Crowd counts a game nobody wins

Posted: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

WASHINGTON - Numbers don't lie, right?

But the problem is, there are lots of numbers out there when it comes to counting crowds at demonstrations. And finding the person who isn't lying about the numbers is a perennial sport when it comes to protest politics in the nation's capital.

The organizers of a demonstration exaggerate, sometimes by the hundred thousand. The opposition dismisses the crowd, slicing it by at least a half.

Police, if they talk crowd size at all, are all over the place. And federal agencies have learned to stay far, far away from the game.

I've spent a decade covering many of these events. After every story about a protest, march or demonstration, the paper received a flood of nasty mail excoriating us for the crowd estimate. Too small, shouted organizers. Too large, shouted opponents.

The latest controversy comes after the "Tea Party gathering" Sept. 12 to protest President Obama's policies. Organizers have been challenging the crowd counts by law enforcement and mainstream media - about 60,000 to 70,000 - with their own estimates of up to a million.

The National Park Service has been the target of much ire because of this disparity, steadfastly refusing to offer its guess. "In 1995, we were ordered by Congress not to give crowd estimates," said Bill Line, the affable and earnest spokesman for most of the region's parks and historic monuments.

That order came after organizers of the Million Man March nearly sued the Park Service because authorities said that about 400,000 men came to D.C. that day, not the advertised million.

The stewards of our parks were elated to get out of the counting business. The counting they now do is before an event, for such mundane matters as portable toilet placement and traffic cone patterns.

The folks who applied to gather at Freedom Plaza and march to the Capitol on Sept. 12 said on their form that "they expected 5,000 people," Line said. So that's what the Park Service prepared for.

Clearly, the crowd was much larger. Brendan Steinhauser, who helped organize the event for FreedomWorks, said he looked at photos of the event, compared them with photos of the inauguration and other sizable demonstrations, accounted for the people who were coming by bus and by Metro, and came up with an estimate of 600,000.

The D.C. Fire Department put it at about 70,000. A British newspaper said 1 million.

Unlike a concert or sporting event, there are no tickets to tell you how many folks actually show up.

So we turned to another agency with some measurable data: Metro. According to its annual reports, the same Saturday in September over the past few years has had between 300,000 and 360,000 riders. On Sept. 12, there were about 437,000 riders. Assuming these were round trips, that's almost 40,000 more people on Metro that day.

But what if the Tea Party attendees didn't use Metro?

Well, let's consider the trash that was generated.

On an average day at the Mall, folks leave behind three or four tons of garbage, said Line, who has no gag order when it comes to trash.

After this year's inauguration, the Park Service scooped up 95 tons of trash on the Mall, which makes sense given The Washington Post's still-controversial estimate of 1.8 million people on the parade route and the Mall.

Reporters covering demonstrations often squint and try to count the people occupying a chunk of space, then plot that space on a map based on how far the crowd stretched. Then we talk to as many law enforcement agencies as we can, getting at least a half-dozen off-the-record estimates, until we arrive at something that sounds like an average.

"Bah!" This is guesstimating that can really irk a scientist such as Farouk El-Baz, the Boston University professor who heads the Center for Remote Sensing. This man knows his stuff: He helped map the surface of the moon for the Apollo 11 mission.

He laughed, not too unkindly, at my garbage-Metro-squint method. El-Baz, whose geek cred is so high that a Star Trek ship is named after him, did two rigorous, scientific studies of the Mall during the Million Man March, using the mapping technology he employed to measure desert sand dunes in Kuwait, and came up with well over 800,000, twice the Park Service estimate.

He drafted a protocol for the government to get accurate counts on the Mall. Problem is, no one wants to pay for such an elaborate method.

And when it comes down to it, the precise number of bodies on the Mall don't affect change. It's the publicity, the buzz, the coverage of an event that protesters are after, right?

"People are still talking about it today," Steinhauser said proudly of the Tea Party protest.

In that case, mission accomplished.



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