The four police officers got choked up with emotion. Their anger, sorrow and fear flooded the hearing room on Capitol Hill. It overflowed the television monitors. It gushed outward with a vengeance.
As U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testified before the House select committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, tears rolled down his cheeks as he described finally being reunited with his wife but being unable to hug her because he was soaked in chemical spray. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn looked like a grieving man as he remembered being called the n-word by his fellow Americans, even as he stood guard over the seat of democracy.
District of Columbia police Officer Daniel Hodges, in a quiet, raspy voice, detailed a soul-scarring day of fighting back “terrorists” that sounded like a chapter in a war memoir. And his colleague Michael Fanone, who was rendered unconscious and suffered a heart attack during the insurrection, pounded the witness table as he described elected officials who minimize or even deny his trauma.
“So many of the people I put my life at risk to defend are downplaying or outright denying what happened,” Fanone said. “I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room. But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell actually wasn’t that bad.”
On Tuesday morning, these men returned to the scene of the crime, spit-shined and buttoned up in their law enforcement uniforms, and sat before a last-ditch committee that was born out of Republican leadership’s dedication to refusal. Its existence is a substitute for an independent commission that would have been charged with investigating the storming of the Capitol. And so, the country has this committee whose members promise to rise above both partisanship and politics, even though those are the twin evils that gave rise to it.
“Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country and revere our Constitution? I pray that that is not the case,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., during her opening remarks. She said this as a klatch of her Republican colleagues were preparing for a display of righteously indignant partisanship in front of the Justice Department, where they equated those charged in the Capitol insurrection to political prisoners for whom they were willing to go, if not to the mattresses, then at least to the microphones on a steamy July afternoon.
The House committee began its discussions with videos from that terrible winter day. The chaotic scenes of an angry mob calling for blood in the name of the former president have become familiar. The list of injuries to law enforcement - the broken limbs, concussed skulls, torn ligaments and burned skin - have been documented. But this hearing addressed different kinds of wounds. It cut through the stereotypes and cliches about stoic masculinity. It broke down the dispassionate facade that police present to the public. It recognized the vulnerability of a Black man and the selfless patriotism of an immigrant. It tapped into all of the frailty that hides beneath the epaulets, badges and symbolic ribbons.
The hearing, which lasted nearly four hours, was focused on the experiences of these police officers who responded to the insurrection. They described where they were and how they moved through the mob. And in each telling, there was always an element of disbelief at what was unfolding and at the capacity of their fellow citizens to act with such rabid rage. With each story, there was always this subtext: These are Americans? These are Americans.
Hodges said he was on the scene “as the protesters began their transition from peaceful assembly into terrorism.”
He characterized the attack on the Capitol as a white-nationalist insurrection. He did so, he said, because “the crowd was overwhelmingly White males, usually a little bit older - middle age, older - but some younger. I think out of the entire time I was there, I saw just two women and two Asian males. Everyone else was White males.” And here Hodges paused for several beats. He looked pained; he looked drained.
“They didn’t say anything especially xenophobic to me, but to my Black colleagues and anyone who’s not White,” he said. “Some of them would try to, try to recruit me. One of them came to me and said, ‘Are you my brother?’”
These officers had been physically attacked but they had also been assaulted with words. Gonell, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, served in the U.S. military and became a citizen. The mob questioned whether he was American because of his brown skin, he said. Dunn fought the physical battle to protect our democracy, but he was also battling racism. Those in the mob called themselves “patriots” in their effort to overturn a free and fair election. Others characterized themselves as Christians as they committed sins against their neighbors. Some carried flags that symbolized their support of the police even as their cohorts showered officers with chemical irritants.
They pummeled law enforcement with slurs and lies. But if there was one word that seemed to land with ferocious power, it was “traitor.”
“The rioters called me traitor,” Gonell said.
“I was grabbed, beaten, Tased,” Fanone said, “all while being called a traitor to my country.”
“A woman called us stormtroopers. Another woman, who was part of the mob of terrorists laying siege to the Capitol of the United States, shouted ‘traitors,’” Hodges said.
These men in uniform testified about protecting others without judgment. These determined men were proud that they had stood between rioters and the country’s elected officials without regard to their party affiliation. Congress hailed these sturdy men who defended a building and an ideal while suffering blows from bicycle racks, flagpoles and their own shields.
But being called traitors brought these men low.
Because if standing up to racist slurs, an attack on the Constitution, the bullying of immigrants and the denigration of truth, facts and fairness are what it means to be a traitor, then what does it mean to be American?
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