The author celebrating July 4 with his son.
The last thing I ever wanted to be was a troublemaker.
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, my grandparents taught me to keep quiet. With no dad around, I listened when Abuelo Bienvenido, Mom’s father, told me, “Speak only when you’re spoken to.” He had 13 kids and eight grandkids. I wasn’t his favorite. To win him over, I said “Si, Señor” and fed all the animals on his fruit and vegetable farm where we lived.
Mom was a maid for a well-off family, then sold frituras on the street. I carried wood to the firepit and babysat my little brother and sister. All I ever hoped to be was useful and someone who made my family proud.
“Never tell lies,” said my other grandfather, Fillo. Although he had seven kids and four grandkids, he treated me special. Not so his wife. When I was 10, Grandma Andrea told a neighbor, “We have no food to sell today.” Knowing we did, I said, “Yes, we do.” She smacked my mouth, snapping, “Shut up. Nobody’s speaking to you.” Later she yelled, “She owes us money. Don’t contradict me. If you’re not asked, keep your mouth closed.” Lesson learned: Let others do the talking.
Although my folks separated weeks after my birth and Dad wasn’t around for my childhood, he resurfaced when I was 12. He wanted us to be a family again and paid for Mom, my brother Tony and me to join him in Brooklyn.
I was excited to live with both parents and move to the States, but it wasn’t as easy as I expected. Dad was a cabdriver and busy working all the time. I helped out as a stock boy at a bodega and sold Mom’s food door to door. I gave my parents most of the cash I made, though not all. One morning, seeing my flashy new Nikes, Dad asked, “Why spend so much on that crap? What was wrong with the shoes I got you?” I felt ashamed. The first rule from my father: Be modest and blend in.
That was hard without speaking the language in America. My accent was heavy. I struggled, pronouncing “v” as “b,” saying “berry” instead of “very.” My teacher wasn’t sympathetic. Once, when I asked her to repeat a word I missed, she gave me detention for being disruptive. I didn’t want to disrupt anyone, so I stopped raising my hand. As a minority student and an immigrant, I couldn’t risk calling attention to myself. I lived with the constant fear that something I did would get us deported.
Staying seen but not heard proved to be a good strategy. I became the first in my family to graduate high school. To afford college, I enlisted in the Army. A team player, I saluted and obeyed the chain of command, waiting for permission to speak. I followed orders, replying, “Yes, sir” when told to serve food in the chow hall and clean barracks.
My efforts kept paying off. I was honored to become a U.S. citizen and continue my service. The military was perfect training for joining the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C. For 16 years, when ordered to check ID, I checked. When sent to guard a dignitary’s arrival, I guarded. I was cautious and careful as I moved up the ranks, and I rarely challenged higher-ups.
In 2016, as police unions nationwide endorsed Republican Donald Trump, I was stunned to hear him call Black nations “shithole countries” and Mexican migrants “criminals, drug dealers and rapists.”
“Trump doesn’t mean what he says,” a white supervisor told me. “He’s just joking.”
Trump didn’t have my vote, but I kept my views to myself, reminding my squad that we protected everyone equally. When he won the presidency, I worried. Traveling with my young son, whose English was better than mine, I noticed condescending stares I received, as if strangers found me less American for speaking Spanish. Or the wrong kind of foreigner (unlike Melania Trump’s white Slovenian parents, who were naturalized through the kind of “chain migration” her husband vehemently denounced). Still, I stayed subdued. If someone confronted me, I’d say I was a veteran and show my police sergeant badge to avoid a fight.
Silence — the blueprint I’d relied on — became impossible on Jan. 6, 2021. On that day, I was attacked while defending the U.S. Capitol against an invasion by tens of thousands in a barbaric mob of rioters incited by President Trump. Swarms of assailants beat me and my colleagues with poles, sticks, broken pipes and pieces of furniture. It was worse than combat I’d seen in Iraq.
Holding the police line through hours of torture, bloody from fending off multiple rioters, I was called “un-American” and a traitor who broke his oath and deserved to be executed. Trampled from both sides, I thought, This is how I’m going to die.
Nine people did end up dead. I was so badly wounded that even after two surgeries, I wasn’t sure if I could do my job or take the lieutenant promotion I’d strived for. Instead of denouncing the siege and upholding the law, many of the Republican lawmakers I risked my life to shield did the unthinkable: They defended Trump and the insurrectionists. They claimed the violent uprising by that armed militia was “legitimate public discourse” and a “peaceful protest” conducted by “patriots.”
As a public servant for two decades, I was horrified to hear the invaders painted as victims and felt compelled to tell my story, but my wife and I were petrified that Trump’s influence could harm our family. So I kept my mouth shut.
Then Harry Dunn, a Black colleague of 13 years who was also traumatized by the attempted coup, spoke out. He exposed the violence and racist epithets hurled at him by the pro-Trump white nationalists who stormed the Capitol. In TV interviews, he revealed how he was berated and racially profiled by fellow U.S. citizens whose crimes were rationalized and concealed.
I identified with Dunn, a fellow policeman of color, vilified for doing his job. I waited for Republican leaders Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio — people I’d met and protected — to condemn the revolt. Yet they refused to blame our lawless ex-president for causing this historic tragedy. Hawley actually raised his fist in support of the rioters and printed the image on a cup for sale on his website.
Meanwhile, doctors and physical therapists kept trying to fix my chronic pain, recurring nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. One day, while recovering from shoulder and foot surgery for injuries sustained in the attack, my leg elevated to keep the swelling down, I turned on the news to learn that the GOP had blocked a bipartisan investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Then I saw Harry Dunn and his co-worker Michael Fanone with two women, the mother and fiancé of Brian Sicknick, the 42-year-old-officer who died of a stroke a day after fighting the rioters. The foursome went door to door in the U.S. Senate buildings to get support for an investigation into the dangerous ambush. It could have been my wife, son, mom and dad begging our lawmakers to investigate the same mob who almost killed me.
The author receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Joe Biden at the White House in January 2023.
After keeping quiet for decades, I lost it. I couldn’t believe what cowards these politicians were. Shocked, I told my wife, “They pretend to support law enforcement while covering up what happened for their own political gain!”
My faith in the U.S. justice system capsized. I’d put everything on the line as a soldier and policeman to defend our democracy. I recalled John F. Kennedy saying, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” and the advice from activist and Congressman John Lewis to get into “good trouble.” I could no longer stay silent. An American proud of the sacrifices I made for our nation, I deserved a voice. To hell with not being disruptive. I was going public.
I asked Harry Dunn to connect me with CNN. On June 3, 2021, I gave an interview. It was draining to relive the terrifying trauma that haunted me, but afterwards, an immense weight lifted. I was risking my job and the security of my family, but the truth was more important.
At 41, I left my comfort zone and spoke out — to my bosses, the district attorney, the FBI, before Congress, in The New York Times and The Washington Postand on Telemundo. I blew every whistle, testified to each horror I saw and called out all the injustices I witnessed, regardless of whether the liars taunted, outnumbered or outranked me. I was betrayed by the president of the United States. The obedient, scared little boy from el campo was gone. It was time to stand up to any authority who abused their power and stop being afraid.
Aquilino Gonell grew up on his grandparents’ farm in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York in 1992 at age 12. He enlisted in the Army at 20, became a decorated Iraq War veteran and proud U.S. citizen, and the first in his family to graduate from college. On the Capitol Police force, he rose to the rank of sergeant. Wounded on the front lines on Jan. 6, 2021, he was one of the first officers to testify before the House select committee investigating the insurrection. He’s a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Citizens Medal given to him by President Joe Biden.