Philly DNC protest march
Protesters march during the Democratic National Convention.

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Philadelphia granted 28 protest permits for the four days of the Democratic National Convention. That put the city on the line to deal with between 35,000 to 50,000 protesters daily, not counting the inevitable demonstrations that would carry on sans permits. The bill for police overtime is expected to pass $8 million for the week.

But did that many people actually show up to flex their First Amendment rights?

First things first: It’s not easy to count large crowds. When Pope Francis delivered his papal mass on the Ben Franklin Parkway last year, an enormous attendance estimate of 800,000 spread feverishly across social media. Later on, a crowd-safety expert said the actual number was probably close to 142,000. At the British Royal wedding in 2011, media outlets reported half a million people in the royal procession. In reality, experts said it was probably closer to 100,000.

The DNC protest marathon kicked off on Sunday with a clean energy march that organizers rounded out to more than 10,000 people. A megaphone-wielding speaker at a Bernie Sanders rally that afternoon predicted that 150,000 Sanders supporters would descend upon the city throughout the week. Journalists who have been covering these events for national publications have opted for the safe estimate of “thousands.”

Here’s the breakdown of approximate crowd numbers on Sunday, as collected in the field by police and sent to the Emergency Operations Center:

  • Clean Energy march: 1,200    
  • Bernie 2016 march: 1,500

In total, that’s an estimated 2,700 protesters for a day that many claimed saw over 10,000.

For sure, the DNC demonstrations were everywhere this week, if not all in one place. There were some tense protests outside the convention, especially on Monday and Tuesday nights, in which several smaller marches coalesced into a sizable group near the Wells Fargo Center.

The police said it was near impossible to break down the number of protesters by the march.

“Numerous marches converged and ended up in FDR park, so there was never a specific break down per march given except for Sunday. It was decided to give collective totals,” said Jeffrey Kolakowski of the Emergency Operations Center.

All in all, no march came anywhere near the five-digit mark even by the PPD’s estimates. Here are the daily protester totals:

  • Monday: 5,500
  • Tuesday: 5,000
  • Wednesday: 1,500
  • Thursday: 1,000

In short, the police estimate that about one-fifth of the expected protesters actually showed up.

Why such a disparity?

Permit protest organizers provided the city with the crowd estimates weeks prior to the convention, and the bulk of that 50,000 estimate came from one camp: Bernie Sanders supporters.

“As you’ll see [on the protest permit website], many groups told us they were expecting attendance in the thousands,” Lauren Hitt, spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, said. “One Sanders group said they expected to have 30,000 people here everyday of the week.”

PhillyFYI, the umbrella group for pro-third-party and Bernie or Bust The DNC protesters, secured four super-permits to gather on multiple days of the convention. PhillyFYI organizers spent two months coordinating their demonstration plans with city agencies. They hosted the March for Bernie at the DNC, an all-day protest in the “free speech zone” at FDR Park, which was expected to attract 30,000 everyday. One organizer noted that “a huge amount” of blue-collar Bernie or Bust supporters who wanted to come to the convention couldn’t foot the financial costs. The actual turnout was also dispersed throughout a large area across the city, making for fewer panoramic crowd photographs as Philly saw with the papal visit.

“It’s hard to judge because every day there’s like eight things going on simultaneously,” the organizer said. “Danny Glover speaking here. (Green Party nominee) Jill Stein speaking here. There’s FDR Park. Social conversions. It just goes on and on, there’s so much happening.”

Michelle Manos of Team Bernie LA, a contingent that brought about 20 West Coasters into Philly for the week, noted that some of the panels with Bernie delegates on the main stage at FDR Park drew large crowds, but the discussions were more important than the turnout.

“We expected thousands and thousands of people,” Manos said. “I’m seeing pretty much what I expected to see as far as the number of Bernie supporters out here, people who are Bernie or Bust even if Bernie isn’t Bernie or Bust.”

The week’s protests began loud, but peaked in intensity long before the final night of the DNC.

FDR Park, still muddy from Monday’s storm, cleared out throughout the day on Thursday. The main stage was eventually closed. A flash flood warning went into effect at 2 p.m. Thursday, and the rain is expected to dampen protests outside the Wells Fargo Center for the last night of the convention.

Regardless, the DNC protests in Philly far surpassed those at the Republican convention last week in Cleveland, where the police personnel and press corps at times outnumbered the protesters. Only about two dozen arrests were made at the RNC.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...