Andrew MacKie-Mason

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Injecting Some Realism Into “The Real Number of Protesters at the 9/12 Washington D.C. March”

This essay attempts to address some of the miscalculations and faulty mathematics in the paper, “The Real Number of Protesters at the 9/12 Washington D.C. March” by Zac Moilanen1. In his paper, the author engages in copious comparisons to other events that add little value to the analysis. The only thing they accomplish is to add further levels of approximation to his mathematics, which he exploits by use of the words “about,” and “approximately.” The most useful comparison in the author’s paper is against the crowds at President Obama’s inauguration. However, the measurement lines he uses are off, if they’re examined. He attempts to use the estimated number for the combined public area and ticketed area, but his actual mathematical analysis stops at a linear comparison, in which he says the numbers 3,250 and 3,500 are close enough to be equal (3,500 is 8% higher than 3,250), and a rough graphical overlay to argue that the Mall is four times wider than Pennsylvania Avenue. Looking at his graphic, even the public area is closer to four and a half times wider than Pennsylvania Avenue, and the ticketed area is wider still. All of this analysis is actually, of course, unnecessary. There’s no need to compare it to the numbers given for the Mall. If Mr. Moilanen had looked at his source, he would have seen that those numbers are based upon an approximation of the density of people per square foot—1 person takes up approximately 2.5 square feet, when standing still in a cramped environment.

Andrew MacKie-Mason

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Using a Google Maps distance calculator2, I determined that the area seen in the time lapse photography (as best as can be determined—it’s hard, of course, to say exactly where it goes up to or when exactly the crowd reaches the end) is approximately 0.021 square miles, or approximately 593,000 square feet. If we assume the same population density as a standing crowd, that gives us approximately 237,000 people filling that area standing3. Let us, for a moment, assume that Mr. Moilanen is correct about the interpretation of the time lapse photography. From such bad quality images, I can purport to make no better estimation, though I do question the accuracy of any estimation. So, let us assume that the march started at 15 seconds, filled the area in 3 seconds, and the last group left at 37.5 seconds (video time, obviously.) That gives us, if we take the assumption that the group continued on at that initial speed for the entire two hours, 7.5 fillings of the Pennsylvania Street area. That comes out to a total of about 1,779,000 people. A lot, yes, but already less than Mr. Moilanen’s faulty and imprecise calculations gave us. Now, let’s examine some of these critical assumptions: we assume that people who are walking, many of them carrying large signs, fit into the same space as people standing still, close together, to watch a ceremony. We assume that people towards the back of the crowd, starting almost two hours into the march, having stood for at least that long, are moving at the same pace as those who started the march at the front. We assume that there was no bottleneck when the first marchers reached the Capitol.

2 3 The reader may notice that I also make extended use of the word “approximately.” That is for ease of presenting numbers in this paper only. The actual calculations were performed with a higher degree of accuracy so as to avoid rounding error, and the reader is free to check the math if they so desire.

Andrew MacKie-Mason

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Taking the first of these assumptions, we first look at the crowd density of an audience versus the crowd density of a march. Mr. Moilanen’s article asks us to assume that a still crowd and a moving march have the same crowd density. This is simply not true, as any person who has stood in a crowded area versus walked in a crowded area can tell us. A march also tends to be less crowded than other types of moving crowds; rather than people trying to squeeze past each other in different directions, everyone is going the same way. Since people aren’t forced to squeeze up against one another, they tend to spread out more. Mr. Moilanen estimates that the march took approximately 2 hours. For that to be true, it must have taken each person, on average, approximately 16 minutes (0.267 hours) to walk 0.818 miles. That comes out to an average speed of just over 3 miles per hour, the normal walking speed4. Humans cannot achieve a normal walking speed when confined to 2.5 square feet of space. The average human stride is approximately 2.35 feet (2.2 for women, 2.5 for men)5. The average human shoulder width is 1.72 feet (according to FAMA, which was, unfortunately, the only data I could find)6. Even assuming the minimal space possible, each person requires at least 4 square feet of room. Keep in mind that that assumes one person’s heel is touching the next person’s toe, everyone is marching in lockstep and shoulders are touching. This is obviously not the case, and so an average of 5, or even 6 square feet per person is probably reasonable. Taking the very conservative estimate of 5 square feet per person, that halves the number of people who could have been at the march—bringing us down to about 890,000

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Andrew MacKie-Mason

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marchers. If we give every person 6 inches of empty space on all sides of their minimal box, they take up about 9 square feet (for comparison, that’s equal to making a square out of four yard sticks and standing in it.) At that crowd density, we end up with about 500,000 people at the march. The next two assumptions we look at together: the very real possibility that the crowd slowed from its initial quick pace. This could have been caused by fatigue (standing around for two hours), a less energetic crowd the further back you go, or a bottleneck at the front of the crowd as people attempted to get favorable spots to stand once they reached the Capitol. Let’s assume that the marcher’s speed slowed from an initial 3 miles per hour to a final 2.7 miles per hour, placing us at an average speed of 2.85 miles per hour. Even that modest drop in speed means we only get 7.125 street-fulls through, rather than 7.5. 890,000 becomes 845,500 500,000 becomes 475,000 It is also worth our while to examine the calculation of time. Mr. Moilanen estimates approximately 22.5 seconds from when the first protester left the staging area to when the last protester did. If that number is off by even 1 second, that creates an error in the final data of 4.4%. 890,000 becomes 850,840 845,500 becomes 808,298 500,000 becomes 478,000 475,000 becomes 454,100 Unlike Mr. Moilanen, I do not claim to be able to tell you exactly how many protesters marched towards the Capitol building on September 12th, 2009. I recognize that there are so many approximations involved in this sort of calculation that it is

Andrew MacKie-Mason

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impossible to get an accurate result. However, what I have shown is that Mr. Moilanen took advantage of every possible rounding error and approximation he could to maximize the number of people at the rally in Washington, D.C., then tried to pass his answers off as unbiased scientific evidence. I do not make any such claims. I disagree with the protesters who marched on the Capitol that day, and my political claims would be best served if the impact of that rally were minimized. My numbers could have been inadvertently skewed by personal bias, and I acknowledge that fact. My goal is not to come up with a final, definitive number. My goal is to demonstrate that such simple things as careful mathematics, and such common-sense ideas as allowing protestors room to walk, rather than just stand, dramatically alter the estimates. Mr. Moilanen is right. If we had a giant moving walkway running down Pennsylvania Avenue and perfect crowd control, the time lapse photos would demonstrate that there were almost two million people in attendance. The rally took place in the real world, however, and real world rules apply. The actual number in attendance was probably around a quarter of what Mr. Moilanen estimates. A significant number of citizens, yes, but this was not the once-in-a-lifetime event that the conservative talk media would have Americans, and Congress, believe it was.

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