President Joe Biden hailed the law enforcement response to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, saying at a White House ceremony, “On this day two years ago our democracy held”.
“We the people endured. We the people prevailed. On this day of remembrance, we honour a remarkable group of Americans who embodied the best before during and after January 6, 2021,” the president said.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House two years to the day a riotous mob of former president Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in hopes of preventing Congress from certifying his 2020 election victory, Mr Biden marked the anniversary of the worst attack on the US Capitol since 1814 by honouring election workers who’d stood up to Mr Trump’s attempts to remain in office despite losing and the police officers who fought off the mob attack with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian award.
A White House official described the group as “individuals who made exemplary contributions to our democracy surrounding January 6, 2021,” who had “demonstrated courage and selflessness during a moment of peril for our nation”.
The medal is awarded to people who have “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens”. The Friday ceremony marked the first time Mr Biden has bestowed the award on anyone.
Among the recipients who Mr Biden honored was a group of five current and former police officers who defended the Capitol on the day of the riot and later testified before the House January 6 select committee about their experiences: Ex-Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, former DC Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, Capitol Police officers Harry Dunn and Caroline Edwards, and Officer Daniel Hodges of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department.
He also honoured US Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who did not give evidence before the panel but became a household name in the wake of the riot after video emerged of him single-handedly leading a group of rioters away from the Senate chamber, giving senators time to evacuate and directing the rioters to a group of waiting officers.
Addressing Mr Fanone, who left the DC police department shortly after testifying before the House panel, was the victim of a vicious attack by pro-Trump rioters who stripped him of his badge, police radio, and ammunition while driving a stun gun into his neck, causing him to suffer a heart attack, the president said he and the Washington, DC native “answered the crisis call of our nation at the Capitol” that day.
“He was beaten, … and he was tased, called a traitor as the mob shouted if you remember: ‘Kill him with his own gun’. But he defended our democracy with absolute courage, and ever since he’s spoken out forcefully to make sure people are held accountable because he knows it could happen again,” he said.
The president also awarded the medal to three officers posthumously, US Capitol Police Officers Brian Sicknick and Howard Liebengood and DC police officer Brian Smith.Sicknick and Smith both died after engaging with rioters during the attack, while Liebengood — the son of a former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, took his own life soon after but his death was classified as in the line of duty by the Capitol Police department.
Mr Biden noted that he had become friends with the late officer’s father during his time as a senator, and said Liebengood had “lost his life after protecting the democratic institutions he learned to revere growing up”.
Mr Biden also awarded the same medal to election workers and officials who’d stood up to Mr Trump, many of whom also testified during the House probe into the Capitol attack and what lead up to it.
He acknowledged two of those recipients, Fulton County, Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea Moss, and noted how both “were literally forced from their homes facing despicable racist taunts” after Mr Trump and his allies falsely accused them of stuffing ballot boxes on election night.
“Despite it all Ruby Freeman and Shea Moss found the courage to testify openly and honestly… to the whole country and the world about their experience and set the record straight about the lies and defended the integrity of our elections,” he said, adding that both “deserve the nation’s eternal thanks for showing that dignity and grace of ‘We the People’”.
Before presenting the awards, Mr Biden closed his remarks by pointing out that 6 January is also the anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress.
“Eighty years ago after that speech on this day two years ago, we were reminded about the most fundamental of things. democracy itself,” he said. “January 6 is a reminder that there’s nothing guaranteed about our democracy”.