United States President Joe Biden has presented 14 people with the country’s second highest civilian honour, in recognition of their efforts to “defend the integrity of our elections”.
The award ceremony was held on Friday to mark the two-year anniversary of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, when protesters attempted to violently disrupt the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
For the first time in his presidency, Biden awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, a distinction established in 1969 to pay tribute to those who “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens”. It is the second-highest civilian award after the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The medal was given to nine law enforcement officers who served at the US Capitol during the attack, as well as five election workers who refused to go along with former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the election.
“Two years ago, on January the 6th, our democracy was attacked,” Biden said at the ceremony. “On this day of remembrance, … we honour a remarkable group of Americans who embodied the best before, during and after January 6, 2021.”
As the US observes the second anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, questions remain about continued threats to democracy.
Thousands of rioters descended on the Capitol in 2021, spurred by false claims made by then-President Trump that the election had been “rigged” against him. In an effort to halt the peaceful transfer of power, they stormed the building, forcing lawmakers inside to evacuate.
The rioters “assaulted law enforcement, vandalised sacred halls, hunted down elected officials, all for the purpose of attempting to overthrow the will of the people”, Biden said on Friday. “All of it was fuelled by lies about the 2020 election.”
Biden credited law enforcement with helping to “hold the line” for democracy on January 6.
A Senate report estimates that 140 law enforcement officers were injured in the deadly attack with some suffering cracked ribs, smashed spinal discs, a stabbing and the loss of an eye.
During Friday’s ceremony, Biden offered posthumous awards to three officers who died in connection to the attack. They included officer Brian Sicknick, who was pepper-sprayed and struck in the head during the violence. He died of his injuries the following day.
Sicknick’s longtime partner, Sandra Garza, filed a civil lawsuit on Thursday against Trump for his role in the events of January 6.
Also honoured at Friday’s ceremony was Officer Eugene Goodman, a survivor who was praised for shepherding rioters away from the Senate floor as lawmakers fled the building. Legislators like New Jersey’s Frank Pallone credited Goodman’s diversion with saving “countless lives”, as some rioters had expressed a desire to kidnap or even kill members of Congress.
Biden awarded more medals to Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges, Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards and a former Metropolitan Police officer named Michael Fanone, who suffered a heart attack after the riot.
While the attack on the Capitol may have been the most violent effort to roll back the results of the 2020 election, it was not the only one.
Election workers across the country faced criticism and even threats as Trump spread false claims that the election had been stolen through fraud. The former president also pressured officials to decertify election results that were not in his favour.
Several election workers who resisted that pressure testified before a panel in the US House of Representatives that investigated the January 6 attack.
Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, two election workers from Georgia, were honoured at Friday’s ceremony after they gave emotional testimony before the committee about the abuse and threats they had endured from Trump supporters.
Moss told the panel that, at one point, Trump supporters entered the home of her grandmother, threatening to place her under “citizens arrest” and asking where Moss and Freeman were.
Rusty Bowers, a former Republican House Speaker in the Arizona state legislature, also received a medal on Friday. Bowers had told the January 6 panel that Trump pressured him to overturn the state’s election results, which he refused to do.
Trump has criticised Bowers, who lost a bid for state Senate in November elections.
“His courage was probably the reason why he lost his primary last year,” Biden said at the ceremony. “Rusty, you’re an example. He’s a demonstration to every young man and woman thinking about entering politics about what integrity is all about.”
Two more medals were given to former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for resisting efforts to overturn election results in their jurisdictions.