June 17th, 1958
Fourteen Mexican Migrant Farmworkers Die in Burning Bus in Soledad, California
On June 17, 1958, a truck converted into a transport bus for Mexican migrant farmworkers caught fire, killing 14 and severely injuring 17. Fifty men were riding in the vehicle when two gasoline cans inside the bus caught fire, possibly from a cigarette. The bus had solid wooden sides and a metal top, and the only exits were two high rear gates that were chained shut from the outside. A passerby responding to the men’s screams was able to open only one of the rear gates, condemning the men on the other side of the truck. “I could hear the men praying in Spanish as I struggled with the chains,” he said.
The migrant farmworkers, known generally by the Spanish term “braceros,” had come to the United States through a federal program initiated in 1942 to alleviate labor shortages caused by World War II. The program continued after the war, as growers did not want the flow of cheap labor to stop. Over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands of braceros came to work in American fields, often enduring arduous, unsafe conditions.
The Soledad accident was one of over 1200 farm transportation accidents involving braceros between 1953 and 1962 in California alone; 159 braceros were killed in those accidents and almost 3000 were seriously injured. The greatest death toll occurred on September 17, 1963, when a train plowed into another makeshift bus carrying braceros in Chualar, California: 32 men were killed and 25 injured. Despite these accidents, state officials rarely took action to enforce safety regulations, let alone punish transgressors.
The bracero program ended in 1964, in large part due to union pressure to eliminate foreign competition for farmworker jobs and thus raise wages and improve working conditions for domestic farm laborers.
June 17th, 1971
President Nixon Declares Drug Abuse “Public Enemy #1"
On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be public enemy number one and launched what has become known as the “War on Drugs.”
President Richard Nixon's announcement of new drug policies marked the beginning of an era in the criminal justice system in which the use and/or trafficking of drugs became the central conversations on social policy and crime. President Nixon and his administration helped to shift the national conversation from eliminating the causes of crime to focusing only on punishing the criminal. He created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in July 1973 to “combat an all-out global war on the drug menace.” Since its inception, the DEA has quadrupled the number of special agents and tripled its budget to $2.02 billion.
Similarly, since Nixon’s announcement, there has been a 700 percent increase in the United States prison population. Although the United States accounts for only five percent of the world's population, the U.S. confines 25 percent of the world's prisoners. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly 50 percent of people in federal prisons are currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
In addition to criminalizing drug abuse, the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. Despite the fact that rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. The lifelong penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent class of untouchables in America. These individuals, primarily poor people of color, have been disenfranchised and prevented from accessing social benefits such as housing, food, and educational assistance. Discriminatory enforcement of drug policy has undermined its effectiveness and legitimacy while contributing to continuing dysfunction in the administration of criminal justice.