Does Size Really Matter?

It’s been since the Million Man March in 1995 that I can recall such a stir surrounding disparities in crowd estimates suggested by government officials, media outlets and protest organizers, as that being kicked up in the wake of the January 18 demonstration in Washington, DC. With police estimates at 30,000 and organizers claiming 500,000, the discrepancy is vast indeed. But I can’t help wondering if the focus on quantification of attendance isn’t distracting the attention of the Left’s discussion of demonstrations’ efficacy. And, to the extent the reported size of a protest is relevant, factors other than sheer numbers are being overlooked.

Paradoxically, the low media estimates provide activists a rare angle. Those who intend to respond with op-ed letters to the many newspapers which picked up wire service stories or otherwise reported low attendance figures should take advantage of this opportunity. Namely, the more the press lies about or downplays events that huge masses of people take part in, the more word gets out that the mainstream media cannot be trusted. It seems strange, but there’s no instance where the mass media’s own lies can have such a (much- deserved) detrimental effect on the public trust, as cases where nearly everyone knows someone who, based on personal experience, can refute the lie. And there’s no better case of that than major demonstrations: They can’t very well cover up that to which just about every non-elite from Georgia to Maine to Ohio has a neighbor or family member who bore witness.

Take heed of the converse truism. When organizers inflate crowd estimates for their own ends, they’re actually just undermining their own credibility. International ANSWER’s habit of grossly inflating crowd size, which has long been a tendency of it’s key founders, the International Action Center, in turn deflates activists’ trust. While some feel it’s necessary to “balance out” low-balled government and media estimates, the absurd exaggerations to which ANSWER/IAC and other groups have become accustomed threaten the legitimacy of every claim those organizations make.

That said, we should also remember that size is not the crucial factor in determining the value and efficacy of a social movement. Moreover, the reported size of a demonstration isn’t as important as two other factors. One is the actual size. We know the truth, and the best inspiration for more people to go next time has always been word of mouth from participants who were invigorated by the demonstration, not spectacularized coverage from media sources which almost invariably make activist events seem strange, distant and alienating. Then there’s the position held by demonstrators themselves — size definitely helps provide our stances and arguments with exposure, and it validates them in the public eye to some degree, but it doesn’t change the fact that WHAT we have to say is always more important than HOW MANY of us are saying it… and the quest for numbers doesn’t (or shouldn’t) affect the content of what we are saying in terms of arguments we use or the values we uphold.

Another element of the size issue which should not be overlooked is quantity in terms of how many demonstrations are happening in various localities. While large, centralized protests in places like Washington, New York and San Francisco serve the purpose of showing federal authorities we have the capability of mobilizing, demonstrations dispersed throughout the smaller cities and towns of the US are an integral part of inspiring people to begin joining in antiwar activities. It is when they can’t help identifying with demonstrators –people who seem just like them, from their own community — that most people are inspired to get involved. The knowledge that someone in any given group of people is likely to sympathize with antiwar views encourages them to share those views more freely. When the proximity of events and the relative familiarity of faces at them seem accessible, those people newly inspired to speak out are a big step closer to making connections.

Another notable characteristic of local demonstrations is that actual numbers matter little when support is significant and growing. Crowd estimation is easier when the count is in the high hundreds or low thousands, but a reporter’s statement like, “Officials are calling the protest the largest demonstration in our city since the Vietnam War” has an incredible impact. Next time it will be, “Today’s protest was the latest in a series of increasingly large, local demonstrations against the war.” Terms such as these are better than just about any number, because they establish vital relativity (and they tend not to cause such distracting disputes).

Beyond HOW MANY of us deliver a certain message, we must consider HOW we deliver it. Like the content of the message itself, this is a qualitative factor. It takes the form of the intensity and commitment of demonstrations. If one objective of a demonstration is exposure — getting the message out and making it clear that dissenting opinion is popular, and growing — another objective is to show elites that the costs are rising exponentially, even if the number of dissenters is only rising along some mounting but stable trajectory. We must reveal that not only are more people’s opinions changing (that hardly matters in the least to them, since citizens’ thoughts can be easily ignored), but that more people are willing to make progressively stronger commitments toward raising actual costs to the establishment as it continues on the war-making path. Traveling some distance on a weekend to brave cold temperatures is a strong signal, but having some (increasing) portion of those who are now willing to hold signs and march actually take more drastic steps and risk serious costs to themselves is a crucial element. No movement against war is going to be considered so real a threat to elites, in their own view, as one which seems to be leading to substantial disruption of their operations and machinations.

So if you are upset about how the January 18 demonstration in DC was downplayed in the mainstream media, get at least as upset about their near- total ignorance of smaller but more intense direct actions and instances of civil disobedience, which should proportionately speak louder than protest signs and chants. When elites see that people’s priorities are changing, intensity of dissent is amplifying, and once-alienated constituencies are being exposed to a wider range of dissident thought, the threat will become tangible to those giving the orders. Then the costs to those in power may begin to outweigh the advantages of war.

The question of movement size is thus far more complex than simple head counts at marches and rallies. Since empowerment of the individual is key, most of our organizing efforts must be open and inviting, allowing for new people to become easily involved. The actual participation (not just attendance!) of newcomers, especially those typically disempowered in mixed social settings, is integral. Longstanding fulfillment — what really keeps people coming back — can be fostered by attaching realistic, short-term objectives to antiwar events, from organizing meetings to direct actions. The impending shift from preparation for to engagement in full-scale warfare should be prompting us to re-examine how we present our dissent to the public; we can’t afford to be seen as “against ‘our’ troops.” Instead, we absolutely must make it clear that de-escalation is the best way to support them. We should simultaneously be taking a hard look at our outreach efforts – – particularly how to overcome their limitations.

What we do as a movement, and how we do it, will always be more relevant than how many of us do it — in fact, the former are the determining factors vis-à– vis movement growth. There is simply so much more to evaluating the efficacy of our antiwar movement than the size-focused seem to be paying attention to. The simple answer to the question, “Does demonstration size matter?” is yes. But what matters more than the perceived size is the actual size. What matter more than size are stance, diversity and direction. And what matters most of all is continued growth in these and many other areas. Rather than who said what about demonstration size, let us talk about our message, our outreach, our objectives and our tactics. Then we can leave head counting up to those with nothing better to do.

Brian Dominick has been an antiwar activist for 10 years. He is also working on a longer essay called “Winning the AntiWar,” and, with Jessica Azulay, a pamphlet called “Holistic Antiwar Organizing: Laying the Foundation for Broad Social Change.” Both will be available from ZNet.

Leave a comment