February 18, 2013

Let's Stop Inflating Crowd Counts, Eh?

People, we have got to stop exaggerating the numbers who attend demonstrations. Yesterday's Climate Change rally in Washington, DC has finally got me off my ass to write about the subject. I regret this, because the demo itself was a splendid event, full of promise for a new stage in the movement to stop the trashing of the environment by rampant capitalism.

But, and this is a big but, when folks from the bus from the Bronx I came down on made our way to the Washington Monument, next to the rally site, someone on the excellent big screen was announcing that there were 40,000 people present. Looking down toward the actual stage from the elevation of the monument's knoll, I figured the crowd might have hit 10 thou. Might. A couple of other old Washington demo hands I spoke with also scoffed at the "official" count.

Half an hour later, after thousands more people had arrived, rally MC Rev. Lennox Yearwood was saying 35,000, strongly suggesting that folks were pulling these numbers out of their butts. 

 So I did what I tend to do at most demonstrations I attend, and have done for many years. I counted the house.

Obviously this is easier at a demo of a few hundred or even a few thousand, but the organizers made it fairly easy. With a lot of marshals at hand, the rally finally poured onto Constitution and headed west in an orderly way to start the long trek around the White House and back to the monument. I mounted the back of a bench just ahead of the front of the march giving me a slightly elevated view of the crowded avenue as the protesters arrived and passed by.

(A brief note on methodology: for a march of up to a thousand or so, I count by fives, making a line on a piece of paper every hundred and the traditional cross slash to mark 500. Five is an easy number for the eye to group. For a march of this size and density, I count by 20s, which obviously leaves room for a wider margin of error. As I hit 100, I pick out a couple obvious signs or protesters to serve as place holders, so I can look down and make my little slash, and pick up right where I left off. Even when people ask me, I don't try to total up the count to that point. I save that to the end.)

When the last marchers had passed by, I looked back at the rally site and found that it had been completely emptied by the march. Then I added up my numbers.


Okay, that's rough, I freely admit. Let's say I was off by 25%. That still means I am going to call bullshit on any figure under 12,000 or over 20,000. And by the time I got home from Washington, late evening, Facebook friends and Left websites were proclaiming "more than 50,000."

So What?

Why does it matter? The media lowballs our numbers as a matter of course, Why shouldn't we inflate them?

First, let's ask who we are fooling?

The enemy? They have helicopters and video cameras in the buildings along the line of march, and people, professionals, whose damn job it is to evaluate the size (and demographic composition and militancy and political stance) of marches.

Ourselves? Well, maybe, although cynical movement veterans know to discount unrealistic crowd estimates. There's something called the S.F. Constant used for numbers from one demonstration-prone left party—multiply their figure by .37 to get a realistic number (and I've found it works surprisingly well at demos I've counted.)

But to the extent that we do succeed in fooling ourselves, we are hurting ourselves. Mao Zedong, a guy who knew something about strategy, was fond of quoting military theorist Sun Tzu, who wrote circa 500 BCE:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Overestimating our accomplishments and the numbers we can mobilize today sets us up for defeat and disillusionment tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.

Maybe, though, we are trying to impress and encourage people who are new to the struggle, like many yesterday who were at their first large demonstration, maybe their first march ever, period, Even here, puffing up our numbers is a bad way to go. Having attended, for instance, a small protest numbering several dozen, people reading a subsequent web-posting or an article in a left newspaper claiming several hundred are going to expect they are in the presence of bullshitters.

Even in a larger crowd, like the Climate Change rally, some people will find inflated statistics suspicious. This is the US—many people have gone to games or shows in arenas which seat 50,000 people, and they might just notice the discrepancy between the numbers there and the numbers standing at the foot of the Washington Monument yesterday.

And fudging numbers can carry a bigger penalty. Our bus captain, Dan, made a very good point on the ride back to the Bronx, when we were discussing this. Global warming, climate change is a complex phenomenon, which can sometimes be confirmed by direct personal experience. Really understanding it, however, requires understanding some science, math-based science. If people think we lie about one set of numbers, why wouldn't they mistrust what we have to say about another?

I've used terms here like overestimate, fudge, inflate, but I will leave the last word, a blunt one, to African agronomist and revolutionary leader, the late Amilcar Cabral.

Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.


bruce b. said...

i love the concept of quoting Mao for crowd counting.

Will said...

Nice Mao/Sun Tzu quote. Dig it. and great piece in general.

If you spin too much, you eventually get high on your own supply. Look what happened to republicans in 2012 presidential election cycle..

Maurerguy said...

Every time anyone mentions Amilcar Cabral, they get an extra red star for their Revolutionary Heaven Beret.

steve said...

Very spot on about demo head count estimates. I think it would be cool to get one of those small UAV helicopters with cameras to take time series aerial photos of demos, then correct and mosaic the images with coordinates with time stamps and superimpose a grid to count noses. By cross referencing manual head counts with aerial photos.
The equipment costs in the range of $500-1000.
I use distance decay to estimate participants in DC demos.I assume about 50% of them come from an area 4 hours or more away, 50% within 1-4 hours. I get the bus counts, multiply by 45, and double it to account for those who plan their own transport, then double that number to account for locals.
My pet peeve is that most demos in DC rely on imported bodies from the 95 corridor with weak local mobilization efforts. There are about 7 million people in the DC-Baltimore area, even more in the entire Chesapeake Crescent including Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Richmond, DC and Baltimore...all of which are in a tropic storm impact zone.
A tight organization in the DMV would mean the tactical ability to call significant (10-20 thousand ppl)demos on short notice in DC in response to events, rather than big demos with long lead times. The only movement with such a capacity is the immigrant rights folks.

steve said...
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