Why Strike?--Charles Vaughn Jr.'s successful hunger strike was a non-violent force for change.
Thursday, June 10, 1999
Why a hunger strike? Asking myself this question, I opened a copy of Henry David Thoreau''s 1848 essay, "Civil Disobedience." In it, Thoreau asserts the moral imperative of the individual to respond to unjust circumstances: "A very few," he said, "as...reformers in the great sense, and men [and women], serve the State with their consciences also..." That is the beginning point, I believe, for understanding the justification for a hunger strike.
On May 19, 1998, Charles Vaughn Sr.--a member of the community, a parent, a former teacher and victim of mental illness--was shot and killed on the roof of his house by Seaside police. Many people find the circumstances of the shooting to be representative of inadequate response procedures in both the Department of Mental Health and the Seaside Police Department. Locally, it was not the first time a mentally ill individual was killed by police, and some found a pattern suggesting repeated police abuses.
As a result, our community formed a task force to urge government, police and mental health officials to find solutions to this problem. Among others, we found support in Congressman Sam Farr, Assemblymember Fred Keeley, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and the Commission on Mental Health.
But the family of Charles Vaughn sought justice and movement on their case. Charles Vaughn, Jr., the son of the man who was shot, felt a driving spiritual necessity to communicate his outrage, frustration and personal loss to the "State." His heart required justice. His conscience required a committed moral response. A hunger strike united the two.
Eventually his fast would become a shared effort, or "relay fast," supported by several individuals, many of whom were already involved in task force efforts.
The people who fasted did so for a variety of reasons: to show the non-violent nature of the cause; to bring focus to reforms we were advocating and to purify and rededicate ourselves to these purposes. We felt a need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Charles in a unifying depiction of conviction and solidarity.
On Friday, all four of Charles Vaughn Jr.''s stated goals were met, and the hunger strike and relay fast ended after 17 days. A statewide meeting of police chiefs held this spring had already resulted in increased awareness of Vaughn''s goals. Monterey County has developed a training program booklet that outlines appropriate police procedures for dealing with the mentally ill. This booklet and a four-hour training program are offered to police departments countywide.
Additionally, Farr tells us that federal funding for crisis intervention teams is being explored. And now, Charles Vaughn Jr.--who outlined these as uncompromising goals in beginning his hunger strike--has been informed that, after a broad outcry of support from citizens around the state, the Department of Justice will investigate his father''s death.
We have believed from the beginning that the tragic death of Charles Vaughn Sr. dictated that we work to prevent the killing of another mentally ill person in our area. The task force and our allies have been doing the ground work to achieve these goals over the last year, but I believe the hunger strike galvanized public response. The attention--and results--brought hope to people who have felt helpless in parallel circumstances and provided an inescapable focus for those who thought they could avoid a response to this and similar deaths.
Thoreau wrote, "...a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience." Some values truly are timeless.
Matt Friday is a human rights activist and a member of the task force that lobbied for changes in police policies regarding the mentally ill. He lives in Del Rey Oaks.