not even an American,” many inspired by xenophobia and Trump’s race-baiting vitriol towards immigrants, is inescapable.
Gonell only stopped working when his right foot swelled so much that it wouldn’t fit in his shoe and his limp became so painful he could hardly stand. Surgeons fused fractured bones in his foot. He recently learned he’ll need surgery on his left shoulder. He also suffered injuries to both hands and his left calf. Now, he’s back on duty, but to his chagrin, deskbound until he can complete more physical therapy.
Hohmann makes the point that immigrants often turn out to be better Americans than many who were privileged enough to be born here, simply because they better understand the value—and fragility—of what democracy really is. That may be why events like the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6 resonate with Sgt. Gonell. It may also be, as Hohmann points out, why some of the key witnesses against Trump during his first impeachment trial were also immigrants (two of whom, Alexander Vindman and Marie Yovanovitch, emigrated from autocratic regimes in Ukraine and the USSR).
Unlike the thugs who attacked the seat of our democracy on Jan. 6—whether they did it out of sheer malice, race-fueled hate, or blind ignorance—Sgt. Aquilino Gonell acted to protect, rather than destroy, the foundation of that democracy. As Hohmann observes, unlike the thugs who attacked the Capitol, Gonell actually took an oath to defend and protect this country: not once, not twice, but three times. And unlike many insurrectionists who were formerly in the military and law enforcement, who have dishonored and defiled their oaths to defend and protect the nation, its citizens, and its Constitution by abetting or participating in the Jan. 6 attack, Gonell has faithfully kept his oath, putting his own body on the line not only in Iraq, but on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
So which of these folks represents the true American ideal? Which represents the “real” Americans, as the Jan. 6 insurrectionists are so fond of calling themselves?
It’s really not that hard of a question to answer.