Head-counting in Lisbon
I got a chance to do journalism here in Lisbon today. The Frente Comum de Sindicatos (Joint Trade Union Front) had organized a rally of government workers for Saturday afternoon. The rally was to protest planned cutbacks in salaries and benefits of public employees as part of austerity moves designed to bring Portugal’s budget into better balance. Not surprisingly, public employees complain that they are being asked to make the most sacrifices, and so the rally was designed as a show of solidarity in advance of a countrywide general strike planned for Nov. 24.
In my class at UNL on Thursday, we discussed crowd counting and particularly the obligation of journalists to do independent estimates of the size of political rallies. The problem with such rallies, of course, is that the organizers and the opponents often make wildly inflated or deflated claims about the size of the crowd. Knowing that the rally would be happening today, we decided to see if we could produce such an independent count of the size of the crowd. We did: The answer is below.
To do this estimate, student volunteers stationed themselves along the march route, which was down the 1.1 kilometer length of Avenida de Liberdade. It went from Marques de Pombal plaza where the marchers gathered in advance to Restauradores plaza for the rally at the end. The students gathered information about how many marchers were passing during various short time periods, like 30 seconds, and also how long it took the whole march to pass by. (See results below.)
At Restauradores, my UNL colleague Prof. Antonio Granado talked his way into an excellent vantage point above the plaza, a high window in a building overlooking the whole square. In advance, I had measured the area of the plaza in square meters, information that tells us how many people possibly could fit in the square under various densities.
The march began about 3:30, and the last marchers reached the plaza about 5:15. They marched VERY slowly. When the crowd finally gathered, Antonio took some detailed photos showing the extent and density of the protesters who gathered to hear the speeches from the stage that had been erected in advance.
Between Antonio’s photos and the ground-level observations from myself and the students, I estimated that perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 union members had participated in the march, and that about 5,000 of them had gathered in the Restauradores plaza to hear the speeches.
This estimate is well below the claims that some organizers were making about how many would take part — as many as 100,000 or more. That’s the problem with wildly over-estimating attendance in advance; reality-based counts can make it seem like an event was a failure.
In reality, the area in which the rally took place at Restauradores is about 5,000 square feet in size. A loose crowd in which everyone is arm’s length from those around them, a crowd in which it’s possible to move around without squeezing past others, needs about one square meter per person. As Antonio’s pictures and my ground-level observations show, this was a loose crowd. Therefore, the actual gathered crowd was no more than about 5,000 protesters. The estimate of perhaps 10,000 in the march makes the quite-generous assumption that as many as half of the marchers didn’t stay for the rally.
It will be interesting to see if some of the news media outlets in Lisbon and around Portugal pay attention to our estimate or just accept the inflated claims that will be made.
UPDATE: For those who insist our estimate of no more than 10,000 is way too low, consider this. One of my students, Eudora Ribeira , took very careful counts of the marchers during 30-second periods as they passed by her position on Ave. Liberdade. Her counts of marchers passing in those 30-second periods were 51, 40, 75, 52, 45, 20, 70, 52, 58, 70, 51, 49, 46, 28, 17 and 25. The average of those counts is 94 marchers passing per minute. The front of the march reached her at 16:02 and the last marchers passed her at 17:05, a total of 63 minutes. If you multiply 94 marchers per minute by 63, you get a total of 5,922 marchers, or a rounded figure of approximately 6,000. Another student on Ave. Liberdade, Rita Oliveira, also used the same passing-marchers method, and came up with a march estimate that was somewhat lower. By either method we used — counting marchers or measuring the rally crowd area — you can see the crowd could not have been larger than 10,000.
UPDATE: The newspaper Publico posted a long story from the LUSA wire service. Television also is interested. I was interviewed by the SIC (video here at the 8:00-minute mark) and TVI (video here at the 14:30 mark) news stations. And TV station RTP posted a brief version of the LUSA story about our count.
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