Arguing the size of the "tea party" protest
In any case, experts see it as democracy in action, and that's a good thing.
How big was the Tea Party?Skip to next paragraph
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By some estimates, over half a million Americans took to the streets last Wednesday to protest taxes and Washington spending – the largest single-day turnout of protesters in the US since 750,000 people marched in Los Angeles in support of rights and protections for immigrants on March 25, 2006. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the purpose of the march in Los Angeles on March 25, 2006.]
Pitched as a non-partisan protest, but dominated by conservatives and libertarians, the national Tea Party protests took place in over 800 locales – from mega-city Atlanta to little Craig, Colo. – with people waving mostly homemade signs, chanting "USA! USA!" and recalling the spirit of the country's revolutionary roots to demand smaller, more responsible and more constitutional government.
Critics doubt the higher estimates of the turnout, and say the numbers represent the extreme right rather than a burgeoning political counterpoint to President Obama and current Washington policies.
Yet the idea of non-traditional protesters using bottom-up organizing to foment a national movement in the span of 60 days may have marked a turning point for the tea partiers – especially since the high attendance estimates rivaled the estimated 500,000 or so protesters who converged on New York City and several other major cities to oppose the Iraq War on Feb. 15, 2003.
"I think it's not dissimilar from what we had in 2003 with the anti-war protests, where a lot of people were uncomfortable with the war, but also uncomfortable with the anti-war position, recognizing there are terrorists out there," says Jeremi Suri, a history professor who specializes in social movements at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Here we have a similar thing: There are serious economic issues, and it's unclear to many people whether the stimulus is going to deal with these."
Trying to estimate crowds at over 800 rallies nationwide is, to be sure, more art than science. And experts say the counting itself often becomes politicized as authorities, organizers, and attendees often come up with dramatically different counts. Cheerleading by Fox News and the appearance of popular host Sean Hannity at the Atlanta event effected the outcome, some critics say.
"Numbers give an indication of support, interest, and passion, but there's now a difference, with Fox News, between what's motivating to people and how people are mobilized," says Blaine Stevenson, a sociologist at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant.
The conservative Pajamas TV network said on Saturday that it used 850 citizen reporters, police accounts, and video tape to estimate the size of the crowd at each event. The network said in a release that total attendance reached 618,000.