Seattle's angry streets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 December, 1999, 12:00am

Foreign visitors to the United States are often struck by just how remarkably law-abiding Americans are despite the nation's outward defence of the most liberal freedoms.

For the most part, ordinary modern Americans seem to take pride in rules and a calm that can infuriate outsiders, happily queuing in stores, meekly lining up behind velvet ropes at clubs, and handing over identification in public buildings and bars.

Given the respect for order, be sure that the protests in Seattle yesterday that degenerated into violence and civil disobedience will resonate for weeks to come.

McDonald's, Starbucks and GAP stores were all targeted by agitators emerging from a mostly peaceful crowd using the World Trade Organisation as a forum to vent their protests on everything from the environment and lesbian rights to Tibet and the crackdown on the Falun Gong.

On the surface the disturbances were tame by the bloody standards of Seoul and Jakarta, but a curfew was nevertheless in force at press time and the National Guard had been called out to patrol the streets.

Suddenly, hasty comparisons were being made to the street battles of the rancorous 1960s and even the Rodney King riots that erupted across Los Angeles in 1992 - the last time the guard was summoned.

'The World Trade Organisation was unknown across America yesterday,' one protester announced on national television. 'It is going to be a household word now . . . and a very, very bad word.' Dumbfounded delegates and foreign guests are shaking their heads at what is driving such abuse and violence towards globalisation in an era of unprecedented US wealth and dominance.

'What on Earth do they have to complain about?' one Fijian official asked. 'The world has never seen such riches like we see here.' As White House officials expressed 'sympathy' with many of the more peaceful goals - new environmental awareness and labour standards - they also hinted at the pain now surfacing in middle America.

Taking a stiff volley of questions from British and Brazilian reporters at just what is going on in the minds of ordinary Americans, President Bill Clinton's Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky warned of considerable angst among workers.

'There has never been a more prosperous time in the nation,' she said.

'Yet there is a conventional wisdom that there is worker anxiety even among the college educated . . . studies show 80 per cent of job dislocation comes from technological change but it is hard for people to get a handle on that.

'People instead often attribute it all to trade . . . people can get their arms around that. People who are anxious are simply concerned about keeping up,' Ms Barshefsky said.

It was a highly unusual statement from an official in a White House famed for public slickness. Normally they prefer to fill public utterances with the mantra of growth. Unemployment - currently around 4.5 per cent - is the lowest for 30 years. More Americans now own their homes than ever before. Productivity has never been so efficient. The stock market is a barometer of the ultimate economic democracy - one in two households now holds shares.

The underside, however, was surfacing long before the Seattle protests. Americans did not seem overly proud of a recent survey that showed they are working harder now in terms of hours than any other nation, including Japan.

This sort of figure means American parents are spending less time with their children, taking fewer holidays and eating together less than ever before. They hold greater levels of personal credit and find themselves unable to step off the treadmill.

Things are a lot more grim for the worse off. In many cities, the minimum wage is not enough to live on and has receded steadily against inflation over the past 20 years. Official federal surveys warn homelessness is continuing to rise despite the boom bringing unprecedented wealth to millions.

Early presidential candidates of all shades have warned of a new soullessness to the American existence. The vague notion of the need to somehow put something back after the years of growth is a constant refrain.

Ordinary Americans do not like to see themselves as upstanding dollar signs. There is more to their society, they insist, than money.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent