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‘Like a medieval battle’: Officers recount harrowing Capitol riot for lawmakers

Bipartisan panel probing January 6 attack on Congress by Trump-backing mob opens with testimony from police who endured physical beatings, racial abuse

US Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, from left, Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone, Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges and US Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn testify before the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP/Brendan Smialowski)
US Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, from left, Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone, Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges and US Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn testify before the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP/Brendan Smialowski)

WASHINGTON — A committee investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection opened its first hearing on Tuesday with a focus on the law enforcement officers who were attacked and beaten as the rioters broke into the building — an effort to put a human face on the violence of the day.

“This is how I’m going to die, defending this entrance,” Capitol Police officer Aquilino Gonell, an Iraq war veteran, recalled thinking as officers gave raw, emotional testimony on the invasion of the Capitol building by supporters of former United States president Donald Trump.

The police officers called to testify endured some of the worst of the brutality. They were punched, trampled, crushed and sprayed with chemical irritants. They were called racial slurs and threatened with their own weapons as the mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters overwhelmed them, broke through windows and doors and interrupted the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential win.

Gonnell wiped away tears as he described hearing other officers screaming in agony and pain just a few feet away from him on January 6.

Harry Dunn, another Capitol Police officer, detailed racial slurs yelled at him and other Black officers.

“Those words are weapons,” he said.

Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who rushed to the scene, said he was “grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country.” He said the rioters’ chants to kill him with his own gun are still ringing in his head today.

Rebuking Republican lawmakers who have resisted the hearings, Fanone said, “I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room.”

Pounding his fist on the table in front of him, he said, “Too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.”

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier, at the Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

Fanone described being dragged down the Capitol steps by rioters who shocked him with a stun gun and beat him.

Hodges was beaten and crushed between two doors, and his bloody face and anguished screams were caught on video.

It was “something from a medieval battle. We fought hand to hand, inch by inch, to prevent an invasion of the Capitol,” said Gonell, detailing surgery on his foot and injuries from which he struggled to recover.

Committee chairman Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson played video of the attack and told the police officers: “History will remember your name.” He said the rioters “came ready for a fight, and they were close to succeeding.”

The panel’s first hearing comes as partisan tensions have only worsened since the insurrection, with many Republicans playing down, or outright denying, the violence that occurred and denouncing the Democratic-led investigation as politically motivated.

Democrats now want to launch the probe — and win public support for it — by reminding people how brutal it was, and how the law enforcement officers who were sworn to protect the Capitol suffered grave injuries at the hands of the rioters.

“There’s no place for politics and partisanship in this investigation,” said Thompson as he opened the session.

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the panel, gave opening remarks after Thompson — an effort by Democrats to appear as bipartisan as possible. She said the investigation must be nonpartisan.

“The question for every one of us who serves in Congress, for every elected official across this great nation, indeed, for every American is this: Will we adhere to the rule of law, respect the rulings of our courts, and preserve the peaceful transition of power?” Cheney asked. “Or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America?”

Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., left, listens as Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks during the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, withdrew the participation of other Republicans last week after Pelosi rejected two of them, saying their “antics” in support of Trump, and his lies that he won the election, weren’t appropriate for the serious investigation.

On Monday evening, the House voted against a resolution offered by the GOP leader to force the members to sit on the panel.

McCarthy has stayed close to Trump since the insurrection and has threatened to pull committee assignments from any Republican who participates on the January 6 panel. He has called Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who is also sitting on the committee, “Pelosi Republicans,” an effort that Cheney immediately dismissed as “childish.”

Ahead of the hearing on Tuesday, McCarthy again called the process a “sham” and said Pelosi only wants the questions asked “that she wants asked.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., joined from left by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, holds a news conference before the start of a hearing by a select committee appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the Jan. 6 insurrection, at the Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

McCarthy told reporters that Pelosi should be investigated for her role in the security failures of the day, but ignored questions about Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who had identical authority over the Capitol Police and Capitol security officials

Democrats said ahead of the hearing that they want the public to remember what happened.

“What we really want to try to communicate during the hearing is what it was like to be on the front lines for these brave police officers,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, another member of the panel. “How vastly outnumbered they were, how well militarized the members of the crowd were.”

The hope, Schiff said, is to “inform the public of what really happened that day, particularly in light of the efforts to whitewash that part of our history now.”

Thompson said that the hearing will “set the tone” of the probe, which will examine not only Trump’s role in the insurrection, but the right-wing groups involved in coordination before the attack, white supremacists among them.

It will also look at the security failures that allowed hundreds of people to breach the Capitol and send lawmakers running for their lives. Some of those who broke in were calling for the deaths of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-vice president Mike Pence, who was hiding just feet away from the mob.

In this January 6, 2021, photo people shelter in the House gallery as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Outside of a committee preparation session for the hearing on Monday, Kinzinger told reporters that “for too long, we’ve been pretending that Jan. 6 didn’t happen.” He said he never expected to be in this position, “but when you have these conspiracies that continue to thrive, when you have lies and misinformation that continue to thrive, it’s essential for us as members of Congress to get to the answers.”

Shortly after the insurrection, almost every Republican denounced the violent mob — and Trump himself, who told his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn his defeat. But many have softened their tone in recent months and weeks.

And some have gone farther, with Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde saying a video of the rioters looked like “a normal tourist visit” and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar repeatedly saying that a woman who was shot and killed by police as she was trying to break into the House chamber was “executed.” Others have falsely claimed that Democrats or liberal groups were responsible for the attack.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters, including Doug Jensen, center, confront US Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

On Tuesday, a group of GOP members plans to hold a news conference about the insurrectionists who were arrested, calling them “prisoners.”

The officers testifying have become increasingly politically active in recent months, and went from office to office in May to lobby Senate Republicans to support an outside commission to investigate the insurrection. The Senate GOP ultimately rejected that effort, even though that panel would have been evenly split between the parties.

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