Past Is Prologue

What I Saw Documenting an Insurrection

A photographer’s perspective on recent events at the Capitol

All photos courtesy of the author

If the last four years were a Hollywood screenplay, January 6th would have been a scene in the series finale. The moment where characters of seasons past reunite in a climactic moment four years in the making.

Around me, in a sea of strangers, were familiar faces from earlier episodes of this administration: Proud Boys and street preachers, white supremacists and QAnon conspiracists, pro-lifers and anti-vaxxers. Seeing them conjured memories of years’ worth of news stories — Charleston, Pizzagate, viral videos of suburban moms being thrown out of grocery stores for defying mask policies.

Beyond the shared name that adorned their flags and apparel, many of these groups made for strange bedfellows. I watched militias equipped with bulletproof vests and combat helmets mingling with families who’d brought dogs and strollers. I heard competing sermons on the biblical end of times, and four years of the best of times. A sign announcing “Jesus Saves” bumping against a noose, and the names of public servants said to be traitors.

It was a congregation of contradicting interests and ideas, bonded together under the banner of Donald J. Trump.

The atmosphere was festive and energetic, almost carnival-like. A man dressed as a bald eagle walked by, followed by another on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. People sang anthems, beat drums, waved flags.

The circus tent of Trump’s brand of populism was inviting and open-air. The price of admission: loyalty to its ringmaster.

At first, I could not see why Neo-Nazis marched in step with Zionists, stockbrokers with nomadic preachers, weed-smoking libertarians with grandparents in D.A.R.E. shirts. But as the president’s words echoed over the National Mall, I heard the unifying force that brought opposites together in his name.

“Fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore…”

What seemed like separate stories and incongruent communities suddenly coalesced into a single image, revealing the throughline that united their causes.

It was his absolute promise of your greatest fear realized. A promise that without him, the worst would come. A promise of a moment, one day soon, that would mean the difference between life and death for you, your family, your finances, your religion, your freedom.

“You will have an illegitimate president. That is what you will have, and we can’t let that happen…”

A world without a President Trump would be a world of constant attacks — from your government, from immigrants, from antifa, from terrorists and communists, from China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran.

It was a threat he demanded constant vigilance and readiness for. I saw that vigilance reflected around me in signs of Q, warnings of conspiracy and an election stolen. I saw the readiness reflected by bodies clad in bulletproof vests, concealed gas masks, and a crowd that hung on his every word.

“When you catch somebody in a fraud, you are allowed to go by very different rules…”

Trump wielded his promise like a weapon, one that could be unleashed in the moment of his choosing.

And in the wake of his election loss, Trump declared its arrival. A moment forged in four years of stoking populist fears and an unwillingness to denounce right-wing violence.

It was a moment that required his supporters to value and protect the symbols and iconography of the Civil War. To have fought for and glorified the rebel narrative in statues and eponymous honors.

To create a moment where treason could be conflated with patriotism and nationalistic sacrifice.

The orders that morning were to march, to “Save America.” To use force in a way that reflected Trump’s obsession with strength.

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

And when the national anthem was sung like a battle hymn, the chants became a violent roar, and flag poles lost their stars and stripes to be wielded like clubs, to those around me it felt just. It felt like an inevitability. It felt like the moment he long promised, whether they arrived prepared or not. With an army angry and assembled, the moment would not need planning.

James Townsend is a freelance photographer and educator. His work has been seen on NYT, CNN, ABC, BBC and more. Find me at

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