Mystery of the Mad Masses and the Half-staff Flag

The blogosphere erupted this past weekend with dueling estimates of the number of teabaggers at the 9/12 rally in D.C. And almost as suddenly, the controversy was over. I though that was odd. At the same time, I decided to use what evidence was available to come to independent conclusions. Here is the story of that adventure.

The Crowd Controversy:

While most networks were reporting “tens of thousands” (a modest football-sized crowd), Michelle Malkin parroted an unbelievable estimate of 2 million people—seriously, that figure defies belief. The story of the 2 million figure was quickly debunked; even Malkin backed off.

At the other end of the spectrum, a report from the D.C. Fire Department gave an estimate of 60,000 to 70,000 people. Even that estimate turns out to be an unauthorized (i.e. unofficial) estimate; here are the details:

Pete Piringer, public affairs officer for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Department, said the local government no longer provides official crowd estimates because they can become politicized. But the day of the rally, Piringer unofficially told one reporter that he thought between 60,000 and 75,000 people had shown up.

“It was in no way an official estimate,” he said.

We asked Piringer whether there were enough protesters to fill the National Mall, as depicted in the photograph.

“It was an impressive crowd,” he said. But after marching down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, the crowd “only filled the Capitol grounds, maybe up to Third Street,” he said.

(For what it’s worth, Bill O’Reilly seems to accept the 75,000 figure.) The organizers announced and implemented their own cell-phone based enumeration strategy (see 4:52). The guy from the National Taxpayers Union promised they would distribute the numbers to the media, but I haven’t seen any tabulations identified as coming from the effort.

The Fake Photo Flap:

It was no surprise that the high numbers were, in part, fueled by fake photos. Most notably, this photo, from a 1997 Promise Keepers’ rally, was bandied about to show the teabagging masses. The photo was quickly debunked: the weather was wrong, a building built after 1997 is missing from the image. It was laughably pathetic propaganda.

The Masses on the Traffic Cam:

Another series of images was this animation showing a fairly large crowd marching up Pennsylvania avenue (the images apparently came from this traffic-cam page). The image shows Pennsylvania avenue packed from before the dogleg at 14th Ave NW all the way to the Capitol (a still can be seen here).

The crowds in the photo are impressive. We can see people packed at modest densities for about 6,000 feet toward the Capitol on a street that is 100 feet wide; that’s 0.6 million square feet of teabaggers in view. I measured these dimensions from Google Maps, and only later discovered that Charlie Martin at PajamasMedia arrived at identical dimensions (oddly enough, after going through the process of estimating the number of people in the photo, he essentially discarded the figure).

Given a density of 5 or 6 people per square feet per person, we get 100,000 to 120,000 people just on Pennsylvania avenue. What we don’t know is how much “refilling” took place—that is, how many more blocks of people are behind the camera. To me, the animation suggests a modest period of time from when the crowd begins in view to when they reach the Capitol building. But this judgment is difficult to make because the crowd is clearly filling in from the side streets. In fact, the crowd moving in from the side could cause some inflation of the numbers by making the procession appear to go more quickly than it actually did.

Estimates of the total crowd in the traffic cam almost certainly underestimates the total number of people who attended the event. This is because the estimate doesn’t include folks already at the Capitol and otherwise heading to the Capitol via the National Mall and other routes. Thus, the image suggests at least 100,000 on Pennsylvania Avenue, and 200,000 couldn’t be ruled out for the other factors.

The Mystery of the Half Staff Flag

When the animated sequence was put up on blogs, commenters quickly labeled it as fake because the flag in the foreground is clearly at half-staff. Michelle Malkin scolded the “nutroots” :

The claim is that the shot came from the Kennedy procession or a previous left-wing protest and that the flag at half-mast proves that it was “fake.”

Newsflash for the clueless: Flags were still at half-mast earlier today in honor of the murder victims of the 9/11 jihadi attacks.

Malkin is plain wrong. Flags were not supposed to be flown at half-mast on September 12. Obama’s Proclamation specified:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim September 11, 2009, as Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance. I call upon all departments, agencies, and instrumentalities of the United States to display the flag of the United States at half-staff on Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance in honor of the individuals who lost their lives as a result of the terrorist attacks against the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001.

It is definitely a breach of protocol to display the U.S. flag at half-staff without executive order. So, in theory, no flag should have been at half-staff for the rally. The two possibilities are that (1) the animated sequence of images is from the wrong event, or (2) someone mistakenly flew this particular flag at half-staff.

It is certainly true that other flags from the day were at full staff. This MSNBC video, taken on Pennsylvania avenue closer to the Capitol, shows three flags at full staff. Here is a still image.

Then I came across this MSNBC video that shows the same view (at 0:45) as the traffic cam. And, indeed, the flag is at half-mast! Oddly enough, look at this split screen image from the same broadcast that also includes a view from within the crowd at the Capitol:

livesplit1

So at the Capitol, we see flags up to the trucks. This was pretty convincing to me: somebody messed up in displaying the flag on one building, suggesting that the animated sequence was real. The alternative, that MSNBC used stock footage from a previous rally for the left-image (and the same imagery was used incorrectly by someone else) seems entirely implausible. I thought I was done, and felt that 100,000 to 200,000 was entirely reasonable for an estimate of the crowd size.

Then I ran across this gallery of images from the rally, that offered interesting new evidence. For example, a high-resolution overhead view of the crowd can be seen on Pennsylvania Avenue right across the street from the National Archives. Some photos suggest a pretty low density in the crowd (here, here, and here) although in this image density looks higher.

Here is the same spot but looking in the other direction. See the two flags in the upper right side? And see that one flag in the background beyond the two? That is our half-staff flag. I cannot say for sure, but it kind-of, maybe, sort-of looks full-staff…or not.

Here is the same set of three flags from the ground. The flag on the most distant building on the right is the half-staff flag from the animated sequence. (Careful study of this Google Map street-view allows for positive identification of the building and all three flags we see in the previous image—you can use Google to walk right up to our half-staff flag and look up at it.) Again, it is hard to tell from this and other images, but that most distant flag sure looks full-staff in many pictures. That would be very difficult to explain.

This picture, however, solves the mystery. At full-resolution, we can clearly see that the flag is at half-staff. No question about it:
flag1

Conclusion:
My conclusion is that the animated sequence is real. Michelle Malkin was correct about the image being real, but she was wrong about why it was real. The suspicious half-staff flag wasn’t for 9/11; rather, someone screwed up with that one flag.

How many people attended? The crowd in the photo gallery seems less dense than I used for my estimates. Still, it seems plausible that there were 100,000 people just on the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. I have no idea how many other folks showed up at the Capitol by other routes.

I am inclined to put it this way: there is evidence that 100,000 (and perhaps more) marched down Pennsylvania. The true number may be higher, but I’ve not been privy to the evidence. People throwing around huge values like 1/2 million, with only this figure as evidence, are disconnected from reality.

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4 Responses to “Mystery of the Mad Masses and the Half-staff Flag”

  1. The Raven Says:

    Far and away the best answer to this question I’ve seen. I’ve linked this over on seminal.fdl, and I hope it gets picked up.

  2. Darryl Says:

    The Raven,
    Thanks!

  3. cinnamonape Says:

    “Given a density of 5 or 6 people per square feet, we get 100,000 to 120,000 people just on Pennsylvania avenue. ”

    I’m not sure what this is supposed to suggest. One person/5-6 square feet. The crowd seems more dispersed than this, even in the densest shots. I’m wondering if there were instructions to go out in such a dispersed pattern, thus creating, from a side angle shot the illusion of immense crowds…not seen in the marchers from directly above.

    The dense groupings are mainly seen in the shots where they are massing FOR the march.

    s you note the crowds in front of the Capitol only go back to about 3rd street…and images from the lawn on the far side of the Reflecting Pool show people in a dispersed “picnic mode”. Shots in the two triangles on the sides of the Grant Monument also suggest reduced density. I’m not sure how far up the Capitol Steps the crowd went, if at all. The only place where you are going to get the full group of protestors would be in front of the Capitol, which is where the crowd estimate should be made.

  4. Darryl Says:

    cinnamonape,

    “I’m not sure what this is supposed to suggest. One person/5-6 square feet.”

    Yes this was a typo…thanks.

    “The crowd seems more dispersed than this, even in the densest shots.”

    The photos from the rooftop show different densities. According to guidelines from Herbert Jacobs, 2.5 sq ft/person is considered crazy packed, 5 sq ft/person is a typical crowd density where movement is easy, 10 sq ft/person is a very loose crowd. I used 6 sq ft/person because I thought the density was on the light side, but not excessively so. I also figured the density was higher at the end then in the middle. The problem with the still photos is that we don’t always know when they were taken. The ones taken from the roof look more dense than the ones taken from the street, probably because the photographer was on the roof during the middle of the march, and on the ground later.

    “I’m wondering if there were instructions to go out in such a dispersed pattern…”

    I serious doubt it.

    “The dense groupings are mainly seen in the shots where they are massing FOR the march.”

    This photo gallery BEGINS when the crowd has already reached to the Capitol. If you examine some early photos of the series (this and this ) it looks like the density increases toward the Capitol.

    “The only place where you are going to get the full group of protestors would be in front of the Capitol, which is where the crowd estimate should be made.”

    I disagree that that is the “only” place. An ariel view over the crowd around the Capitol after the march would be the BEST way of estimating the crowd. I haven’t found any such views.

    “images from the lawn on the far side of the Reflecting Pool show people in a dispersed “picnic mode”. Shots in the two triangles on the sides of the Grant Monument also suggest reduced density. I’m not sure how far up the Capitol Steps the crowd went, if at all. The only place where you are going to get the full group of protestors would be in front of the Capitol, which is where the crowd estimate should be made.”

    Yeah…I made some crude estimates based on the descriptions and on-the-ground photos in other collections.

    I estimated about 0.6M sq ft at 6 sq ft/person (reflecting pool to Capitol) and 4.8M sq ft at 10 sq ft/person (3rd street to reflecting pool) giving about 148,000 people. But that is a complete guess as to the extent of the crowd in the Capitol area and the 3rd street to reflecting pool areas. At least it was crudely consistent with the estimates from PA Ave.

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