Henry Jacob | Yale Historical Review | July 27, 2020
YHR: Today I will speak with Justin Farmer, Hamden Legislative Councilman and Connecticut State Senate hopeful. Justin joins me to discuss his path to politics and to share his reflections on our historical moment. Justin is finishing his undergraduate studies on politics and marine biology at Southern Connecticut State University. It's a pleasure to have you here, Mr. Farmer.
Justin Farmer: Thank you for the kind introduction and for providing this space to share my perspective.
YHR: Let’s start with you, your personal history. You have family ties to Jamaica, but you grew
up right around the corner. Please elaborate a bit on your upbringing.
JF: Few people know this about me — I didn't know this about myself until a few months ago — but my family has moved all around New Haven. When I was born, my family moved to East Rock. At first, we could afford to live there. The next year, gentrification came and the prices jumped.
We were pushed out of the East Rock community; often I think about what would have been different if we had stayed, if I grew up in that environment. So we moved to Newhallville. I often read headlines like “Pistol Wavin’ New Haven” where they had 25 shootings in a three week period. And 11 of those were in my immediate community of Newhallville.
I saw needles, I saw addicts. I found gun shells in the street when playing as a kid. I did not recognize the gravity of this situation then, but as I became older, I thought, “Wow, there's a stark juxtaposition between my lived reality now and what my community looked like 10-15 years ago.” 10-15 years is a long time, but I'm only 25. Everything was different before...
I grew up as the youngest of five, technically the youngest of nine. The youngest older brother I have is 11 years older than I. In many ways my family had the “Coming to America” experience. Because I was born after we came to the U.S. I felt like an outsider. I thought to myself, “I'm an immigrant, but I'm also not. I was born here, but the English we speak in the house is different, the food that we eat is different, the culture is different. I am part of this American experience, but I'm also not.”
Anecdotally, I remember counting, “one two ‘tree’” instead of “three.” I told my friends, “No, no, no, I’m the same as everyone, we have the same experience!” But I also recognized that something was different. They told me, “Bro. You can't say “three.” Same with “zero” -- I told them, “No, it’s zed!”
My home was built on a toxic waste dump. We moved into Hamden when I was about four or five. The house I lived in for the first couple of years was across the street from where we are now. My childhood home, that I see and know, actually sunk into the ground and now is an empty lot across the street wedged between two factories.
The Winchester gun factories were there before they left during the late 1970s. A staple of the black community, Winchester was the largest employer mostly of immigrants and the African American community, Italian community, Irish community, where people had good-paying union jobs with healthcare and pensions. Now we only have the remnants of this industrial area.
I started at Spring Glen, a homogeneously white, affluent school. When I go to the PTA now, I joke that I'm a proud Black Panther, a proud Black, Spring Glen Panther. There are a few Black panthers at Spring Glen, and I am one of them. Since elementary school, I wanted to be a marine biologist. In fifth grade, we did a Black History Month project. I did mine on the oceanographer Evan B. Forde. I thought, “that's kind of cool, but why would you go out onto the ocean and just look at waves all day? That sounds kind of boring.” I thought it would be better to play with animals. From that point on, I wanted to be a marine biologist; but the experience of advocating for myself by myself changed my plans.
Then I went to Hamden Middle and enjoyed some great experiences there. But I struggled a bit during my first couple years in high school. My junior year, I realized something was wrong with me. I discovered that besides special education, besides needing extra help, I was different.
For this reason, I read the DSM4 when I worked at my town’s special education department during the summer. I also took some old Disability Advocacy law books that they threw out. I wanted to read these, to know more aboutmy rights. I soon thought that I had OCD, but I skipped anorexia, bulimia, and Tourette's at the time. I understood Tourette's to be cursing, and I thought “I don't, I don't say inappropriate things,” so, which actually ended up being the main problem, because I have Tourette’s.
I confronted this reality during my junior year. I had serious seizures — an ambulance would have to be called — whenever a fire alarm went off. I didn't really know what was going on. I'd feel jittery, but I didn't know what was wrong. After enough fire alarms, I put on noise-cancelling headphones. Instead of struggling through the day I decided, “I’m just going to leave my headphones on."
I still battled with my school to get resources. I needed a $2,000-word processor, but they didn't want to spend money on it. My senior year, I ended up doing homebound schooling for two or three months. I called 20 teachers every day to say, “Hey, I need access to get my education. I want to go on with my life, I want to go to college. I need you to help me be prepared.”
But I had to prepare myself. I called the State of Connecticut Disability and Advocacy Office, and I got an advocate and a lawyer. The school didn't take my case yet, but we went over to this PPT, a school meeting for my education. Because I was 18 at the time, I was in charge of my own education and my life. My mom was there, but I handled all of the decisions.
Hamden High School forced me to become my own spokesperson. Without notice, the authorities told me that this was my last day of school, no ifs, ands, or buts. But I didn’t want to just take the bus home: I told them, “I am the steward of my own education. I am going to my classes. If you don't like that, we both know that y'all are liable if anything happens to me. So you have two choices. I will go to class. Pack up my stuff, say goodbye to my friends, say goodbye to my teachers, peace out. We'll revisit this, which is probably what we should do. Or you can get me a taxi or get me a bus here and I can go home. Those are your choices. Mind you, I’m about 17 or 18, so they just looked at me and said “what?”
One last time, I told the principal, vice principal, staff, these are your choices. I said “I know you're liable” and then left the room. From there I went to my class. They called security. They called the police. Police handcuffed me. They put me in the back of a squad car. I had a seizure. That experience taught me that I couldn't be selfish and just care about marine biology and the environment.
After that experience, I got more involved in politics. But first I had to figure out myself in college. I joined many groups and clubs at SCSU and in New Haven. Soon enough, I went from a community member to an activist. In 2016, a professor told me, “if you’re studying political science, then you should probably work on a campaign.” I said, “hmm, that's not for me.” But then he offered the alternative of taking a Research Methods class and writing a 20-page paper. It took me no time to respond: “I love campaigns. Campaigns are the best. Let me join a campaign right now!”
I ended up working in Milford, Woodbridge, and Orange. I soon gained a newfound passion for organizing. My current campaign manager, who is also on city council with me, suggested that I run for office. I was hesitant at first because of my recent health issues. Then the 2016 election happened. After working on the polls on Election Day I got home and jumped into bed around four o'clock. Before closing my eyes, I heard my phone buzzing violently — either Hillary or Trump won. It just kept going, going, going, and I knew that she lost.
Within that week, I decided to run for office. I told people, “We keep talking about racism and Trump and what he's done. But we’re not talking about institutional racism. We’re not talking about how we, on the left, have not talked about issues.” So I ran my campaign by pushing the liberal agenda.
I also pushed myself to meet my future constituents. I knocked on doors for seven to nine hours a day, for three months. I turned 23 the month before the election, and then I won by 23 votes. Since then, I've been on the city council as an activist elected official. Educational reform has been central to me. We are redistricting the schools for the first time in 20 years. The former policy was inherently racist. I thought to myself, “Maybe we aren’t the cause of this disparity, but we perpetuate the gap by not speaking about it.” And now from the administrative side, I understand the difficulties of resource allocation. We have a $10 million Board of Education deficit in New Haven. When you don't have the funds to properly educate kids, then you have to pick and choose who will fail and succeed. If I were betting on myself, if you would have told me that at 25 I'd be an incumbent elected official running for Senate, I would have said you’ve lost your mind. And that was what, seven, eight years ago? I represent the richest and the poorest people in town. Three weeks before I was first elected and sworn in, a young man was killed three blocks from my house. Shot in broad day- light. Two weeks before I was re-sworn in, after reelection back in November, a man was killed two blocks from my house. And then I also have community members who pay $40,000-50,000 a year in taxes, and I live amongst a community where the majority don't make more than $40,000 a year as collective families. I’ll stop there.
YHR: I'm glad you are talking freely, getting a bit Proustian, because I'm learning more and more about you and starting to see why you excite so many people. You mentioned the word difference in various contexts. Your family is from Jamaica but lived the “Coming to America” experience.
You felt different because you counted zed instead of zero, tree instead of three. Then your family moved from East Rock to Newhallville. You could see the detritus — literal and metaphorical — left from stages of capital extraction in your community. You witnessed the naked inequity of environmental waste and land distribution. You watched your old house sink into the ground. You experienced the difference between the Hamden and New Haven borders. As one of the few black Spring Glen panthers you did not come from the same background as many of your classmates. In your junior year of high school, you discovered that you were different from your peers in another way, with your diagnosis of Tourette’s.
But your story is not just one of difference. You have navigated beyond these dualities to forge your own identity as an activist elected official. In fact, I see in you the trait of a great politician — the ability to unite across divisions. I want to shift to the theme of connecting in physical and not symbolic terms. I know that you choose the bike as your form of transportation. I can imagine you now riding around in a suit. It’s a perfect image for you as an organizer.
JF: Pre-COVID-19, I probably biked anywhere from 18 to 20 miles a day. In addition, I would take buses, Uber, rideshare. The other day I went to an event, and a stranger tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Dude! I know you! You're running for Senate! You probably don't know me, but I gave you an Uber ride three months ago.” I’ve realized that transportation ties me to the community in a different way.
To your point, now thinking with more of a political mindset, we see candidates outside of the norm like AOC, Ayanna Pressley, and Charlie Booker emerge on the national stage. I am an activist, so I go to rallies at every community. Pick an issue. Reproductive, environment, policing, housing, immigration — I talk about all of them.
The police shooting in Hamden last year radicalized me beyond everything else. This event reminded me that I have to fight for my community. As a black official, my own police department has profiled me. Probably within the last two and a half years I've been elected, police officers have stopped me twenty-three times for jaywalking. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't drive. It's a very awkward situation. I always tell the police, “One, I have nothing on me and I'm not afraid. Two, I'm going to shake your hand and give you my business card.”
Paul Witherspoon's mom is my constituent — she lives maybe two and a half blocks from my house — so this was different for me. I had spoken to her for maybe 20 minutes a year be-
fore, asking, pleading for support in a primary.
I was in the government, but also outside it as an activist. But up until a couple of weeks ago, it wasn't the norm to say like you’re an activist elected official, it wasn't the norm to say that we demonstrably need to change public safety in our country. We're fighting not only to be seen and to be heard in our government, but also for survival. Someone like AOC might be daunting to someone, someone like Bernie Sanders might be daunting to someone, but then I look at national politics and think, “Cool, the three most popular people are more or less populist.” We
had Bernie Sanders, who is not a Democrat, not a Republican, but really an independent. Socialist-leaning, but really an independent, and who has been consistent with that for 20 years. You have Elizabeth Warren, who was a Republican, who realized, “Oh, I was kind of wrong about my notions about poverty.” And then you have Donald Trump, who has just been a cult personality and spoken to people's concerns and fears and just echoed it back to them. I don't know where I was going with that rift, but all that to say: this is
a time of change.
YHR: I followed your rift and all of its contours: it was brilliant. You redefine the political boundaries. You extend the traditional liberal agenda because they concern you in a deeply personal way. Redistricting, schooling, shootings, and housing all relate to your “lived experience.” You encountered these difficulties years ago as a citizen and must do so again as a councilman.
JF: We need to regionalize Connecticut political boundaries. We have 155 municipalities all trying to do it differently even though we share the same needs. We compete for the same resources, which leaves some with too much and others with too little. New Haven, West Haven, East Haven, heck, they all share Haven. They could have a few representatives for the whole community. For instance, I'm running for the 17th Senate district. There are seven municipalities in that. Five consider themselves towns, one considers itself a city, and one considers itself a borough. Most of that is Naugatuck Valley. These conversations about identity are pivotal because they reveal what brings us together and what divides us. Every single state has had a demonstration around George Floyd’s murder, his lynching. This issue has persisted for decades, from Rodney King before we were born, to Tamir Rice. Tamir Rice’s mother is a congresswoman now. She is a congresswoman, and yet we still need these conversations.
And that's not just us, you can have that conversation about the Sioux Nation and Dakota Access Pipeline, you can have that conversation about the school decision today around reproductive rights, you can have that conversation about DACA, or how up until last week it was legal to fire someone because of their sexual attraction.
This time, there's a conversation about how effective our government is, and I am young enough where I don't necessarily believe we can dismantle the master's house with the masters' tools.
The majority of the staff and people on the team are younger than I. The oldest person is 42. Our campaign raised the most amount of money in the state for this election cycle, the average contribution being $24. There is a hunger for change, and I think both parties have to figure out what that means.
YHR: Necessity for connection. Let’s dwell on that idea for a moment. You have knocked on doors for hours and hours. You've been trying to, and hopefully will continue to, bridge these communities. As your comments show, this is not just a question of current politics and the current shootings, but of an institution. Do you have any final reflections on how we can address these entrenched issues? How can we teach older sections of society, ourselves, and the younger generation? How can our audience keep in touch with this historical moment and be ready for the coming change?
JF: Dope. I’ll just shamefully plug Justin for CT, justinforct.com on Insta, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, heck you can hit us up at Gmail. All the same tagline, Justin for CT. People Against Police Brutality, Black Lives Matter New Haven, and the CT Bail Fund have all done a ton of great work.
I've been rereading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which is a critique of leftist movements, about being black in those spaces. Every time I read it, I think, “How did you write a book about my life like before I was born?” Sister Outsider and People's History of the United States are two other great resources. Ta-Nehisi Coates and other scholars have also contributed to this conversation. You can even go back to Jane Jacobs and look at how communities are developed. A place like East Rock was meant to offer mixed housing instead of gentrification. We are in a unique position where it's not a lack of access to resources to talk about things and how they work. Before enacting change, we have to admit that things are wrong.
A lot of people just want to have hope. People will often quote King with the “arc of justice,” that it always bends towards the right, but there's also such a thing as passive peace. We've had passive peace. We have this idea that time is neutral and all these things. Time is not neutral. Climate change is real. We have a limited amount of time. Racial tension and violence have bubbled in this country, to the point where we cannot just wait on the wheels of eventuality to get here. We actually need to get there. I would say one of my favorite readings by King is “Negroes are not moving too fast.” Back in 1964, he talks about police brutality, the police, and frustration with white liberals and conservatives. Tactics lie beyond the point: we need to confront the issues now.
I want to have hope too but sometimes I have no reason to be optimistic: Amazon had to be shamed into helping in a time of coronavirus and putting thousands of workers at risk. We have to be uncomfortable to move forward with these difficult conversations — that is the only way that we will see change.
Right now, we are on the verge of a revolution. I don't say that lightly. If you do not see this moment as a revolutionary one, you are not awake and not paying attention. I'd like to end with this: I try to create safe spaces all around.
We all have to nurture the environment that we want to see. This is not about politics but about humanity. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot continue with the system we have. We are all essential.
YHR: That provides us a perfect ending. Now is a time for humanity, not for passive peace. Change is coming and we need to be together. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, and best of luck with the coming election.
JF: August 11th!