Does size matter?

Posted: Feb 26, 2003 12:00 AM
Antiwar protesters bristled when The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that a mere 65,000 protesters showed up at San Francisco's Feb. 16 antiwar protest. I can't help but enjoy watching the antiwar crowd -- which has accused the government for a long time of issuing inflated body-count numbers -- find itself wearing the same soiled shoes. Organizers had estimated that the Feb. 16 demonstration attracted 200,000 to 250,000 demonstrators, while the police estimate was 200,000. (This is after last month's about-face, when SFPD upgraded its estimate for a January protest from 55,000 to 150,000 attendees.) Some outraged readers questioned whether it was right for The Chronicle to spend limited resources on the count. That's a loser's lament. You know that if The Chronicle count had raised the census, the same people would consider the count worth every dime. In fact, the story served to put the brakes on the hyper-inflation of crowd estimates. Someone had to do it. Too many media outlets -- especially in Europe -- used the organizers' numbers without even qualifying where the guesstimates came from. Still, as long as opinion polls show popular support of the Bush policy on Iraq -- and they do -- the size of protests won't matter. That fact protected President Clinton when he was in office -- I won't say doing what -- and today it protects President Bush. For his part, Bush marveled that in America "democracy is a beautiful thing," where "people are allowed to express their opinion." He didn't need to add: Unlike in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's thugs torture and kill dissenters. As to protest numbers, Bush answered that size doesn't matter: "It's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group. The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security." Besides, it's not as if the Bushies care whether 200,000 or 65,000 protesters show up in San Francisco -- not when another number likely resonates with more meaning among the Bushies; 16.2 percent, the paltry percentage of the vote Dubya won here. Ohio State political science professor John Mueller noted that while bigger demonstrations are more impressive than smaller ones, the Bush administration's "basic assumption is if the war is a success, people who are protesting or opposed to it will be supportive of it or (will) be quiet." After the Persian Gulf war, Mueller added, "You couldn't find a Democrat for months." I don't mean to pooh-pooh the concept of demonstrations. They convey ideas. They demonstrate that citizens are committed to a cause. They also show the public what the demonstrators stand for. The last S.F. demonstration included rioting and violence, as well as mindless anti-American rhetoric. And anti-Bush rhetoric. It was a partisan affair. Note to demonstrators: If the Bush administration really were interested solely in Iraq's oil, it would spare the military and push to end the United Nations' sanctions against drilling. Among a minority of protesters, the demonstration turned violent, and some 46 rioters were arrested. Note how Tanya Mayo of the "Not in Our Name" group told The Chronicle that "the level of violence and destruction that the United States has in store for the people in Iraq is a million-fold of what we saw on the streets of San Francisco." She has a point, if unintended. The antiwar crowd readily overlooks the many atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein. If they can overlook Hussein's bloody past, surely they can overlook bottle-throwing and window-smashing.