I searched long and hard for a poem that touched most directly on the mayhem afflicting the United Kingdom in the past few days. I looked into poetry written after a number of 20th century riots, but none got to the heart of what's happening in the London riots.
And, for that matter, what is happening in the London riots? People are rushing to make snap judgments before the dust settles; many commentators and journalists are going to end up with egg on their face. Socialist thinkers focus on socio-economic factors, the middle-class fixate on the complete inadequacy of policing in London, and government flaks toe the line on "these people are criminals! Criminals I tell you!"
Very few seem to be able to hold all three thoughts simultaneously in their head, which is why I have great doubt that the structural factors leading to the rioting and the looting will be adequately addressed before flare-ups happen again. Overuse of police force kicked off the riots, but inadequate police presence emboldened the looters. The fact is that the government did not have an adequate response was because they were blind-sided; they have long ignored the marginalized, and are then surprised that there's a sizeable population with no investment in "civil" society.
Langston Hughes's poem, probably his most famous, was written about the disenfranchisement of an entire population, an entire population for whom the American Dream was not just a hope, but an insidious fantasy, conspiring to keep the have-nots in their place. When you are faced with no hope and no opportunity beyond what you're experiencing at the current moment, then your entire view of the world becomes warped, your view of those more rich, more successful than you turns dark.
"Or does it explode" indeed.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over -
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
--Langston Hughes, 1951