The law enforcement officers who protected lawmakers while defending the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack were awarded Congressional Gold Medals — the highest honor from Congress — nearly two years after the insurrection.
The ceremony took place Tuesday in the Capitol Rotunda, a site many supporters of Donald Trump entered illegally with the hopes of stopping Congress from counting the electoral votes for Joe Biden and overturning the 2020 presidential election.
“Our nation suffered the most staggering assault on democracy since the Civil War,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during the ceremony, which drew lawmakers, police officers and family members. “January 6th was a day of horror and heartbreak. Yet it’s also a moment of extraordinary heroism.”
The awards recognized the U.S. Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police and were given to several law enforcement members and surviving family members.
After receiving the awards, some officers and their families greeted the Democratic members of leadership, shaking their hands. But they declined to shake hands with the Republican leaders — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
The insurrection, the worst attack on the seat of U.S. democracy in more than two centuries, left four people dead, and police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who had been sprayed with a powerful chemical irritant, had two strokes and died the next day. About 140 members of law enforcement were injured as rioters attacked them with flagpoles, baseball bats, stun guns, bear spray and pepper spray.
After Tuesday’s ceremony, members of Sicknick’s family said they declined to shake hands with Republicans who initially condemned the attack but quickly pivoted to show their fealty to Trump.
“They have no idea what integrity is,” said Ken Sicknick, the late officer’s brother.
McConnell said in his remarks that it was because of law enforcement officers that lawmakers were able to fulfill their commitment to certify the election declaring Biden president.
“Because of your bravery and professionalism, Congress finished our job that very night,” he said. “Because you honored your oaths to support and defend the Constitution, we were able to honor ours. That is a reality that was made especially clear 23 months ago. But it is true every single day.”
“Thank you for having our backs,” McConnell added. “Thank you for saving our country. Thank you for being not just our friends, but our heroes.”
In addition to the individual medals, four gold medals will be printed: one to be mounted inside Capitol Police headquarters, one for the Metropolitan Police Department, another for the Smithsonian Institution and another to be displayed prominently inside the Capitol building along with a plaque that names all law enforcement agencies who helped repel the rioters that day.
In dramatic remarks, D.C. police Chief Robert J. Contee III said Tuesday’s event was the first time many officers had returned to the Capitol complex since the insurrection.
“Many of us still carry the physical, mental and emotional scars after that mob of thousands launched a violent assault in an attempt to halt the counting of electoral ballots,” Contee said. “The sound of metal poles and other objects striking the bodies, helmets and shields may still ring loudly, the air still thick with spray and other chemicals, making it difficult for our officers to see and breathe.”
Contee praised officers for providing another example of their daily commitment to keeping Washington safe.
“You were confronted by individuals engaged in heinous behavior with the intent of causing you harm and destroying our democracy. You did not give up, and you did not give in,” he said.
“And, yes, you were vastly outnumbered, but you were determined, exhausted and injured,” Contee added. “It was your blood, your sweat and your tears that marked these grounds where we stand today. And you endured this without reluctance.”
Police officers have told the bipartisan House committee investigating the attacks about their struggle to defend lawmakers, the Capitol and themselves as rioters used officers’ own equipment — including stolen batons, riot shield and firecrackers — against them.
Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testified that he was so badly injured on Jan. 6 that he faces a forced medical retirement. And D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges said he was limited in how he could respond after being trapped between a tunnel door and a riot shield held by a protester.
U.S. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger thanked other police departments for partnering with his force to restore peace in the Capitol after such a disruptive day.
“Words cannot adequately express our gratitude for what you did to help our officers by joining in the fight that was taking place,” he said. “It was a day unlike any other in our nation’s history. And for us, it was a day defined by chaos, courage, tragic loss and resolve.”
McCarthy, in his remarks, focused on the brotherhood of law enforcement. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Jan. 6 “was a day of violence and a day of darkness. But today, under this hallowed Capitol dome, we come to sanctify it also as a day of heroes.”
Awarding the medals was among the final ceremonial acts by Pelosi, who is stepping down as the Democrats’ House leader. On Jan. 6, Pelosi pleaded with Trump administration officials for help to stop the violence and secure the Capitol as police were overmatched by the hundreds of rioters storming the building — including some who demanded her head.
Pelosi recognized the law enforcement officers’ “extraordinary service and sacrifice” on that day, which she described as “one of the nation’s darkest hours.”
“Staring down deadly violence and despicable bigotry, our law enforcement officers bravely stood in the breach, ensuring that freedom and democracy survived and lived on on that dark day,” Pelosi said.
The decision to recognize the U.S. Capitol Police on Tuesday did not come unanimously. While a measure to honor the officers passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support last year, 21 House Republicans voted against it.
Many of the lawmakers who backed the measure, including some Republicans, condemned the GOP lawmakers who voted no, displaying the ongoing conflict within the party on how to respond to that historic day.
Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) made headlines by comparing the individuals who defaced statues in the Capitol building and broke glass windows to tourists.
“Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures,” he said in May 2021 during a congressional hearing on the security lapses that happened that day. “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a Trump loyalist who has frequently defended those who were protesting at the Capitol that day, objected to the language in the original legislation.
“I wouldn’t call it an insurrection,” she told Politico at the time.