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On electoralism, grassroots power and disability justice

Helena Chen-Carlson | Eon Magazine | July 24, 2020

Justin Farmer is a 25-year-old Legislative Councilman for the 5th district of Hamden, Connecticut. He is running for the state’s 17th Senate District and has been endorsed by the national DSA and Sunrise Connecticut. We talk about his motivations behind running for office and how his activism doesn’t stop there, tackling structural racism, disability justice in progressive spaces and building a stronger working-class presence in public policy.

You and your team have led the largest grassroots campaign in the history of Connecticut ahead of the August primaries. Seeing that you also won your race for Hamden City Council two years ago at the age of 23, it’s clear that you’re deeply involved in a range of issues in your community. Could you talk more about your background as a grassroots organizer and what got you into local politics in the first place?

I got radicalized at two different times. The first was when I was 17 and I started to develop signs of Tourette’s Syndrome. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on with me I was struggling in school, I started to have difficulties with motor movement and anxiety in general. Tourette’s is a neurological movement disorder where you have physical movements and utterances. Most people know the rare 10% of us that have coprolalia which is cursing and saying inappropriate things. But at that time I had small movements here and there with my wrist and head and legs and didn’t really know what was going on. So I pushed my school to do some testing and a couple of months later, I started to have seizures on a regular basis and my school tried to kick me out to do homeschooling so they wouldn’t have to pay for resources. I ended up advocating for myself. I had been put on homebound school but I got a state lawyer to get me put back into school.

That experience of fighting for myself in my junior and senior years radicalized me. I started to get into the activist scene here in New Haven where I was involved with Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) and in direct action. Then, I started to do a lot of climate work with undergrad students at Yale like Fossil Free Yale, DSA, Unite Here, New Haven Rising and with labor organizations.

After Trump won the elections in 2016, I started an issues campaign. I wanted to point out institutional racism in our community and to my surprise, after 3 months of knocking doors 7-8 hours a day, on election day, I won by 23 votes and since then every general election. So those are the two times I got radicalized and how I really got into activism — from having difficulty in school to now being an activist elected official and very much at the forefront of things instead of in the background. 

You call yourself an “activist elected official” and have said before that you don’t believe in electoral politics despite that you are an elected official. Can you tell us more about what you mean by saying this?

I borrowed the terminology “activist elected official” from Jumaane Williams. He is a New York City public advocate. He’s Afro-Caribbean like myself, he has Tourette’s syndrome as well. His Tourette’s is more physical and it’s clearer to see him struggle and bend and twist and grimace on camera but to unapologetically tell his truth. He gets arrested at protests and demonstrations. He oftentimes will butt heads with the governor or the mayor. At the time he was a city councilor when I learned about him, I said, if I’m going to be in politics, I want to be like that guy. I want to be unapologetic about my truth and if I’m going to deal with my disability and be public, I want to do it with dignity as he does.

I’ve been arrested at environmental protests like the Yale-Harvard game, I’ve been very active about police violence, I’ve shown up, risking arrest for undocumented community members. When I tell people that I don’t believe in electoral politics, it’s because I realize how direct action works; you don’t have to be elected to make change. I believe electoral politics is harm reduction. I’m not so much of a person who believes in reform but I do believe that radical change starts on the ground with protests and demonstrations but it’s also policy and having people in positions of power to do harm reduction.

For instance, when I was running in a primary before I was elected [for Hamden Legislative Council], I was able to get an entire apartment complex to change 50 stairwells that were rotting out where people were falling through 10 feet at the max height. I was able to push the property owner with community support. That had nothing to do with electoral power and had everything to do with people power. I try to remind people that electoralism isn’t the end-all-be-all of how we make change. 


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