In Nevada, US Capitol Police officers attacked on Jan. 6 explain why they’re backing Joe Biden

Former Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell speaks during a news conference at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2024. Gonell was working and responded to the riot on Jan. 6 at the US Capitol. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

By Casey Harrison

May 31, 2024

Two ex-US Capitol Police officers are campaigning for Joe Biden and highlighting the political violence they faced on Jan. 6, 2021, which they say was fueled by Trump’s rhetoric.

Retired US Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell always keeps with him both physical and emotional reminders of how close he came to losing his life on Jan. 6, 2021.

That was the day former President Donald Trump held a rally blocks away from the US Capitol in a last second appeal to urge then-Vice President Mike Pence to “do the right thing” and overturn the results of the 2020 election — a race Trump lost to President Joe Biden.

Thousands of Trump supporters convened on the Capitol shortly after Trump’s speech. They tore down metal barriers and, once inside the Capitol, forced lawmakers to evacuate from their respective chambers to take cover.

Among those protecting lawmakers was Gonell, who told reporters in Las Vegas on Wednesday he was part of a contingent that guarded the tunnel lawmakers were evacuated to once rioters had made entry to the building. He said it quickly became evident officers were outnumbered.

“I was beaten, punched, kicked, pushed, and beaten with my own riot baton in the head,” said Gonell, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who also served in the US Army during the Iraq War. “Someone tried to drag me into the mob and beat me [with a flagpole] with the American flag still attached to it.”

Gonell and former US Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn spoke to Democratic supporters at a state party office building in Las Vegas to campaign for Biden, as well as share their experience with the political violence they faced that they say was fueled by Trump’s rhetoric. The two have spent the last several months speaking with voters on behalf of the Biden campaign to warn of the threat Trump poses to democracy, with future plans to visit Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

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“Our fight didn’t end on Jan. 6,” Dunn said. “[From] Jan. 7 until today, we’re doing this because we love this country, we’re Americans, we believe in democracy, we believe in decency, we believe in the Constitution, and we believe in Joe Biden.”

Dunn added that Trump has yet to publicly acknowledge the death of Officer Brian Sicknick, who died days after the riot due to complications from injuries sustained engaging with rioters.

Official estimates from the Department of Justice show five people died — including Sicknick — and that approximately 140 police officers were assaulted on Jan. 6. More than 1,300 individuals have been charged for their involvement in the breach.

“His obsessive quest for power is the reason violent insurrectionists assaulted me and my colleagues on that day,” Dunn said. “He calls us traitors, his supporters call us traitors and liars.”

The issue of Jan. 6 appears to be a meaningful issue that splits voters. Trump has said throughout this campaign that if re-elected, he would explore pardons for the hundreds who have either pleaded guilty or have been convicted for their involvement with the riot.

In giving Gonell and Dunn a platform, the Biden campaign is hoping the reminder of Jan. 6 will resonate with voters in critical swing states like Nevada. A poll released by the Washington Post near the three-year anniversary of Jan. 6 shows 53% of respondents thought Trump bore responsibility for the riot.

The Capitol riot, Gonell said, left him with injuries that required two surgeries as well as a cognitive condition known as moral injury, which according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (but develops after someone perpetuates, fails to prevent, or witnesses events that “contradict deeply [with] moral beliefs”).

More than three years later, Gonell said Wednesday he still keeps with him another reminder from Jan. 6: The fragment of a bullet he said was fired at him while defending a doorway.

“This is what nearly cost me my life defending that entrance,” Gonell said, shortly after pulling out a square protective case holding the fragmented munition.

Gonell and Dunn both said they take issue with Trump labeling Jan. 6 convicts as “hostages” or “political prisoners,” and that downplaying the violence from that day is an affront on democracy itself.

“If you’re going to back the blue, law and order, the rule of law, make sure you back us every single time,” Gonell said. “Not just when it’s convenient for you. You can’t claim to support rule of law, and at the same time, support those who tried to upend our democracy.”

Responding to the officers’ remarks, the Trump campaign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a statement that Democrats and the Biden administration are cities into “cesspools of bloodshed and crime.”

With polling indicating the likely rematch between Biden and Trump will be a hotly-contested one, Gonell and Dunn warn that officials need to disavow all forms of political violence, no matter which side it comes from.

“It is not overly dramatic to say democracy is on the ballot,” said Nevada Democratic US Rep. Dina Titus, who attended Wednesday’s event and was on the floor of the US House when lawmakers were asked to evacuate.

“Democracy is a very fragile thing,” Titus continued. “And if we work to keep it, and preserve it and promote it, we’ll be successful. But the minute you let down your guard, you can see it just spiral away. And we cannot let that happen.”

  • Casey Harrison

    Casey Harrison is political correspondent for The Nevadan. Previously, he covered politics and the Oakland Athletics' relocation to Southern Nevada for the Las Vegas Sun, and before that, was a digital producer at The Detroit News. Casey graduated from Michigan State University in 2019.

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