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In their own words: Officers to recall horrors of US Capitol breach

The first hearing of the select committee on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack finally gets underway next week, with members of two police departments offering their insights.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Officers who protected the U.S. Capitol from a violent mob that tried to kill them, gouge their eyes out or impale them, as their screams echoed above the chaos, come to Congress next week to testify for the inaugural hearing of the select committee probing the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

It is a hearing for a bitterly divided Congress a little over six months after the attack on the Capitol that killed five people, left hundreds injured and traumatized hundreds more. 

The first witnesses to appear Tuesday will be U.S. Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonnell, U.S. Capitol Police Private First Class Harry Dunn, and Metropolitan Police Department officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges. 

In an interview with CNN last month, Gonnell reflected on his experience in the simplest of terms: “While they were running, we held the line.” 

“They” are the lawmakers that Gonnell took an oath to protect as wave after wave of former President Donald Trump’s supporters, extremists and other rioters poured into the Capitol. 

It was Gonnell, Fanone, Dunn and Hodges, along with hundreds of other police and National Guard, who kept the crowd at bay for hours and ultimately prevented them from taking the building to fulfill their objective: overturning the results of the 2020 election. 

What most officers endured on Jan. 6 was on par with medieval hand-to-hand combat.

Sergeant Gonnell, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a child and later served in the Army Reserve in Iraq, was beaten with an American flagpole and rocks. He was beaten by the mob, maced and his hand was lacerated. 

Officer Michael Fanone remembers his attackers in moments and voices. One screamed, “I got one,” as he fell to the ground inside of the Capitol’s crypt. Another voice chided rioters with pleas of “don’t hurt him,” as Fanone continued to grip his weapon desperately so it would not be used against him.

Tased by rioters multiple times at the base of his skull, causing traumatic brain injury, Fanone has told interviewers it was clear the “intent was to kill” him that day. 

Capitol Police Private Harry Dunn meanwhile endured a battery of racial slurs during a bare-knuckle brawl with rioters that lasted over an hour.

In February, the Black 13-year veteran of the force told The New York Times how he turned to a fellow officer, his knuckles swollen and bleeding and as he choked back pepper spray that filled the air of the Capitol Rotunda, and said: “I got called a nigger a couple dozen times today.”

Tears streaming down his face, he recalled asking: “Is this America?”

Daniel Hodges of the Metropolitan Police Department, who will also testify Tuesday, was relatively new to the beat on Jan. 6. He was nearly crushed to death in a doorway. Immobile for several minutes, footage shows Hodges hollering in agony with his arms pinned to his sides as rioters tried to force their way in.

Hodges told NBC the crowd was “foaming at the mouth” when they grabbed the filter on his gas mask, beat his head against the door frame, ripped away his riot baton before beating him with it, maced him and then mercilessly tried gouging his eyeball out. 

Twice.

“I was able to shake him but that was the second time I was afraid that might be the end or when I would be maliciously disfigured,” Hodges reflected. 

National-security and whistleblower attorney Mark Zaid, who represents officers Dunn and Gonnell, said in an interview this week that his concern for the officers’ safety is renewed as the first hearing looms, though the immediate danger for the men has passed. 

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“Although as experienced law enforcement officers they are well positioned to take care of themselves,” Zaid said, “... the level of online harassment and threats is nothing they are familiar with and it can become very hurtful.”

In the five months that Dunn was interviewed about his experience defending the Capitol, he only received one threatening message, Zaid said. 

Threats have ramped up, however, following a recent on-air monologue by conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

“People like Carlson, i.e., right wing talking heads, are fueling the hatred just like I experienced during my representation of the intelligence community whistleblowers during the first Trump impeachment,” Zaid said. “If something happens to Officer Dunn or his family, there will likely be a direct line of responsibility to Tucker Carlson and Fox News.”

In the end, on Jan. 6, rioters succeeded only in delaying the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.

Members of the House and Senate, joined by then-Vice President Mike Pence, successfully completed certifying electoral votes into the wee hours of the morning with help from a small army of National Guard who cleared the building while staffers — most of whom are Black — cleared away litter-strewn halls and feces-stained walls. 

The mood in the aftermath was grave with many representatives, Republican and Democrat, delivering speeches condemning the attack and, at times, Trump. Democrats especially zeroed in on the speech Trump delivered earlier in the day that incited the mob to storm the Capitol and attempt overturning an election he claimed was stolen from him despite all findings, including those from his own Justice Department and intelligence community, to the contrary. 

Since then, however, Jan. 6 has become a political hotbed of uneasy debate where Trump’s most loyal defenders in Congress regularly pit themselves against fellow lawmakers that demand a thorough examination of the events leading up to and during the attack.  

An initial bid to create a commission studying Jan. 6 — modeled after the 9/11 Commission — failed in the Senate after a laborious debate this May. 

That proposed commission was, by definition, bipartisan. It granted subpoena powers for Democrats and Republicans equally and proposed membership be evenly split between the two parties while leadership from either side was allowed to appoint representatives to serve on the panel as they saw fit. 

That proposal was rejected by most Republican Senators who decried it as a poorly veiled political cudgel for Democrats keen to harass the twice-impeached but never convicted Trump.

It was not until the House passed a bill of its own this May — with just 35 Republicans supporting it — that the select committee, not a full-bore commission, was narrowly approved. The select committee convening next week gives Democrats a slight edge through solitary subpoena power and the final say in who members may call to appear for testimony.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi exercised her authority this week by nixing two of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s picks for the committee — Representatives Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. 

McCarthy responded by withdrawing all of his remaining picks including Representatives Troy Nehls of Texas, Rodney Davis of Illinois and Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota. 

McCarthy has suggested Republican members may soon form their own parallel probe into Jan. 6.

But with or without his input, the select committee will move forward since the body has a quorum. 

McCarthy has not returned multiple requests for comment. 

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat — and one of eight lawmakers tapped by Pelosi to serve on the select committee— said in an email Friday,while congressional oversight of the insurrection has been underway for months, the select committee would go further to reveal “deeply troubling details about deficiencies in the U.S. Capitol Police’s management, training” and more. 

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“The Select Committee hearing will be the first time that front line officers have an opportunity to testify directly and answer questions from members. Gathering the perspective of these courageous officers is an important step to finding the truth about the attack,” Lofgren wrote.

But truth can be fickle on Capitol Hill where, despite an abundance of video and audio footage of the day, many lawmakers, including the ones Pelosi booted from the select committee this week, claim things are not quite as they appear. 

Representative Jordan, for example, has claimed supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement were responsible for violence on Jan. 6 or that members of “antifa” are responsible. Antifa is not a group but an ideology that promotes anti-fascist philosophy. 

Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, testified to lawmakers under oath this spring that there is no evidence of this whatsoever. The wider U.S. intelligence community backs up Wray.

Both Officer Dunn and Sergeant Gonnell were on duty in Washington last year during weeks of intense but overwhelmingly peaceful civil rights demonstrations organized by the Black Lives Matter movement last year. 

"The Capitol Police had little trouble then in handling the crowd and properly made arrests where necessary,” Zaid said, noting that Dunn and Gonnell felt the BLM demonstrations and the attack on Jan. 6 were like “day and night” and “cannot be compared.”

“Even for the prior Trump rallies, there is no comparison,” Zaid added. 

In the run up to Tuesday’s hearing, U.S. Capitol Police have been “very responsive” to Zaid’s requests and concerns involving Dunn and Gonnell. 

The objective next week is to ensure both officers are allowed to speak publicly and freely while maintaining their employment. 

“We try to cooperate with both sides. Nothing about the January 6 attack should be political or partisan,” Zaid said. 

The hearings will continue into the months ahead, while the Department of Justice continues to charge and arrest individuals who laid siege to the Capitol. 

There have been more than 535 arrests made and nearly two dozen people have pleaded guilty to charges associated with the riot. At least a dozen people have agreed to cooperate with the feds and that includes four members of the white-nationalist-friendly Oath Keepers group. 

Most charges so far involve assault or bodily injury to an officer with a dangerous weapon. The Metropolitan Police Department has reported that at least 150 officers were wounded on Jan. 6. 

So far, testimony delivered to Congress by the top watchdog for the U.S. Capitol Police has confirmed that outdated guidance for standard operating procedures, failure to conduct “stop-and-contact activities” the night before the attack based on intelligence and a sweeping number of insufficient resources spanning all departments all contributed to lax Capitol security on Jan. 6. 

Threats that piled up on online message boards, including invitations to “occupy the Capitol,” were omitted by some accounts and ignored in others, and this in particular is expected to be focused on sharply next week.

Cutting through politicization will be key to getting to the bottom of the unprecedented attack, though, for the police on the front lines, there is no real debate to be had. 

In an interview in the wake of the attack, Hodges told NBC: “The cognitive dissonance and zealotry of these people [who attacked the Capitol] is unreal because they were waving the thin blue line flag, calling us traitors and themselves patriots and then beating us with flags.”

One man, Hodges said, told him that he “paid for his gear” and should give it to him right then. 

“We had alleged veterans telling us they fought for our country and they would never hurt us, but they were there, hurting us. We had usual conspiracy theorists there, telling us they were traitors in there we should go arrest congress... If it wasn't my job, I would have done that for free. It was absolutely my pleasure to crush a white nationalist insurrection.”


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