Gay march organizers demand crowd recount Police accused of cutting numbers

April 27, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer Staff writer Carl M. Cannon contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Organizers of Sunday's massive rally for gay and lesbian rights called on the White House yesterday to order a recount of the march, charging that the U.S. Park Police deliberately underestimated the number of protesters.

Planners had hoped for a million marchers, but the park police announced late Sunday that just 300,000 people participated in the rally.

Torie Osborn, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called the crowd estimate an insult and charged that it was the result of homophobia.

"This is some homophobic bureaucrat's estimate," she said. "We ought to have a reasonable count."

One White House official said there would be no recount.

"That's not going to happen," said Arthur Jones, deputy White House press secretary. "The National Park Service, they do that. That's their job."

But an aide to Bob Hattoy, Mr. Clinton's deputy director of personnel and informal liaison to the gay community, said late yesterday that he understood some kind of meeting between White House officials and the National Park Service, the U.S. Park Police's parent agency, was in the works.

One senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed exasperation with the entire issue. While saying he wasn't sure who was right about the number of marchers, he said he thought march organizers had set themselves up for disappointment by predicting the extremely high figure of one million.

"Why do they announce it ahead of time?" he asked.

Billy Hileman, a national co-chair of the march, insisted the real number was close to one million and said the park service was trying to minimize the size and importance of the gay community.

"The numbers matter because it shows the ability of our community to organize politically," he said. "Coming out publicly is an act of defiance."

But Maj. Robert H. Hines, a spokesman for the Park Police, rejected the charge, saying "We have never had any interference . . . influence our crowd counts before or after a march."

The park service's crowd estimates of large demonstrations are often disputed by organizers. But no group has ever forced the park service to change its original estimate.

Regardless of whether there is a recount, gay activists say the march marks a turning point for their community, shattering stereotypes and demonstrating to the country the political clout they now command.

Moreover, they say the protest signals a new period of activism with gays becoming increasingly visible in their quest for civil rights.

"This is a kickoff rally for the Gay '90s," said Ms. Osborn, who, with other gay leaders, met with President Clinton earlier this month. "People were amazingly energized. This was like a pep rally and the ripple effect is going to be extraordinary."

She predicted an upsurge in work on the local level from march participants as well as a renewed push for federal legislation to guarantee the rights of gays and an end to the ban on homosexuals in the military.

Even as organizers proclaimed the weekend's activities a success, there were signs of at least a mild backlash. C-Span, the cable public affairs network, which broadcast six hours of the rally on Sunday, reported receiving a surge of several hundred calls complaining about nudity and vulgarity at the march.

March organizers said the crowd estimate was only the latest in a series of problems with the National Park Service. The agency initially denied organizers a permit, Mr. Hileman said, and was uncooperative in the days before the rally.

The park police determined the number of demonstrators by photographing sections of downtown Washington from helicopters overhead and then carefully comparing the pictures to previous, less crowded photos. In addition, they factor in other numbers, like ridership on Washington's subway system and the number of buses that carried protesters to the rally.

"We know many people can fit," Major Hines said. "We had a million people here during the bicentennial in 1976 and we know what a million people on the Mall looks like."

HOW MANY WERE THERE

In guidelines published in the Federal Register Sept. 25, 1991, the National Park Service laid out the procedure it follows to reach crowd estimates at festivals and mass demonstrations.

Park service estimates of crowd size are based on the amount of space covered by the crowd and its density. Aerial photography and maps may be used to establish the dimensions of the area occupied by the crowd. Then the park service must reach a density estimate through the following steps:

* First, it calculates the square footage of the demonstration site.

* Next, it calculates the average number of people per square foot.

* Finally, based on the number of people per square foot and the size of the area, the park service detail issues a crowd estimate.

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