Counting the Crowds in D.C.
Do the National Park Police deliberately undercount political protesters? In the aftermath of the October 16 Million Man March, that question was once again raised -- as it has been after virtually every major political demonstration held in the capital for the past thirty years.When the Park Police announced that 400,000 people had attended the March, Louis Farrakhan, its chief organizer, declared "racism" and "white supremacy" had prompted an underestimate. Farrakhan threatened to sue and the Park Police, who are charged by Congress with making the official crowd count for events held in the capital, agreed to allow Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing to do a computer recount using aerial photos of the march.The Center's tally of 837,000 was short of the Nation of Islam's figure of 1.2 million but more than double the Park Police's original estimate, making the Million Man March, officially, the biggest political rally ever held in Washington.While police deny it, activists over the years have charged that crowd counts are politically biased. "Part of the problem may be a poor method for counting crowds, but there's also a systematic attempt to downgrade the number of people at political protests," says Torie Osborn, a long-time gay political activist and writer who has attended the Million Man March, the November, 1969 Vietnam Moratorium Day protest, and almost every other big demonstration in between. There's a fair amount of evidence to back Osborn up. Up until about ten years ago, police employed the SWAG system -- Scientific Wild-Assed Guess -- to gauge crowd size. Now, police say they use a grid system to determine how many people can fit on a given area of land, then factor in crowd density, subway ridership and the number of cars and buses in city parking lots. A Park Police spokeswoman, Sandra Alley, says that the art of crowd estimating is now "almost a science.But of course politics condition the numbers. Before the Million Man March, the Park Police listed the Moratorium Day protest as the biggest ever held in the capital, recording its size at 600,000 people. On the day of the event, police declared that only 250,000 people had attended.Even that figure was too high for the Nixon administration. A month after the event, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird claimed that just 119,000 protesters had taken part, basing this estimate, he said, on an analysis of Air Force photos.By April 23, 1971, the date of another gigantic anti-war rally -- 200,000 according to police, at least three times that amount according to the organizers -- the official size of the Moratorium Day protest had mysteriously risen. A New York Times account of the 1971 event, citing police estimates, said that the crowd "did not approach in numbers the 320,000 who gathered around the Washington Monument in November, 1969".Dave Dellinger, a leader of the anti-war movement, tells us that police perennially under-counted protesters' numbers. "Of course, our side had a tendency to overestimate", Dellinger recalls, "but the police went far further in the other direction. We finally started hiring independent experts and found that our numbers were generally about twice the official count."Some of the angriest arguments about crowd size have taken place during the past few years. In April of 1993, gay and lesbian rights activists announced a crowd of 1 million for a demonstration at the Mall. Police said that just 300,000 people had attended the event.The police estimate was based on a series of aerial photos, the last one having been taken at 2:55 p.m. That was about 90 minutes before the crowd reached its peak and at a point when the Mall was still filling with protesters. Using aerial photos and other data, The Washington Blade, a gay weekly, determined that 750,000 people had participated in the rally -- 250,000 less than demonstrators claimed but 450,000 more than police claimed. 0D Torie Osborn served as liaison with Park Police at an earlier gay rights march, in October of 1987, with organizers estimating the crowd at 500,000. She was pleasantly surprised when the police officer she worked with told her that the official count was 375,000. "That was lower than our figure, but, given the usual discrepancies, I was relieved," Osborn recalls. The following day, though, she was amazed to read newspaper accounts of the march which referred to a Park Police estimate of just 200,000. That number became the official tally for the day's rally.Another controversy arose in 1989, when an abortion-rights rally at the Washington Monument drew 300,000 according to the Park Police and twice that number according to organizers. The initial police count was less than 100,000, but organizers were able to negotiate a higher number because they had lined up a 6-member crew -- including an engineer, a landscape architect and a mathematician -- which challenged the official tally.The clearest example of how politics can influence the police count came in April of 1992, during another abortion rights protest. Organizers claimed that 750,000 people rallied, while the Park Police settled on a figure of 500,000.Two weeks later, after anti-abortion leader Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey demanded a recount, Park Police issued a new number: the crowd had been cut in half. "After completing [a recheck of bus and subway ridership and reviewing photos], the 2E.. estimate [of 250,000] was confirmed," Richard Powers of the Park Police wrote to Smith.Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women said that the '92 pro-choice march was far bigger than the one of three years earlier, though the Park Police's final figure put it at 50,000 less. "We had reserved and paid for the parking lots at RFK Stadium and at the Pentagon, but at 4 p.m. there were still buses full of people backed up on the Beltway," she recalls. "Their number was beyond ridiculous."When the cause is non-controversial, the Park Police can be generous with its numbers. According to police records, the most heavily attended event ever held in Washington is Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inauguration, which drew 1.2 million. However, people who attended the inauguration, as well as photos taken that day, suggest that the official number is grossly inflated.The next three biggest events in the capital, according to Park Police, were 1 million at the July 4, 1976 Bicentennial celebration, and 800,000 each for Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration and the June, 1991 Persian Gulf War homecoming. "They want to prove that patriotism draws more than protest, and that just isn't so, Osborn says.