Several days each week, Ramon Alvarez drives his sign-laden minivan to some corner in downtown Modesto to exercise his right to free speech.
He began this ritual in 2006. He parked in front of the Stanislaus County Courthouse and stayed there for nearly two years, until the court administrator obtained a restraining order that forced Alvarez to protest elsewhere.
Since then, he's moved from corner to corner, waving at passing motorists and pointing to the clutter of signs bearing his convoluted messages. The hand-painted signs are pretty much undecipherable hieroglyphics to the untrained eye.
This much we know: Alvarez was involved in a bitter divorce that included temporary restraining orders filed against him to avoid possible domestic violence. He obviously believes he is the victim. His signs accuse the court of corruption, an unnamed judge of raping Alvarez's daughter and a detective of giving his son drugs.
So far, his protest has been visual. Now, the 61-year-old Alvarez is taking it to a new and dangerous level. He's on a hunger strike. His face is drawn, gaunt. His weight loss is obvious. He uses a walker to get from where he parks his van (last week along Ninth Street) to where he sets up more signs and cushions on the sidewalk. He is literally killing himself in public view.
When I went to chat with him a couple of days ago, he refused to talk. Instead, he made a lip-zipping motion with his hand and then scratched out vague answers on a large note pad. He wrote that he continues to pay spousal support to his ex-wife and blames the district attorney's office for it. In 2006, he told a Bee reporter he'd worked for Tri Valley Growers until becoming disabled in 1997.
Alvarez no longer stands to wave to traffic. He spends some of his day curled up on the cushions. Other times, he stays inside his minivan.
"He's so weak," said Haime Gonzalez, who can see Alvarez through the windows of the Garcia Bail Bonds office across G Street. "He calls cabs sometimes. He crawls (back to his van). No one helps him."
Some say they've tried.
"I've stopped to ask if he needs any help," said Andrew Hernandez, who works at J.S. West's feed store across Ninth. "I offered to buy him lunch. He's not very friendly."
Debbie Finnegan and her husband, Terry, work in a law office along Ninth Street. They came upon him lying on his cushions one day last week. "I was going to go shake him," Debbie Finnegan said. "I thought he was dead."
So why, you might wonder, can't authorities step in to do something about Alvarez, to save him from himself?
Modesto police officers have dealt with Alvarez for years. They've cited him for numerous traffic violations, including blocking traffic. Some were dismissed in court. They've enforced restraining orders.
More recently, as his health declines, they've checked on him periodically or whenever someone calls the department to voice concern, Chief Mike Harden said.
But they can't simply haul him off to the behavioral center for treatment, Harden said.
Section 5150 of the California Penal Code deals with mental illness. Before a person can be taken into custody even one amid a hunger strike an officer must determine whether that person is "a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled."
Even then, the person can be held for only 72 hours to be evaluated. It would take stronger evidence to hold him for 14 days. If he were deemed gravely disabled, a conservatorship would be an option.
Alvarez's condition doesn't merit action yet, Harden said.
"We've checked on him twice since I heard about this maybe 10 days or two weeks ago," Harden said. The most recent visit happened Thursday afternoon. "The officer didn't think he met 5150. He had water in hand. He certainly has the right (to not eat). If you are going to take somebody in, there's got to be a bright line. It's equal to making an arrest. There has to be evidence eyewitnesses, incriminating evidence."
Does starving himself to the point where he's crawling on sidewalks make him a threat to himself? Certainly, if he doesn't eat he'll become gravely disabled.
What about county mental health officials? Don't they handle such cases?
Pete Duenas of Stanislaus County Behavioral Health said the agency generally won't evaluate someone until law enforcement requests it. "We don't go out into the community and do assessments on the streets," Duenas said. "We certainly are willing do to an assessment in a facility that offers a safe environment. And we have clinicians who do ride-alongs with law enforcement and do assessments."
The question is, how much longer can Alvarez go without food assuming he isn't getting any nourishment and at what point will his mental state create a danger to others, himself or render him gravely disabled? Despite his self-imposed condition, Alvarez still drives his minivan from his south Modesto home to his protest site most days.
"I love the idea that a community can tolerate someone with mental illness, and he can speak his mind," said Modesto psychologist Phil Trompetter. "The community is not looking in any way to get rid of him as a nuisance. But there's also the question, 'Are you letting someone die with those rights?' It's a complicated issue."
And convoluted, too just like Alvarez's message.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2383.