Protest head counts: What’s behind the numbers?
The issue of attendance at public protests frequently sparks controversy. Activists often level the charge that media run inaccurately low numbers and play up the presence of counter-protesters to marginalize their efforts. The questionable conventional wisdom is that protest organizers inflate the real numbers and the police intentionally low-ball them.
The varying headcount numbers circulating after the March 19 anti-war protest in Fayetteville illustrate the maddeningly imprecise science of estimating the number of people in crowds. YES! Weekly reported that 2,500 people participated in the anti-war protest while less than a tenth of that number demonstrated support for the war.
Those numbers were gleaned first from an anti-war activist sitting at a media table and then verified by Fayetteville Police Capt. William Simons. If both sides agree then there’s no controversy, right?
Not so fast.
In a story about the same event, the Carolina Peacemaker reported that more than 4,800 people gathered in Rowan Park, making it the largest anti-war protest in the city’s history. Between the two numbers lies a wide discrepancy.
And by another newspaper’s estimate ‘— the Triangle’s Independent ‘— 4,200 people attended the rally.
In fact, the 4,800 number was announced from the stage at the end of the rally, so readers of the Peacemaker were not the only ones who were left with the impression that that was the true number.
A query to a listserv for March 19 rally planners shed some light on the methodologies used by organizers to arrive at the 4,800 estimate.
March 19 steering committee member Wendy Michener wrote that she stood at the previous year’s rally and counted more than 900 heads. Estimating that there were 1,000 people in attendance in 2004 she made a visual scan of the crowd at this year’s rally and surmised that the numbers had tripled, with the result that she arrived at the estimate of 3,000.
‘“This is a good question,’” wrote Chuck Fager, an organizer who directs the Quaker House in Fayetteville, an effort that supports conscientious objectors in the military. ‘“I have loyally repeated the 4,800 figure announced by Lou near the end of the rally, but I have no clue how the figure was arrived at.’”
It turns out that the source of the 4,800 estimate was Lou Plummer, another local Fayetteville organizer, who announced it from the stage at the end of the day.
‘“What I really meant was that there were 4,800 cops there,’” he joked. He wrote that he and four other organizers met at the back of the stage and conferred before agreeing on the figure, although he wasn’t sure what methodology was used.
He noted, however, that another activists has used a year-to-year comparison to extrapolate a current estimate, similar to Michener’s approach. He said activist Dennis O’Neil counted more than 1,000 protesters in 2004, and stood at the checkpoint during the last month’s rally and counted 3,200 in the space of an hour ‘— the conclusion being that over three or four hours many more would have passed through.
The Fayetteville police also used unscientific methods of estimating, and arrived at their number through comparisons between 2004 and 2005, spokeswoman Jamie Smith said.
‘“It’s strictly an estimate done by the supervisor that was assigned to that demonstration,’” she said. ‘“Just like the organizers of the peace rally there’s no counters. It’s just a rough estimate based on a comparison with last year, which was also an estimate.’”
To Adam Waxman, a Guilford College student and anti-war organizer, the question of numbers is irrelevant.
‘“ANSWER may be able to bring 250,000 people to DC,’” he wrote in a posting to the anti-war listserv, ‘“but a bunch of vets and their families, with a motley crew of church folk, hippie college kids, pissed-off revolutionaries and other concerned citizens brought out enough folks that no one will ever argue that progressive politics isn’t alive and well in the South.’”