- Interview by
- Indigo Olivier
Justin Farmer is a twenty-five-year-old Legislative Councilman in Hamden, Connecticut running a grassroots campaign for Connecticut State Senate’s 17th district. Farmer is running on what he calls a Black Liberation Agenda, a platform that includes defunding state police, divesting from prisons, ending cash bail, and reinvesting resources in communities with a homes guarantee, a Green New Deal for Connecticut, quality education, and health care as a human right.
Farmer, who was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at age seventeen, considers himself an activist elected official and has been endorsed by Sunrise New Haven and Sunrise Connecticut. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and has been endorsed by a number of local chapters as well as the national organization.
Farmer spoke with Jacobin about his campaign and his personal experiences with the criminal justice system. He is the only black elected man on the Hamden Legislative Council. This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you come to socialism? What made you a socialist?
By circumstance. I don’t think it was until I took an AP government class and we had to do this assignment. I was the only one who was assigned a socialist and I looked into them.
It wasn’t really until Bernie’s campaign where, being in college, I started to understand more about what socialism was about. It made a bit more sense as we went into the election. What is our lived experience? What do we need? Universal basic income? Dope. A housing guarantee? Yeah. Health care? Of course. Dental and vision? Yeah, I don’t see what the problem is.
And just to hear people say “we can’t do that,” I just said they have pyramid schemes for students to raise money at our schools and we have a budget for the military that surpasses many other countries on spending. We can divert more money to take care of our communities. And that’s when it kind of came together. I don’t need to apologize for this. I want everyone to have housing and food, and not worry about starving to death.
How would you define democratic socialism in your own words?
To me, democratic socialism realizes that in many ways, creating a whole new system and government is not done overnight. I think democratic socialism understands electoral politics as a way of organizing, but it doesn’t see it as the be-all and end-all of undoing systematic, generational deficits. That’s something that is really pertinent to me being a first-generation Jamaican American, a black man with a disability.
I believe in this process because I realize that in my community, with the issues that we have, every day is survival. And politics is life or death. Being able to be part of a process that says let’s take that into account. We’re not afraid of a revolution, but we would rather have a transition that is revolutionary rather than bring out the guillotines.
Can you speak about your time as a member of the Legislative Council? What made you run?
I had to work on a campaign for a college course. My professor said you can do a research methods class or you can do an internship, and I literally told him that politics is for sellouts and feds. I’m about activism. At that time I was working with labor unions, doing a lot of work with community groups around direct action for undocumented people, things like that.
I ended up having to work on this campaign because it was easier than taking the research methods class. It was my campaign manager and colleague who actually convinced me to run. Trump won the 2016 election and I said I wanted to run an issues campaign. I ran in the primary, and won by 1,100 votes. I turned twenty-three a month before. I won four votes over a mandatory recount.
On the Hamden council, we passed a plastic bag ban, the most comprehensive plastic bag ban in the state; championed the fracking waste gas ban that pushed the state to come up with legislation; and created a resolution to create a civilian review board.
What inspired you to run for state senate?
Before running, I was an intern at a Planned Parenthood center and working on affordable housing campaigns in Southern New England. For me, this is a labor of love. I’m studying to be a marine biologist. So politics is far off the beaten path of what I want to do, but I’m constantly seeing these other deficits get in the way of what we need.
With the police shooting that happened in Hamden last year, I felt that many of our leaders just disappeared and pretended it didn’t happen. When it happened to our community, a lot of the people that I thought would say something, were silent — actively working against change or pretending that it never happened.
I decided to run in February and four days later, there was another young man killed for a registration failure: his registration didn’t match up. The DMV computer was a couple of days slow. So you had a young man killed, another young couple that almost got killed, and people just pretended that this wasn’t a big deal. Two police shootings, one ending in a fatality, both with officers that have troubled pasts.
I decided that I wanted, at the very least, to talk about these issues and to make sure that our grievances were heard. It’s time for a change, and it is time for candidates like myself, who are ready to do the work.
Can you speak about your experiences with police and the criminal justice system?
I am the only black city council member. During my first term on city council, I was the majority whip. As a sitting city councilor, I have been stopped twice by police, and followed once.
Their initial excuse was that they didn’t know who I was. To which I was like, I’m the one black man elected in town and I wear headphones. I ended up writing an op-ed, Legislating While Black. The mayor apologized, but at the time when this was happening, and I called the mayor and I called the council president and I was like, “Hey, I’m being profiled, y’all need to do something,” they wouldn’t answer my calls. Those have been some of my experiences with police.
In my own town, this past Sunday we had a white woman accused of hitting protestors with a car and I was down in another town on a bullhorn talking to police and telling them their conduct was unacceptable. They weren’t letting people make complaints, they ended up beating a man, breaking his back, tasing him, pepper-spraying him, all on camera.
And then, of course, we had a police shooting last year in West Haven where a young man was shot, a couple of years younger than me. His mother is my constituent. I had to deal with figuring out how to keep the community together but also push for systemic change.
You’re running on a criminal justice reform platform. Could speak about some of the policies and how they must meet this moment?
I don’t think police are equipped to deal with social or emotional issues, and most police departments admit that. They aren’t qualified psychiatrists or mental health experts or social workers. We should be pushing to make sure that we have social workers and mental health workers. One, it costs way less. Two, people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions.
Ending qualified immunity is something that’s being talked about across the country. Obviously we need to do that. I’m pushing for civilian review boards with subpoena power. I believe civilian review boards need to be elected. We always talk about community policing.
Community policing only exists in black and urban communities and when it comes to suburban communities, they don’t need community policing. So if we really trust the community, then we should give them the power to prosecute people breaking those community agreements. Those are the things that I’m really focused on in terms of criminal justice reform.
You’ve been active in the recent protests and you’ve referred to yourself as an activist elected official. How have you been involved in the George Floyd uprisings?
I say I’m an activist elected official, very much borrowing from NYC public advocate Jumaane Williams, also black and serving with Tourettes. I’ve been working on criminal justice for the last six years, before I was even elected. In terms of a response to George Floyd specifically, I’ve been at pretty much every protest and rally.
I got pepper-sprayed about a month ago in front of the New Haven police department during a peaceful protest. I have been there for plenty of highway shutdowns, but I’ve also taken arrests three times over the last year and a half to demand Yale to divest from fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt. I have been there for protests and rallies over the deaths and killings of many people at the hands of police. So I’m often there on the front lines in solidarity and often times secondarily as a city councilman.
How do you think your disability has informed your politics?
Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, talks about how the communist movement kind of failed black people because we were afraid to talk about identity politics. As a black, disabled, working-class son of an immigrant, the issues are just more personal to me. I have a brother who is undocumented; he’s not my blood brother, but I can empathize with that. I have a church family, I have a trans sister — these issues are so much closer to me.
And I have a disability. Often, people see me wearing headphones and a tie, and they’re confused about why I’m in a space. Then they’ll ask me about my story and they’ll share with me some of their challenges and that’s been something beautiful to kind of break down barriers. In many ways, rooms that I should have never been in, and walking out with people saying “this is the type of person we need in these conversations.”
That has been something that has been beneficial about my disability and that has informed my politics: I’m never judging people when I walk into a room and I’m working to figure out what our connection is. I know, in many ways, me being a black man, with headphones, walking into different spaces — into Yale, into the legislative office building, into suburban communities, into urban communities — people see signals and signs that say stay away.
Then they end up having a deep connection and bond where they go okay, we’re in this together or you can understand or you can empathize. I would say it’s made my job a lot easier connecting to people and being able to empathize with people.