Friday, December 09, 2005

In Search of…Accurate Rally Counts

Rallies. Protests. The bread and butter of the grassroots activist, right up there with petitioning. Unlike petitioning, however, we do not have accurate counts of those who choose to use sheer numbers of their bodies to make their wishes known. Every news story reporting such activities - when the MSM decides to cover a rally or protest, that is - merely uses phrases such as, "organizers claim that approximately 25,000 protestors were present," or, "an estimated 800 participants showed up, according to organizers." Hardly scientific. In fact, such imprecision, even when organizers claims are reported, fosters dispute by government, the media and the opposition.

While it is true that, in some cases, numbers can be extrapolated by using security cameras - as was done with protestors at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York - that is still very inaccurate. Nor is it an option that is always, or even frequently, available. And the final count will always remain in dispute.

"Big deal," you say. "As long as we show up, they'll know what we're thinking and that's all that matters."

Wrong. This is a numbers game, pure and simple. There are several reasons we get out there on the streets and march with our signs, or stand on street corners with placards: We want as many people as possible to join us. We want to educate the public. But in these difficult times we especially want those in authority to know that things need to change. To notice that the numbers that agree with us are growing every single day.

During the Three Days of Actions for Peace & Justice in DC in September, there were conflicting reports about the number of people who had shown up to march on Saturday, September 24th. About halfway through the march word reached some of us that CNN had reported over 500,000 people had converged on the streets of Washington, DC. It was later discovered that those counts were unfounded. On the opposite end friends here in California had heard on various networks that less than 100,000 marchers were in attendance. A count that had definitely been low-balled, as there were no doubts to those of us there that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 protestors showed up to make their wishes known. Perhaps even more.

When numbers are underreported, it makes it seem as if the growing anti-war sentiment just isn't that big a deal. It hurts us when the numbers are huge, such as the anti-war march in September in DC (and with similar marches around the country). And it hurts us even more when the numbers are smaller.

On August 27th, during the last summer weekend of Cindy Sheehan's stay outside of Bush’s ranch in Crawford, TX , a rally was held at Camp Casey to honor the soldiers serving in Iraq. Initial AP reports stated, "Several hundred people attended a bell-ringing ceremony honored [sic] soldiers serving in Iraq," after opening the article with, "Several thousand people descended on President Bush’s adopted hometown Saturday, most in a cross-country caravan for a pro-Bush rally[…]." (Emphasis mine.)

Michael Jay, a member of SoCal Grassroots' Coordinating Committee, was in Texas to help organize and run audio/video for US Tour of Duty's anti-war teach-ins in the area, including at Camp Casey. Michael was at that climactic Camp Casey rally in a 12,000 square foot tent, which was completely filled to standing room only capacity. That evening his Texas host, as well a SoCal Grassroots member calling from Los Angeles, brought the above referenced New York Times/Associated Press report to his attention. He knew the AP report was wrong, so he called the New York Times to tell them of their error and, as a NYT reader for over 30 years, to ask that they retract the article or rectify the error. Their response? It was an AP article, therefore they had no responsibility as to the accuracy of the information. However, if he could get AP to rewrite the article, they would repost it on the NYT website.

Michael's next step was to call AP and let them know that their reporter was wrong. AP did, in fact, rewrite and republish the article to reflect the information they had received from Michael, but even that had a bias which reflected poorly on the anti-war contingent. Reposted by New York Times, it opened, "Several thousand people descended on President Bush’s adopted hometown Saturday, attending a rally supporting him or arriving for the last leg of an anti-war demonstration near his ranch."

Fair enough. But the fifth paragraph betrayed either the reporter's ignorance or, perhaps, presence at a different rally: "Meanwhile, busloads of war protestors gathered several miles away at 'Camp Casey,' named for Sheehan's 24-year-old son who died in Iraq, for a Saturday bell-ringing ceremony to honor soldiers serving in Iraq. Organizers estimated the crowd at more than 2,000, but it appeared smaller." (Emphasis mine.)

Similarly, the giant march in New York City just before last year's Republican convention saw such disparity in the count of the crowd and such acrimony over counter claims by activists, the police and the press that the New York Times was forced to revisit the issue with a separate article which addressed the controversy and detailed the various methods used to try to estimate such crowds.

When the hard work of hundreds of thousands of activists are denigrated in such a manner, simply because no accurate counting mechanism exists, it undercuts our legitimate efforts.

An idea is in the works. Due to his experiences at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, the rally at Camp Casey and reinforced by his experience at the Washington, DC march in September and anti-war marches in Los Angeles, Michael Jay has proposed a simple yet effective method of counting march participants. His suggestion is that organizers mark out a kind of crosswalk or grid, like a horse race stating gate, on the ground or street at the beginning of the march route and that before participants enter the march they are paused by event proctors and lined up to fill all the marked spaces of the crosswalk. Critical to the plan is that every space of the starting grid be filled before the signal is given for that group to step away, that persons at the side of the grid would keep count of the number of times that the line was filled by displaying numbered signs, and that the entire endeavor be continuously videotaped as proof for the press and government agencies. In fact, the press should be invited to be at the site of the starting gate.

For example: a row stretching across a street could have 20 - or 50 or 100 - squares in the row. As the march starts participants, who would have been advised of the plan and asked to take part in order to prove our numbers, would fill the squares with one person to a square while a videotape is recording. Once the row is filled (which could be done in a matter of seconds) someone would hold up a sign with the number "1" on it. The participants would step out of the squares, the next group would fill the squares again and the sign holder would hold up a sign with the number "2" on it. And so forth until all the march participants have filled the squares and been filmed. Knowing the number of spaces spanning the width of the crosswalk, an exact number of the marchers can be determined. Simple and far more accurate than anything we currently have going. With the resulting exact count event organizers could at last challenge the press and the police with the fact that there would be an irrefutable record of our numbers.

Some have said that this method would hold up the march, but as anyone who has participated in marches knows, they tend to start slowly anyway, so this would utilize the waiting time in a productive manner. It might even get the march going in a more timely fashion (United for Peace and Justice considered setting up Michael’s "Count" plan for September's march in Washington, but knew that the hundreds of thousands expected would take hours to be counted; those at the front of that march still wound up waiting for hours). And both set-up and clean-up could be done during the normal logistics of such an event, so little extra time would be spent putting it together.

It's something to seriously consider, my friends. Michael reports that the "Count" idea has been praised by Congresswoman Maxine Waters; by the President, National Board Chair and Field Director of Progressive Democrats of America; by Jeff Norman of US Tour of Duty; and by Jeff Cohen of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), who said that the press would welcome rather than disparage this additional element for their reporting. Never again would the press say "thousands marched in Washington" when the operative phrase should be "hundreds of thousands". Never again could an opposition reporter phone in a story which causes a mainstream journal such as the New York Times to unknowingly discount our numbers.

We can't rely on estimates to prove our case any longer. We’ve got to rely on facts.

We've got to turn the numbers game to our advantage.