RALEIGH — Organizers of the “Moral March on Raleigh” last weekend said more than 80,000 people marched through the city center, protesting legislation passed by the General Assembly last year.
The number matters. Turnout has become an important yardstick by which political protests and rallies are judged. In this case, it’s even built into the name of one of the rally’s organizers, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Coalition.
“The emotions of the event and the stands being taken are hard to measure,” said Stephen Doig, a journalism professor at Arizona State University who has done crowd estimates and written about them. “Something that can be measured is the size of the crowd.”
But it is almost impossible to get a number on which everyone can agree. Organizers of events have every incentive to inflate the numbers, and there’s often not anyone else to provide an independent estimate. Raleigh police stopped doing crowd estimates more than a decade ago, said spokesman Jim Sughrue.
Doig counted crowds at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring the Honor” rally in 2010 and President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration, both in Washington. He said organizers and supporters at both events inflated the crowd estimates.
It is “absolutely human for event organizers to over-inflate attendance and for critics to underestimate the numbers,” he said.
The "Moral March" started shortly after 10:30 a.m. at the intersection of South Wilmington and South streets and continued along a six-block route that included one block on Davie Street before ending at the top of Fayetteville Street. By 11:50 a.m., three blocks of Fayetteville Street were filled with a continuous procession of marchers, while at the starting point many more stood waiting to begin.
Peter Anlyan produced a crowd estimate for the march’s organizers. Anlyan, a Durham-based corporate consultant who formerly worked as a television producer for Capitol Broadcasting Company and as a general manager with the Durham Bulls, has been responsible for the behind-the-scenes logistics for the Historic Thousands on Jones marches since they began in 2007.
Anlyan called his number of 70,000 to 80,000 “a guess-estimate.”
“It’s not official in anyway,” he said.
Anlyan noted that there were three to four times as many tour buses as there had been at previous rallies. He also worked closely with Raleigh police during the march’s planning stages and, anticipating a large turnout, asked them if Fayetteville Street could handle 60,000 people.
“The police said there are 80,000 to 90,000 people at First Night on Fayetteville Street with fair rides, game booths and vendor booths, so there shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “We had all people, with no booths or games.”
Anlyan said three blocks of Fayetteville Street, downtown’s main street, were filled with marchers. He calculated that the street was filled at nearly four-fifths its capacity, meaning 50,000 to 60,000 people were on the street.
At the same time, Anlyan noted that there were rally participants on the State Capitol grounds, on Morgan Street and in parking decks. He said the parking lot that spilled off Fayetteville Street onto Lenoir Street, as well as the lawn of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts and Shaw University campus, were filled with thousands of people, even after the march began.
Anlyan said that 45 minutes after the march began, people were still waiting to get started.
“I was flabbergasted at the number of people still waiting,” he said. “Flabbergasted and delighted.”
But some critics of the march say Anlyan’s estimate is way too high. Dave Burton of Cary and Joey Stansbury of Raleigh have both attended N.C. Right to Life marches in downtown Raleigh since the late 1990s and said last weekend’s "Moral March" barely exceeded 2,000 and did not have as many participants as the Right to Life march on Jan. 18.
Burton got his hands on an aerial photo of the march and blew it up. He counted 1,000 people.
“Typically in an aerial shot you get half of the people who were there,” he said.
Stansbury said he attended several of last year’s Moral Monday marches and gave the organizers credit for “producing larger and larger crowds.”
“I don’t know where they got the number that 80,000 people were there,” Stansbury said. “It’s kind of silly to think that many people were out there.”
What experts said
The News & Observer sent photos of the "Moral March" on Raleigh to Doig and to Butch Street, who works with the U.S. National Park Service in Denver and counts crowds for a living. Street has 34 years experience that includes President Obama’s 2008 inauguration and the 1995 Million Man March.
Doig and Street both looked at the march route and used Google Earth to measure the length and width of the streets where the event took place. They said density levels of the crowd throughout the procession was a factor, along with the width of the streets and sidewalks and the length of the march route.
Doig estimated a crowd of 14,000 to 15,000 people.
“That’s assuming the entire six blocks were full,” he said.
Street looked at the photos from the march and said, “There were a lot of people out there, no question.”
His estimate? Between 15,000 and 20,000.
Anlyan was skeptical of obtaining an accurate crowd count using still photos of the event, which don’t capture the movement of people over time.
“I can’t believe anyone came up with 15,000 to 20,000,” he said.