By their own admission, news media have reported that they have been less than certain of crowd estimates provided by authorities --and organizers-- in recent years. Although a number of formulas have been employed over the years to determine the probable number of people in a certain space, the caveat is that no definitive number could possibly be given once the numbers reach a certain size.
That said, I will tell you that estimates of a million people in just the Los Angeles marches on May 1 would be far more accurate than what some local (and national) media have given.
From the media pen by City Hall, atop the ruins of the old State Building at Spring and Temple, it would be easy to undercount the marchers present. The vast majority of marchers were not visible from the media pen at all. A number of local news stations (but not all, by any means) diverted their news helicopters to fly over Broadway and pan down the mile-plus crowd that filled the street from sidewalk to sidewalk, filling all four lanes of the street. Marchers stood in front of City Hall to listen to speakers from the platform that was erected in the middle of Spring Street, covering the grass on the West and South sides of City Hall and filling the surrounding streets. Standing at Broadway and Fifth, and later at the top of the hill at the Civic Center near Broadway and Temple, I can tell you that the crowd stretched down Broadway as far as the eye could see; the overwhelming majority of whom could not have possibly fit in the open space by City Hall.
The largest parade to City Hall in recent years that I personally observed was to celebrate the Lakers World Championship. The crowds on Monday were so many times larger than the half million or so estimated for that event.
Unlike the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, or the enormous space in from of the Ministry of the Interior in La Habana, there is no large open space near City Hall to support any public gatherings of this nature. Spill over marchers, in fact, were filling First Street all the way to Little Tokyo, and although Broadway way the only street closure the media had announced in the hours prior to the march, both Spring Street and Hill Street, parallel to Broadway, were filled with overflow crowds.
And I couldn't get to the Wilshire Boulevard march from MacArthur Park to La Brea that many of the marchers went to after marching up Broadway. That march, organized in cooperation with government officials, schools administrators and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, all of whom had urged protesters to stay in school and on the job and march later, was described as even larger on most of the local media.
One marcher had a sign identifying herself as a teacher that also read, "and my students are here, too!" I couldn't imagine a more fitting lesson in participatory American politics for young people. Indeed, despite the rhetoric from the speakers on the platform, the entire scene had a very festive, upbeat mood. One of the most significant sights within the crowd were the number of multi-generational families all walking together. There were grandparents and countless babies in strollers. The number of entire young families marching together was significant.
LAUSD reported a truancy rate of 27% for Monday. School districts around the Los Angeles area gave out absentee figures ranging from 10% to 72%.
Because of the lost revenue from the state of California based on pupil attendance, some school districts on Tuesday were floating around the possibility of making up the lost time with after school or Saturday sessions. It would be beneficial to the continued participation in democracy if that time was to be used for some sort of teach-in. I suspect from the exasperated tone of school administrators on local news, that isn't likely to take place.
This was the largest civics lesson most of the young people present will ever get to experience first hand. Given that the overwhelming number of those present were American citizens (one of the frequently seen signs, "Today we march, tomorrow we vote!" in eitherr English, Spanish or both) the history of such large marches in America --coupled with a teach-in on voter registration and a chance for students to speak to one another --and those who didn't or couldn't participate-- on how they affected by Monday's events.
This was a large scale lesson for everyone in America on how to reinvigorate democracy and encourage citizen participation. Empowerment has been such an overused word in recent years. Well, Monday gave it new meaning.