OPEN FORUM: Counting demonstrators or momentum?

Over the weekend of Feb. 15-16, in more than 600 cities and towns around the world, more than 20 million people linked arms in a vast tide of resistance against Washington's rush to war.

Here in California, about 150,000 people took part in demonstrations on Feb.

15 from Arcata to San Diego. Large numbers turned out in San Jose, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Sacramento and, in the largest anti-war protest that city has known since the Vietnam era, 100,000 people assembled in Los Angeles. The people who march represent thousands more who are against war but have not yet taken that step to protest.

Those who do come vote with their feet, and they deserve to be counted. Supporters of President Bush's war plans attempt to downplay the size of the protests. Bush tried to dismiss the millions in the streets as a mere "focus group." But these attempts to marginalize the anti-war movement have not been able to gloss over the impact it is having.

On Feb. 16, it was the Bay Area's turn to march, and once again tens of thousands turned out. Market Street, from Justin Herman Plaza to Civic Center, was filled for the third time in four months. In the customary rush for an immediate count, the media, including The Chronicle and the organizers alike, released a figure of 200,000. Even the San Francisco Police Department, which traditionally underestimates the size of anti-war protests, said there were 150,000 to 200,000.

But on Friday, in the lead article on the front page, The Chronicle lowered its crowd estimate to 65,000. The Chronicle had contracted Air Flight Service out of Santa Clara and used its aerial photos as evidence of the lower estimate. Air Flight Service (whose Web site notes that it also provides "air support" for military contractors such as Lockheed-Martin, Honeywell, General Dynamics and Bechtel), used a grid-counting methodology that captured only one static moment in a day of fluid movement. This method failed to account for the number of people who came and left during six hours of constant protest. Overhead photos shot at 11:30 a.m. (which can be viewed at www.indybay.org), clearly show a greater density of people stretching down Market Street than at 1:45 p.m., the time of The Chronicle flyover.

While The Chronicle made an interesting attempt to verify numbers, it provided a drastically incomplete picture of the Feb. 16 event. But what was really lost in The Chronicle's focus on number reversal was the historic nature of these demonstrations and the major setbacks they have caused for the Bush administration's war plans. If it weren't for the anti-war movement both here and abroad, Bush's war on Iraq would have started months ago.

The numbers debate also ignores the real story of the heart and determination of those who come from all walks of life to try to stop this disaster. What is lost is the story of the coalescing of huge groups in growing numbers, ranging from labor unions, the American Indian Movement, the Chinese Progressive Association and interfaith organizations to environmentalists, immigrants, students, veterans, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered organizations and others who make up the fabric of these protests.

Last week, the New York Times, in a front-page analysis, wrote, "The huge anti-war demonstrations this past weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion." It was a begrudging acknowledgment that the international anti-war movement is coming of age and growing in a dramatic fashion, all this before a new war against Iraq has even begun.

Feb. 16 was organized by four coalitions: ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), Not in Our Name, United for Peace and Justice and Bay Area United Against War. These groups, representing hundreds of progressive organizations, came together to do everything in their power to stop the war.

There are those who will try to interpret The Chronicle's article on Friday as an indication of a stalling of the movement, but nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, organizers were greatly encouraged and are moving on to the next step as the deadline for war looms: March 15 at San Francisco's Civic Center. Once again, growing numbers of people -- by whatever count -- in the Bay Area are as committed as ever to holding up our end on the worldwide banner that says no to Bush's war.


CROWD PHOTOS

-- To see a sampling of the photos The Chronicle used in revising its crowd count, go to:

www.sfgate.com/rallycount/

Bill Hackwell is a Vietnam veteran and an organizer with ANSWER.

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