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January 27, 2007



MSM Downplays Day of Protest in D.C.


The National Park Service, which I believe was responsible for head counting protests in DC, stopped the practice some years ago, largely because no one agreed with the "official" estimates, which were often controversially low compared to organizer and news media estimates (although the media usually went with the "official" count, of course).


Let's cut to the quick. Anyone, ANYONE, whose goal it is to deceive the public is not on its side. From issues as big as "mushroom clouds" or as little as intentionally downplayed crowd estimates, to deny the masses the truth is to deny democracy its very lifeblood. Whether a columnist, a cop on the beat, or a national officeholder, there is no excuse for such betrayal.


Math is hard.

Randy Gold

The MSM may be fairly described as often lazy or indifferent regarding crowd size estimates, and the local police typically underestimate. So it might behoove rally organizers to come up with a more scientific method for proving crowd size to quell the "he said, she said" debates. We're there in fact 100,000 or 500,000? Good question.

Michael Jay, from SoCal Grassroots, proposed such a method as reported in this SoCal blog post from December, 2005, in follow-up to the last anti-war march in D.C. in September, 2005. In Search of Accurate Rally Counts

Greg Hilliard

That crowd count plan sounds improbable. What you should do is get the square footage of an area, assign a value to the space a person might take up (10 square feet sounds about right -- that's slightly more than a yard by a yard), and divide. That 12,000-square-foot tent would hold about 1,200 people in this instance. I've had a lot of experience with bad crowd counts, but we had a fairly accurate assessment of an immigrant march last year. The people marched from the state fairgrounds to the Arizona Capitol, a distance of two miles, and as the first people reached the Capitol, the last were leaving the fairgrounds. Our estimate was 140,000 to 170,000. With rows of 40 to 50 people each for the two miles and a yard in between each row, that was about right. Find out the area of Saturday's protest crowd and you can get a fair estimate of it. As for the police estimates, they tell me they're not into crowd counts, they're into crowd control. They'll give reporters any number just to get rid of them.


Randy, thanks for pointing out Michael Jay's method. Though I agree with Greg that it sounds like it would difficult to effectively orchestrate with large crowds during a march. With a rally, however, like the pre-war one on Feb. 15th 2003, where there is no march, this might be more feasible. Yet, anything within reason that has a chance of working should probably be tried. A little trial and error here so that we can arrive at the best method is surely better than the status quo. Greg, your method definitely sounds worthy of further study. Also, Greg, yes, police are definitely into crowd control and not estimates (well, accurate ones). Directly tied to that, of course, is their desire to dissuade as many people from attending the next protest. Underestimating crowd counts is one of their methods. Another is treating protesters, and I mean the majority of them who are as peaceful as Gandhi, like criminals. Bullying and terrorizing them as much as possible. And inciting some who under normal circumstances would never lose their temper but do so because for the first time in their lives they see firsthand the anti-democratic, mean-spirited and, quite frankly, fascist tactics of some in law enforcement, whose only job in these situations should be to maintain a peaceful orderliness.

Without getting too much into it now, I saw firsthand during that 2003 pre-war protest in NYC a cop leap up on a sidewalk on his horse for no other reason than to terrorize peaceful protestors, to scare them into leaving. (My friend and I saw the horse soon enough; otherwise we very easily could've been trampled. Another person, a woman in her sixties, didn't; she fell and would've been trampled had my friend not pulled her out of the way in time.) I saw peaceful protesters (I being one of them), held back in pens, clubbed randomly for no other reason than they were standing there trying to prevent an illegal war, forged on false pretenses, that would kill and maim hundreds of thousands of human beings.

I guarantee you that intimidation is their number #1 directive at these protests, aside from - and in the guise of - crowd control. At least that's the way it's been here in NYC during the Bush years.

blog responder

I suppose one could just look at a sattelite photograph (the sky was clear) and count the people. There were also helicopters above throughout the day. Are we to believe that no one in the copters was taking pictures? Especially if they were news copters (I couldn't see the sides, only the bottoms of the copters), you would think they'd have pictures from the air they could supply...

Greg Hilliard

The crowds I have dealt with basically were genial, parades and such (and woefully overinflated). The only one that wasn't was last year's immigrant march, and many years before that, a march to get a King Day passed. Neither met with police opposition. Some anti-war demonstrations did in the runup to the Iraq war, but we weren't concerning ourselves much with the numbers then.
The police tactics seemed to me to be one of the undercovered stories then and at the 2004 GOP convention. Funny how protesters had to be rounded up in New York then but not at the Democratic convention.
As for an aerial photo of Saturday's protest, I'd love to see one. I've been looking for one but haven't had success.

Randy Gold

There's no question that all methods of crowd counting have their faults and limitations. The other estimating methods suggested have been used for years, and will possibly result in accurate results.

The key word is "possibly". You really don't know because they all rely on making certain preliminary guestimates: How spread out if the crowd? (That's the easy one.) Further, how many people across an average row? How many people on average in a given square area? How large a gap between rows? etc. The errors in calculating can compound quickly, so if you're off (easily) by an average of 50% in each of the numbers, the final result can be off by a factor of 2 or 3.... which is just about where the police and organizer estimates typically differ.

From personal experience in large marches -- the D.C. march in 9/2005 -- the slowest point of movement is at the starting line, where marchers are crammed up waiting to get going. It's at this point that you have the greatest crowd control, and can much more accurately estimate the average number of people across a row and the number of rows that cross in a given period of time, because people are moving slowly. Even if you don't get exact compliance with the plan, due to confusion and time's sake, the component numbers making up the final estimate have much less inherent variance than in the other methods suggested.

There are other obvious limitations in this new method in that it only counts marchers. What about people at the beginning and the end and along the way who don't march, but who should still be counted?

The idea is to incorporate some new ideas into what could be a hybrid methodology that might convince (or shame) the MSM and others into reporting more accurate numbers.


I'd love to see an aerial shot, too. Though the police, of course, would not be forthcoming with such photos and I don't think the press is allowed up there because of "security," right?

Which reminds me of another thing I thought about mentioning in the post: the tight shots of most photos we see of these demonstrations. If there are 100,000+ people but the photo(s) only capture 10-15 or less, it's also incredibly misleading and works to downplay the success/impact of the protest.

"The idea is to incorporate some new ideas into what could be a hybrid methodology that might convince (or shame) the MSM and others into reporting more accurate numbers."

Yes, that should be the goal. And it won't be easy.


I'd like to know how the police could possibly staff such a demonstration without knowing, at least roughly, how many people were there? Do they send 100 Officers? or 1000? They have to have an idea of how many Officers to staff for any particular event...ask anyone who has hired security for a concert.

It's all Bull...they knew EXACTLY how many people were there...at least enough to be able to secure the Mall.

I have looked at as many photos of the march as I could find...NO WAY was there only 40 or 50 thousand people there..they stretched out all around the mall. My husband has been to Washington several times and tells me the area there is huge..that the views of the crowd in front of the Capital Building alone show at least 50 to 100 thousand people.

We should all write the big media and shame them for their obvious manipulation of the facts.


As the MediaBloodhound friend who almost got trampled along with the hound in the '03 pre-war protest in NYC and who is old enough to have been at many NYC and DC anti-Reagan marches, I can tell you that the more things change the more they stay the same. Or even get worse. The only sign of "progress" as far as police behavior now compared to the 80's is that now the abusive, civil rights denying members of many police forces have more minority faces instead of just white ones. Not all police act in a despicable fashion during these marches, but it's hard for the "good ones" to stay decent when the police brass is running crowd control like the protesters are armed and dangerous. Putting undercover cops among the crowd is a dirty tactic that continues, not having bathrooms at an all day protest where organizers have legal permits, is another shameful way (as the hound mentions above) law enforcement uses to discourage people from coming to the next rally. When the hound and I were in the cattle pens at the '03 protest, the area became so cramped that the wave of people moved the pens partly onto the sidewalk. One of the police brass started screaming at us to, "Get off my sidewalks." Proving the hound's point about "....inciting some who under normal circumstances would never lose their temper," I heard someone immediately screaming back at him, "These are OUR sidewalks, OUR sidewalks, OUR sidewalks." And others joined in the chant. That person of course was me who was having an out of body experience. I couldn't believe that the brass overseeing the event would say crap like that. Think it, yes, but....Another name for cop is law enforcement officer and if that law enforcement officer doesn't know the law and Constitution, how can he or she enforce it?

As far as crowd estimates: if the cops take pics in a helicopter--whether for estimating the size of the crowd or for security, isn't that part of the public domain and public policy? Don't our taxes pay for all this? Shouldn't the press be given photos so that some tech savvy dude or dudette can extrapolate the crowd size? Sure, there are issues of how packed the crowd is and space issues, but are you telling me with all the satellite and computer technology, it's really that hard to come up with an accepted estimate?

The hound also makes a good point about those tight shots of 10-15 people at the marches which of course misleads the newspaper's readers the next day about how big the rally really was. Many papers, like the NY Times, frequently run a photo (along side the march participants photo) of "counter-protesters" who really do number only 10-15 people and of course this is done to be "fair and balanced."

Greg Hilliard

Numbers matter, and misusing them is a form of lying. An honest-to-god huge crowd, like that immigration march, was 140,000 to 170,000 strong. If Saturday's protest had 100,000 people, that's a significant number -- and provable.
The media plays a role in how these numbers are perceived. Remember the "thousands" who cheered when Saddam's statue was toppled? How many Americans would have remained snookered about the Iraq war if the networks had pulled back on that scene to show that only a couple of hundred people were there, mostly U.S. military? More than a few would have questioned what was going on.
Even the huge protests before the war began were undercovered. The media were too eager to jump on the war bandwagon.

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