Sgt. Aquilino Gonell was first sworn in as a police officer in 1999, a day shy of his 21st birthday. He upheld his oath on Jan. 6, when he protected the U.S. Capitol and Constitution from insurrectionists intent on overturning free, fair and legal election results. Video still courtesy of C-SPAN.

“This is how I’m going to die.” That’s what Sgt. Aquilino Gonell thought to himself while losing oxygen, as he was crushed by violent domestic extremists during the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

Gonell — an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Iraq war Army veteran, and Capitol Police sergeant — sustained physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder from the events of that day.

“The physical violence we experienced was horrific and devastating,” he said on July 27, during the first House select committee hearing on the attacks.

While upholding his oath at the Lower West Terrace, “my fellow officers and I were punched, kicked, shoved, sprayed with chemical irritants, and even blinded by eye-damaging lasers by a violent mob,” Gonell told the committee.

“The rioters called me a traitor, a disgrace, and shouted that I, I, an Army veteran and a police officer, should be executed,” he said.

Pro-Trump supporters breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 after then-President Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 election, urged his supporters to march to the Capitol as Congress was certifying votes. Photo credit: Blink O’fanaye / Flickr

The insurrectionists wielded an array of weapons, including hammers, rebar, batons, knives, handguns, police shields taken by force, bear and pepper sprays, and even the American flag, Gonell said.

Along with threats aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Vice President Mike Pence, rioters also threatened Capitol police with promises of violence, such as, “If you shoot us, we all have weapons, we will shoot back,” and “We’ll get our guns. We outnumber you. Join us.”

The sergeant likened the “prolonged and desperate struggle” to a Medieval battle, and said the attackers would shout phrases such as, “Trump sent us. Pick the right side. We want Trump.”

President Joe Biden signs a bill awarding Capitol police with the Congressional Gold Medal for their role in defending the Constitution on Jan. 6. Video still courtesy of C-SPAN.

On Thursday, almost seven months to the day after the attack, President Joe Biden signed a bill awarding police who defended the Capitol with the Congressional Gold Medal. It’s considered Congress’ highest honor. 

“These were tragic hours back then. You stood in the breach, you did your duty — duty to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Biden said. “While the attack on our values and votes shocked and saddened the nation, our democracy did survive,”

In total, 140 police officers were hurt in the attack; 15 hospitalized. One officer, Brian Sicknick, died from two strokes after being hit by a fire extinguisher over the head. Another four officers who responded to the attacks have since died by suicide.

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell wipes away tears, as he shares his experiences defending the Capitol and the Constitution, at a House selection committee hearing, July 27. Video still courtesy of C-SPAN.

The first in his family to graduate college, join the Army and become a police officer, “this country gave me the opportunity to become anything that I wanted,” Gonell told the House select committee.

“As a child in the Dominican Republic, I looked up to the United States as the land of opportunity and a place to better myself,” he said. “From that moment I landed at JFK [Airport] in 1992, I have tried to pursue that goal. Thankfully, I have achieved that goal on many levels.”

During his testimony, Gonell expressed frustration with those who still, despite all the evidence, refuse to condemn the attacks.

“There are some who express outrage when someone kneels while calling for social justice,” he said. “Where are those same people expressing outrage to condemn the violent attack on law enforcement, the Capitol and on our American democracy? I’m still waiting for them.”


Frank Morris Lopez (he/him/his) is the Arizona lead digital organizer and content creator for Pulso. He is an award-winning multimedia journalist, having worked for media outlets in the Phoenix and Boston areas. He was born and raised in Glendale, AZ, and lived in Cambridge, MA from 2011 to 2018 before returning to the Phoenix area. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, and a master’s in social justice and human rights from Arizona State University.