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Ajani Charles

Operation Prefrontal Cortex During The Age of COVID-19

2020 has been a turbulent year for many individuals and communities around the world, and it has required psychological and logistical adjustments that most people did not foresee or prepare for a year ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global event unlike any others experienced during this century, I wrote about its long-term implications through an article that includes my photographs of the downtown core of Toronto, and I am currently in the process of writing a second article on the topic, as I have learned a great deal about the pandemic’s many implications, how it has changed my consciousness, and how it has changed the collective consciousness of humanity since February of this year.  

With that said, Operation Prefrontal Cortex has experienced many changes since the beginning of the pandemic, including a variety of challenges and the expansion of our team. And as I reflect on our experiences as an organization during the age of COVID-19, I am amazed by our accomplishments during this past spring and summer specifically.

Firstly, our organization’s leadership came to the conclusion that our programming would not be implemented throughout Toronto’s school systems in a timely manner, digitally or otherwise, during 2020, and that the rise in gun violence would continue indefinitely, without a practical intervention with the capacities to address the root causes of gun violence (and other forms of violence).

As such, Operation Prefrontal Cortex formed a partnership with Advance Peace, which is a charitable organization that was founded in Richmond, California.

The organization and their program involves comprehensive mentorship, internship placements, and giving monetary stipends to individuals identified as likely to commit violent crimes.

The stipends are given to participants as a reward for their desisting from crime and contributing to their communities, and the organization invests in the development, health, and wellbeing of those at the center of gun crises.

Co-Founder: Danell Adams, Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

In 2018 the organization expanded to Sacramento, California, where it received a four-year $1.5 million contract with the City of Sacramento. They also have offices in Stockton and Oakland, California, and this year Advance Peace began the process of adding an office in the City of Fresno, California.

Advance Peace has created the only program that focuses on mentoring active shooters to significantly reduce the cyclical and retaliatory gun violence that destroys communities around the world.

Between 2012 and 2019, the organization led to an 85% reduction in firearm assaults and a 65% reduction in related homicides, in Richmond, California specifically.

Advance Peace also led to a 40% reduction in firearm-related homicides in Stockton, California, saving the City of Stockton $2.5 million per homicide and $962,000 per non-fatal shooting.

Simply put, Advance Peace works, and as of Friday, November 27, 2020, Operation Prefrontal Cortex’s petition to bring Advance Peace to Toronto has nearly 100,000 signatures. 

Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Torontonians and many others around the world want to see Advance Peace implemented throughout Toronto as soon as possible, and our organization has been engaging in a dialogue with City of Toronto officials about this much-needed initiative since the summer.

Secondly, following the death of George Floyd, many other police-related homicides in the United States, in Canada, and in other parts of the world, and given the fact that the Toronto Board of Health voted unanimously in June to declare anti-Black racism a public health crisis, we have created a mindfulness-based policing program to contribute to the reduction of unnecessary police violence towards BIPOC throughout Toronto. 

In addition to our discussions with City of Toronto officials regarding the implementation of Advance Peace, we are also in the process of discussing the implementation of our mindfulness-based policing program throughout the Toronto Police Service with city officials.

Police violence is a major problem in Toronto, generally-speaking. As it relates to Black people specifically, less than 9% of Toronto’s population is Black, but Black people are significantly more likely than other ethnic groups to be arrested, charged, and killed by Toronto police, according to a new report.

Between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a White person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

This year, among a myriad of shocking facts, the Ontario Human Rights Commission determined that Black people in Toronto are implicated in 32.2% of cases involving a police firearm, 45.5% of cases involving police taser use, 57.1% of cases involving a police dog, and 2.7 times more likely to suffer from broken bones from police use of force incidents. 

As I described in my first article for The Toronto Star, mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness practices have been scientifically proven to reduce stress and violent impulses in the brain, such findings form the basis of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, and we have no doubt that our mindfulness-based police programming will result in far less unnecessary acts of police violence in Toronto, over the course of many years. 

Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

As described by John M. Violanti, who is a Research Associate Professor at University at Buffalo Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the School of Public Health and Health Profession, “Policing is dangerous work, and the danger lurks not on the streets alone. The pressures of law enforcement put officers at risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of destructive stress hormones, heart problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.”

With nearly 30% of Canadian police officers within the clinical diagnostic range of PTSD and nearly all officers reporting moderate to severe stress, anxiety, or depression, based on research via the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health (CAMH), wherein I am a mentor, it is more important than ever that police officers receive treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other psychological states that can lead to unnecessary violence through mindfulness and other means. 

In fact, according to a study cited through Addiction Center, police officers in America are more likely to die by suicide than by any other form of violence.

Furthermore, 13 out of every 100,000 people die by suicide in the general American population, and that number increases to 17 out of 100,000 for police officers, making police officers more prone to committing suicide than any other American professional.

Thirdly, this past summer we participated in a rally at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, organized by The March For Change, which is a community with a mission to call for an end to systemic racism, violence, and oppression towards BIPOC communities in Toronto.

In addition to some of the solidarity marches that I documented in Toronto, The March For Change rally was one of the first (socially-distanced) live events that I attended since the pandemic began to proliferate throughout North America, and it featured many notable speakers, including our co-founder Julien Christian Lutz, who is professionally known as Director XYusuf Faqiri, the brother of Soleiman Faqiri — a man with schizophrenia who died after a physical altercation with guards inside an Ontario jail in 2017, Hashim Choudry, the nephew of Ejaz Choudry — a 62-year-old man who was fatally shot by police during a mental health crisis in Mississauga, Ontario last summer, and the family of Regis Korchinski-Paquet — an Indigenous-Black Canadian woman that died in May, during a mental health check by the Toronto police. 

Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

A lot of pain and trauma were expressed at the event, and many of the systems that contribute to our society need to change so that marginalized communities in Toronto and around the world are no longer subject to systemic racism and other forms of victimization.

Fourthly, we have spread our message far and wide, through a variety of digital platforms, garnering more press than we did in 2019, we have led many guided meditations and discussions related to mindfulness since the spring, and our partners Mindfulness Everyday and Hoame have been teaching the fundamentals of mindfulness and facilitating practical discussions online, throughout the pandemic.  

At the beginning of the pandemic’s growth in North America, and through an interview that I conducted with Op PFC’s co-founder Julien Christian Lutz, pfk Director X for Thrive Global, neither he nor I knew if the pandemic and our first lockdown would lead to more or less violence throughout Toronto. At the time, I optimistically assumed that a lockdown could result in less violence.

Unfortunately, it took mere weeks for me to realize that the pandemic would result in an unprecedented rise in gun violence and other forms of violence within Toronto, based on the data and news stories that we had access to during this past winter and early spring. 

In fact, some of the most sickening and shocking acts of violence that Toronto has seen have taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic, including but not limited to the broad daylight assassination of Dimarjio Jenkins, otherwise known as the popular local rapper Houdini, and the recent death of a 12-year-old boy who was struck by a bullet while walking with his mother along a North York sidewalk near a shooting that injured three other people this fall.

Gun violence is up year-over-year in Toronto, data analyzed by shows. According to the latest statistics found on Toronto police’s Public Safety Data Portal, there have been 409 reported shootings in the city as of Sunday, October 18, 2020.

Activist: Peter Korchinski, Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Last year, there were 380 such incidents with a total of 215 injuries or deaths by October 18th, so shooting incidents in Toronto have increased by approximately 7% over the course of a year, making 2020 the most violent year for shooting incidents.

Towards the end of the fall, I learned a lot about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income BIPOC communities through a gun violence virtual town hall meeting that I attended on behalf of Op PFC.

The meeting was hosted by Chris Glover, an NDP Member of Provincial Parliament at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and an individual that has been paramount to the City of Toronto viewing and treating the rise in violence in our city as a public health crisis

The meeting included many prominent community leaders, including but not limited to Op PFC’s ally Louis March, who is the founder and director of Zero Gun Violence Movement, and through it, I learned that the pandemic has been catastrophic to low income BIPOC communities throughout Toronto. 

The lack of in-person social services, mentors, adequate mental health support within school systems, in addition to fractured family systems, a myriad of unprocessed childhood traumas, a lack of economic resources due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and growing competition within the narcotics black market (due to the legalization of cannabis) have all resulted in rises in gun violence and other forms of criminality within Toronto’s most vulnerable communities.

Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Producer: Sara Basso, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Generally and during the pandemic, violent youth in Toronto’s vulnerable BIOPIC communities experience hopelessness, nihilism, and rage, which they have projected onto their communities and other Torontonians over the course of 2020. These young people truly believe that they live in a city and world that does not care about them, and the collateral damage from their projections is astounding. 

And low-income populations are not the only ones that produce killers. In fact, the murder trial for the self-described incel Alek Minassian, who killed 10 people after driving a van down a crowded Toronto sidewalk that I was less than a block away from at the time, is on-going. 

The causes of violence in Toronto and elsewhere are multifaceted, they involve a great deal of nuance, and as Operation Prefrontal Cortex’s colleague detective constable Ron Chhinzer of Toronto Police Service’s Integrated Gun & Gang Task Force has publicly stated many times, the rise in gun violence and other forms of violence in Toronto is not a problem that can be solved solely through more policing, nor can it be addressed solely by banning the purchase of legal firearms. Such solutions are band-aid solutions at best, and they overlook the complexity of the situation.

Among many others, the sources of violence in Toronto stem from different forms of media, and they are also socio-economic, neurological, trauma-based, and related to systemic racism.

At Operation Prefrontal Cortex we focus on addressing the neurological and trauma-based variables through mindfulness and meditation, as meditation and similar practices can reverse the brain damage that occurs in individuals that experience unprocessed trauma and chronic stress and the violent impulses that stem from such trauma. 

We need as much support as possible, given the severity and impact of the rise in violence occurring throughout Toronto this year, and all Torontonians are now at risk.

Co-Founder: Danell Adams, Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Producer: Sara Basso, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Fortunately, as our organization’s art director, I have found that there is no shortage of mindfulness-based visual and written content that I can create and share with our audience, and our social media offerings are beneficial to anyone that is interested in cultivating a daily or weekly mindfulness practice. 

With that said, we urge the general public to donate to our GoFundMe, to sign and share our petition to bring Advance Peace to Toronto, to urge Toronto’s politicians to implement our programming into the Toronto Police Service, local schools, and community centers and to purchase the Director X Set Bag, which is a collaboration with Toronto’s own Xylk that features still images from our co-founder’s most iconic music videos. All proceeds from the purchase of the stylish grocery bag go to Operation Prefrontal Cortex.

Together, we can reduce gun violence, police violence, and mass violence in Toronto, and we greatly appreciate the support that we have received thus far!

The Director X Set Bag By Xylk And Operation Prefrontal Cortex
Co-Founder: Danell Adams, Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Producer: Sara Basso, Public Relations Representative: Christina Duval, Actor: Christopher Bautista, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Co-Founder: Danell Adams, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Co-Founder: Danell Adams, Producer: Sara Basso, Manager of Curriculum Development: Raquell De Filippis, Assistant Art Director: Jung Lee, Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director of Community Partnerships: Mustafa El-Amin, Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Producer: Sara Basso, Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, 2020, Photographer: Ajani Charles

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