People Counting: 6200 at Montréal demonstration for Gaza

[MONTRÉAL] In many cities across Canada, demonstrations were held yesterday in support of the people of Gaza and the end of the Israeli bombardment of the coastal Palestinian territory. Based on the media representations of the various protests, including Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montréal‘s was the biggest in the country. But exactly how many people were there? Who decides and how are the protesters counted?

The air was frigid, hovering at around -16 degrees Celcius. Not too much wind and a bright sun made the 1.5 km walk bearable as the crowd made their way north along Peel street from Dorchester Square before walking eastward along Ste-Catherine street past Complexe Desjardins turning south on St-Urbain street and a final right turn to end in front of the Canadian government building, Complexe Guy-Favreau.

I often try to figure out the quantity of people in a crowd. Yesterday, I placed myself at the corner of Metcalfe and Ste-Catherine streets as the front of the march approached and tried my best to count the passing crowd. I calculated the numbers and came up with 6200 people. So that’s my estimate.

After drinking a hot chocolate in Place-des-Arts with friends (where I took a photo of 43-day-old Sofia, probably the youngest demonstrator at the protest whose parents hoped she would be able to visit an independent Palestine before she’s old enough to vote), I returned home to look for estimates of the numbers of people in the demonstration. The numbers I found vary widely.

The CBC wrote, “about 1,000 marched in a protest organized by several large labour federations in support of the Palestinian people of Gaza.” La Presse, a French-language Montréal daily, wrote, “Montréal, ils étaient environ 2.000 à défiler dans les rues du centre-ville.” Approximately 2000 was their estimate. The Montréal Gazette wrote yesterday that their were 10,000 protesters in the demo, which was probably based on police figures of how many people they expected (as indicated in today’s Gazette article. Their estimate is now vague with, “Thousands of people marched down Ste. Catherine St. yesterday to speak with one voice: ‘Stop the madness. … We are all Palestinians’”, Where is it that I read something like, “If one among us is in chains, then we all are.” A Palestinian living in Montréal claimed that 15,000 attended the demonstration. Optimistic.

Farouk El-Baz, then director of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing and expert crowd counter, claims:

When crowds gather to make political statements, it matters how many people turn out. Crowd size matters to organizers, who invariably say they made their point. It matters to police departments, who insist they fielded the right number of officers. It matters to the media, who often claim they’ve reported the facts. And it matters to elected officials, who often like to act as if the whole thing never happened.

El-Baz was hired by ABC News to estimate the numbers of people who attended the 1995’s Million-Man March. Organizers, The Nation of Islam claimed the attendance was about 1.5 million. The National Park Service (NPS), which is responsible for the Mall area of Washington DC, reported 400,000 people at its highest moment. His method of counting crowds gave him an estimate of 870,000 with a margin of error of 25%, which means that the crowd would have ranged from 652,500 to 1,087,500. Both organizers and the NPS were happy with this amount.

Standing on a street corner, counting the crowd as it walks by may not be as accurate as El-Baz’s methodology, but adding up the compassion in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza kept me focussed on my math. 6200 is somewhere in the middle: a happy median, being the only one with an applied methodology based on direct observation.

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