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THE CROWD COUNT CONUNDRUM
The crowd count at a demonstration is a vital measure of the strength of the message of the protest. There are many players in the numbers game. Controversy has recently blown the question of counts wide open. An Indymedia reporter who has been covering the protests tells the story.
We had been up over San Francisco that Saturday, January 18, 2003, for a little over a half an hour. I figured I had just enough time to do one more thing before heading back. Over the headset, I asked the helicopter pilot to hover behind City Hall. He was a top-notch pilot; he had been following my instructions to the letter. I snapped my last few still photos and put both my 35mm cameras away. I pulled the digital video camera from its bag. I had never used a camera like it before. I had only been quickly instructed on it the previous evening. I set the focus on infinity and adjusted the image in the viewfinder until the light looked right. Then I asked the pilot to make a slow circle around Civic Center Plaza. I held the camera as still as I could and looked down a thousand feet at what was below. It was an enormous number of people, all protesting the injustice of the impending war against Iraq.
Exactly how many people? That was an essential question. On October 26, 2002, there was a similar protest march: down Market Street from Justin Herman Plaza to Civic Center Plaza. The organizers, not consciously trying to inflate their count, had estimated there were 100,000 people. The police, and consequently the mainstream press, counted it at 25-40,000. This was a big discrepancy, and it called out to be rectified.
Nessie, of the San Francisco Indymedia collective, which has been covering demonstrations large and small for over two years, had wanted to send a balloon up with a camcorder hanging from it at the next big demonstration to give the lie to the establishment’s crowd count. But it was ANSWER that got serious and hired a helicopter. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism is the organization which was doing the basic work involved in putting on many San Francisco demonstrations – raising money, doing outreach, getting permits, providing the stage and the sound system. It took less than a day’s time for ANSWER to raise the thousand dollars to pay for the chopper, an indication of the perceived importance of the count among their supporters. ANSWER’s veteran demonstration photographer Bill Hackwell had to stay on the ground because he had duties with security for the march. He called me in my capacity as photo co-ordinator for SF Indymedia, asking if we could get someone to shoot from the air. After thinking about it for a little while, I called back and volunteered. The resulting pictures ran on the Indymedia website the evening of the day of the demo.
The San Francisco Police Department estimated 55,000 had been at the January 18 demo, a figure that was repeated in the Sunday edition of the Chronicle. But I was contacted Monday by Chronicle reporter Wyatt Buchanan, who been struck by the photos on the Indymedia website. He showed them to people in his office, and some said the crowd looked “as big as Bay to Breakers,” the annual distance run across the city. The Indymedia photos showed that at a point in time Market Street was full of people from McCallister Street near U.N. Plaza back to Justin Herman Plaza with the Civic Center Plaza being nearly full as well. Buchanan told me he called SFPD Public Affairs and presented them with this information, and their office changed the official estimate from 55,000 to 150,000! Their excuse for the undercount was that they had estimated based on a crowd filling Civic Center, but had left Market Street out of their calculations. It seemed to me right then that there would be a major change in San Francisco crowd counts. As the SFPD went, so would go the mainstream media. The Chronicle reported the police estimate increase the next day, creating interest among other mainstream media outlets.
January 28, Tuesday of the following week, San Jose Mercury science reporter Lisa Krieger published a two-page story on the mathematics of crowd counts. She used an Indymedia photo showing the march on Market Street with the headline: “40,000? 250,000? Making Crowd Estimations a Mix of Guesswork, Science, Politics.” The focus of the article was mathematics, and Krieger explained several mathematical methods that could be used in estimating crowd size. Someone could count how many people passed a given spot on the march in a minute, then multiply by the number of minutes the march took to go by. ANSWER did that January 18 and came up with a figure of 180,000. An alternative method was to measure the square meters of the area of the march, and divide by the crowd density. Mathematician David Chandler used this approach, arriving at a total of 138,000 for Market Street when it was full. But Chandler believed he had evidence that people kept arriving at the starting point of the march for such a long time that Market Street was actually filled twice. All told he figured there were 250,000 people at the event. Krieger suggested that an accurate methodology could be to fly an airplane over a demo with a camera pointed straight down, and then use a grid system on the photos to accurately measure the crowd.
A February 16 march, organized by ANSWER and several other coalitions, took the same route the January one had. Some demonstrators said it felt smaller than the January march, and others said it felt larger. It was similarly long and dense, and people were packed shoulder to shoulder after the crowd arrived at Civic Center Plaza. I spent part of the day on the seventh floor of an office building at 1 Hallidie Plaza on Market Street, the home of Green Action, a friendly environmental group. There, Bob Sarnoff, a local civil engineer and architect, was videotaping the entire march as it went by to make a count. Isabel Duran from KRON News came up to the office to interview Sarnoff. She complained she had just spent 25 minutes waiting to talk to a police captain about the crowd size and was dismayed when all he had to say was “Oh, the numbers don’t mean anything!” We talked about how crowd sizes were often estimated by comparison with earlier crowds, but who knew how big the earlier crowds really were? It was a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
Amazingly, after February 16 the organizers of the march, the SFPD and the mainstream media agreed for the first time on a crowd count: 200,000 people. That figure was in the headlines of the Chronicle and the Mercury, and was repeated around the world. It seemed that reality had finally entered the numbers game, a victory for the demonstrators. The march was certainly too big to ignore. The peace movement had perhaps gone mainstream. The Bush administration was evidently being stymied.
Then on Friday, February 21, the Chronicle revealed it had taken a foray into high-tech aerial photography on the 16th, with surprising results. The story, by Wyatt Buchanan and others, ran on the front page, with an additional spread across pages 8 and 9 of the front section. The Chronicle used a system similar to one Krieger had laid out in the Mercury. Air Flight Service of Santa Clara, a company catering to military contractors, had flown a fixed-wing aircraft, with a special aerial camera pointed through the floor of the aircraft, and come back with a series of 9x9 inch black and white negatives. A grid was juxtaposed over the prints made from those negatives, and then the individuals were counted square by square and added up. The Chronicle said they double-checked the count. Incredibly, their total was only 65,000! Buchanan told me even he was skeptical about the result. The Chronicle’s Reader’s Representative, Dick Rogers, said in a column on Monday, February 24: “There was no small level of discomfort in the newsroom. Many staffers thought the paper was obliged to find a consistent and supportable way to measure the size of crowds. Others were concerned that the paper was becoming a participant in the story, rather than simply telling it from a safe distance.”
The Chronicle photos represented a static moment in the demonstration, a very short period of time at around 1:30 p.m., not taking into account the large number of people coming and going during the many hours of the event. Perhaps the crowd counts of other large San Francisco events, such as Bay to Breakers or Gay Pride Day, are also going to be re-evaluated downward. But there were hard feelings in the anti-war movement. Bob Sarnoff’s count was 40 to 50 thousand, and he thinks there was unfortunately too much guesswork involved in it to call it accurate. A couple, volunteers for one of the coalition organizations, went up with cameras in a small plane, but sadly had to shoot their photos from too high an altitude to give a clear indication as to crowd size. So protesters had little information with which to contest the Chronicle’s claims.
Bill Hackwell wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle, which ran February 25, in which he tried to help the movement come to terms with the controversy. He concluded his piece with a clarion call: “There are those who will try to interpret the Chronicle’s article on Friday as an indication of a stalling of the movement, but nothing could be farther from the truth. On the contrary, organizers were greatly encouraged and are moving on to the next step as the deadline for war looms: March 15 at San Francisco’s Civic Center. Once again, growing numbers of people – by whatever count – in the Bay Area are as committed as ever to holding up our end on the worldwide banner that says no to Bush’s war.” Hackwell told me that at a meeting of ANSWER activists mid-week, the discussion of the crowd count came to a natural end, as the business of organizing the next demo began in earnest.
It remains to be seen how the size of the March protest, and protests down the line, will be counted by the police, the mainstream media, the organizers, and the progressive media. The March protest could be the largest yet. The war against Iraq could start soon, which would take protest to another level. Bigger crowds could be the result. Mass civil disobedience, were it to materialize, would pose a whole other world of problems as far as the police and press are concerned, more grave than the complications addressed here. But one thing is for sure – in the recent series of large demonstrations in San Francisco, counting the crowd has become a conundrum.
Counting demonstrators or momentum?
- Bill Hackwell
Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Over the weekend of Feb. 15-16, in more than 600 cities and towns around the world, more than 20 million people linked arms in a vast tide of resistance against Washington's rush to war.
Here in California, about 150,000 people took part in demonstrations on Feb.
15 from Arcata to San Diego. Large numbers turned out in San Jose, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Sacramento and, in the largest anti-war protest that city has known since the Vietnam era, 100,000 people assembled in Los Angeles. The people who march represent thousands more who are against war but have not yet taken that step to protest.
Those who do come vote with their feet, and they deserve to be counted. Supporters of President Bush's war plans attempt to downplay the size of the protests. Bush tried to dismiss the millions in the streets as a mere "focus group." But these attempts to marginalize the anti-war movement have not been able to gloss over the impact it is having.
On Feb. 16, it was the Bay Area's turn to march, and once again tens of thousands turned out. Market Street, from Justin Herman Plaza to Civic Center, was filled for the third time in four months. In the customary rush for an immediate count, the media, including The Chronicle and the organizers alike, released a figure of 200,000. Even the San Francisco Police Department, which traditionally underestimates the size of anti-war protests, said there were 150,000 to 200,000.
But on Friday, in the lead article on the front page, The Chronicle lowered its crowd estimate to 65,000. The Chronicle had contracted Air Flight Service out of Santa Clara and used its aerial photos as evidence of the lower estimate. Air Flight Service (whose Web site notes that it also provides "air support" for military contractors such as Lockheed-Martin, Honeywell, General Dynamics and Bechtel), used a grid-counting methodology that captured only one static moment in a day of fluid movement. This method failed to account for the number of people who came and left during six hours of constant protest. Overhead photos shot at 11:30 a.m. (which can be viewed at www.indybay.org), clearly show a greater density of people stretching down Market Street than at 1:45 p.m., the time of The Chronicle flyover.
While The Chronicle made an interesting attempt to verify numbers, it provided a drastically incomplete picture of the Feb. 16 event. But what was really lost in The Chronicle's focus on number reversal was the historic nature of these demonstrations and the major setbacks they have caused for the Bush administration's war plans. If it weren't for the anti-war movement both here and abroad, Bush's war on Iraq would have started months ago.
The numbers debate also ignores the real story of the heart and determination of those who come from all walks of life to try to stop this disaster. What is lost is the story of the coalescing of huge groups in growing numbers, ranging from labor unions, the American Indian Movement, the Chinese Progressive Association and interfaith organizations to environmentalists, immigrants, students, veterans, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered organizations and others who make up the fabric of these protests.
Last week, the New York Times, in a front-page analysis, wrote, "The huge anti-war demonstrations this past weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion." It was a begrudging acknowledgment that the international anti-war movement is coming of age and growing in a dramatic fashion, all this before a new war against Iraq has even begun.
Feb. 16 was organized by four coalitions: ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), Not in Our Name, United for Peace and Justice and Bay Area United Against War. These groups, representing hundreds of progressive organizations, came together to do everything in their power to stop the war.
There are those who will try to interpret The Chronicle's article on Friday
as an indication of a stalling of the movement, but nothing could be further
from the truth. On the contrary, organizers were greatly encouraged and are
moving on to the next step as the deadline for war looms: March 15 at San
Francisco's Civic Center. Once again, growing numbers of people -- by whatever
count -- in the Bay Area are as committed as ever to holding up our end on the
worldwide banner that says no to Bush's war.
CROWD PHOTOS-- To see a sampling of the photos The Chronicle used in revising its crowd count, go to:
Bill Hackwell is a Vietnam veteran and an organizer with ANSWER.
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