One thing is certain about the crowd estimates for Saturday's peace
rally in San Francisco: Everyone's estimate is wrong. Probably.
The variations, from 55,000 to 200,000, are enough to give a statistician
whiplash. But even though a police spokesman Monday amended those numbers up
to as many as 150,000 marchers, experts say such wild ranges are to be
"I have never seen an identical estimate by authorities and protesters,"
said Neil Smelser, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, where you
can't swing a picket sign without hitting a demonstrator.
For protesters, numbers are crucial -- the higher the number at a given
rally, the more important does the rally become in the eyes of the news media
and, the protesters hope, in the eyes of the public and the halls of
On Saturday, police said 55,000 marched to Civic Center Plaza. A spokesman now says 150,000 is a safe estimate and 200,000 is possible. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor
Officials with International ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War & End Racism,
for example, are steadfast in their count of 200,000 marchers who made their
way from the Ferry Building to Civic Center Plaza, saying the only change in
that number would be upward.
"Saturday's demonstration was far, far larger than the Oct. 26 march,"
which drew 80,000 according to protesters and 40,000 according to police, said
Richard Becker, a member of ANSWER's national steering committee in San
"I think it's ludicrous that this could have been a march of 50,000," he
Police estimates of 55,000 demonstrators came from a counting of people in
Civic Center Plaza and did not include marchers who were backed up along
Market Street, said Jim Deignan, San Francisco police spokesman.
Aerial photographs show a packed plaza and masses stacked back along
streets leading in. If Civic Center Plaza were filled and Market Street were
lined all the way to Justin Herman Plaza, a 200,000 estimate could be accurate,
"I think it was between 50,000 and 100,000," he said, but later said that
150,000 could be a safe estimate.
ANSWER had volunteers stationed at Seventh and McAllister streets, counting
the number of people who passed in a five-minute interval, Becker said.
About 1,000 people passed per minute and the march lasted 170 minutes, he
said. By adding protesters who came in separate marches -- such as the
alternative energy troupe in hybrid cars -- and those who got tired of
marching and took back roads to the Civic Center, organizers arrived at the
"very, very supportable" number of 200,000.
Which is likely too high, said Berkeley's Smelser.
"Representatives of demonstrators will forever be motivated to increase the
size, while police generally tend to discount the size. Opponents to peace
rallies like to have a much smaller number," he said.
He said police undercount to show that the mob was controllable in a
business-as-usual kind of way, and detractors want the public to ignore
What all that means is numbers are politics and play a much bigger role
than just context for an event.
"It all becomes evidence in the larger debate about the significance of the
cause in the larger debate," Smelser said.
That can affect how a cause is portrayed in the media, too.
Bill Hackwell, who works for ANSWER, was interviewed by a television
reporter whose first statement was that the Washington, D.C., march drew only
30,000 people, he said.
"It seemed to me like they were saying this was losing momentum, that the
movement was slowing down. It's obvious to anyone that it's growing," he said.
The numbers in Washington varied more than those in San Francisco -- police
estimated up to 50,000, while organizers estimated 500,000.
Washington police officials were off Monday for the holiday, and organizers
there -- who say police want to discredit their movement -- felt demonstrators
were "shockingly undercounted."
"It was huge, it was packed," said Mara Verhayden-Hilliard, a spokeswoman
for ANSWER. She said their number came from counts like those used in San
Francisco, along with estimates from the length and density of the march.
Crowd counting in the capital used to fall under the auspices of the
National Park Service. Congress stopped that after the park service estimated
the 1995 Million Man March at 400,000 people and were threatened with a
lawsuit and charged with racism.
But counting will continue, and so too should controversy.
"You have people estimating crowds according to their interest and what
effect that number may have on an audience," Smelser said. "I would put the
whole dialogue of numbers in a political rather than a numerical context."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle