WASHINGTON — Police officers who endured the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill wiped away tears, denounced their attackers and even pounded the witness table in anger Tuesday as they recalled a "meat grinder" of Trump-fuelled fury that nearly cost them their lives and left lasting physical and emotional scars.
The four officers — two from the Capitol Police and two with the metropolitan force in Washington, D.C. — shared the stand as a special select committee began its long-awaited investigation into the attempted insurrection of Jan. 6.
Collectively, they told a harrowing story of violence, bitterly racist vitriol and a public and political betrayal, both from being mercilessly attacked by an enraged mob of Donald Trump supporters, the same ordinary Americans they had sworn to protect, as well as partisan Republican efforts to "whitewash" the riots in the weeks and months that followed.
"The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful," shouted D.C. police officer Michael Fanone, slamming his fist on the table for emphasis, as he singled out Republican efforts to thwart or play down the hearings.
"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."
Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell described, his face wet with tears, how at one point he found himself struggling to breathe under the crush of rioters trying to force their way into the building.
"I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, 'This is how I'm going to die, defending this entrance,'" Gonell told the hearing.
"What we were subjected to that day was like something from a medieval battle."
Fanone repeatedly described the crowd's efforts to wrestle his sidearm away from him, all the while hearing shouts of "Get his gun" and "Kill him with his own gun."
"They tortured me," he said. "They continued to do so until I yelled out that I had kids … a few did step in an intervene on my behalf."
Harry Dunn, one of Gonell's Capitol Police colleagues, described how some in the crowd peppered him with racial slurs after he told them that he voted in the presidential election for Joe Biden.
"That prompted a torrent of racial epithets," including the N-word, which Dunn proceeded to describe in detail, adding that he later heard similar stories from other Black officers.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney — one of only two GOP members on the panel, both of them outspoken critics of Trump and his loyalists — asked Gonell how he felt about the former president's repeated claims that the crowd had been peaceful.
"I'm still recovering from the hugs and kisses," Gonell replied.
The hearings have been ensnared in the very same partisan angst that was on display on Jan. 6 and beyond.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to appoint two Trump-friendly Republicans to the committee for fear of political grandstanding — a decision that prompted House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to pull other GOP members from the panel.
Rep. Adam Kitzinger, the other Republican on the committee, briefly lost his composure as he reminded the witnesses that despite their trauma, they ultimately prevailed in defending the seat of U.S. democracy.
"You guys may, individually, feel a little broken … but you guys won, you guys held," he said, his voice breaking.
"Democracies are not defined by our bad days. We're defined by how we come back from our bad days, how we take accountability for that. And for all the overheated rhetoric surrounding this committee, our mission is very simple: it's to find the truth, and it's to ensure accountability."
At the outset, Democratic committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson thanked the officers for their bravery on that day as he gavelled the hearings into session.
"I can't overstate what was on the line that day: democracy," Thompson said. "You held the line."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press