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Meet Zoe Tuck, Anti-Candidate for Northampton City Council

The Ward 3 resident is the first participant in recent protests to declare her candidacy

By Brian Zayatz

Following nearly a month and a half of in-person and virtual protest that culminated in a 10% cut to the budget of the Northampton Police Department (not including the proposed $194,000 increase to the budget, which was also nixed), many activists felt frustration at the limited allyship City Councilors offered the abolitionist cause. By early July, the first challenger to the liberal stranglehold on City Council quietly made herself known in an announcement to social media followers and her newsletter listserv: Northampton-based writer Zoe Tuck.

“I figure electoral politics, if it amplifies activist efforts, can be one way to help the collective project of abolishing the police and the whole carceral system,” read the announcement, and invited people interested in supporting the campaign to a Zoom call to discuss priorities, roles, and how to build a campaign that doesn’t take energy away from the grassroots activism that had proven effective. At the meeting, the free form discussion among the small group of supporters present turned up a number of suggestions for viable policy in line with abolitionist values.

Tuck is challenging Ward-3 Councilor Jim Nash, who voted against defunding the police by 10% in June because he didn’t think there was a proper plan to replace police services. Nash was one of two councilors to vote against the specific line item and the only councilor to vote against the entire final budget due to this issue. The election will take place in November 2021.

Last week, Tuck and I spoke over the phone about her fledgling campaign and the tensions that arise when abolitionist organizing meets electoral politics. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Zayatz: So what made you want to run?

Zoe Tuck: I had had this flicker of an idea a while back when I saw a proposal that was being made, you know the old church on Hawley Street? There was a proposal to turn it into market rate condos, and I had this moment where I was like, “I moved here from the Bay Area, I know what market rate means.” The moment of the uprising around Black Lives Matter and against police violence, I was one of the people who went to those very long City Council Zoom meetings and it just kind of occurred to me that, watching the resistance of the Mayor and the City Council to the idea of defunding the police, I just had the thought that this would be so much easier if there were [abolitionists] in office.

BZ: What experiences have you had that you believe will make you an effective city councilor?

ZT: Northampton feels like a very class stratified place. I came here as a grad student, although I’m no longer a grad student, having had a long working history in my life, in customer service and food service jobs… I feel silly being like, “my qualification is my class,” but that’s part of it. I think it would be good to have people on City Council who are renters. I’ve also been involved in the last year working pretty intensely with the Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network, and I think that that’s given me insight about how to do organizing, including the unsexy parts, the nitty gritty of maintaining your own commitment to an issue, staying with it, working with people you might not share core beliefs with, but being able to work effectively. I’ve been to a couple of meetings for Defund 01060 [a new group that is organizing around police abolition Northampton]. I think the experience of working with those organizations has connected me to other local activist organizations, and that’s also where I’m looking for ideas for policy. I’m running not out of a great faith in electoral politics, but instead as one of the things in the activist toolkit. 

BZ: Do you know if Jim Nash knows you’re running yet?

ZT: We’re not pals, I haven’t told him. I don’t think so. I had the idea, I tested the waters on social media, and then I sort of cooled it for a second. I was distracted by doing immediate mutual aid work, and I thought, “what if instead of spending a lot of energy on campaigning I just keep doing what I’m doing?”

BZ: So what role, then, do you think electoral campaigns should play in movements for social change, and how has this informed your thoughts around your campaign?

ZT: This is something I’ve really been wrestling with myself, because if you spend any amount of time in various circles of leftist organizing, you encounter a lot of people who say electoral politics are not the answer, and by and large I tend to agree with that. It seems to me that the local level is maybe the most relevant face of electoral politics. Policies that can be enacted in a small community. I feel very ambivalent about electoral politics, but also very resolute about using any means necessary to chip away at all the facets of the carceral state. The one that’s gotten all the attention lately is the police, but I think that encompasses a whole range. For example, working for more affordable housing, and for renters’ rights, these are things that take power away from that system.

BZ: Have you had any other meetings? What kind of events do you see coming from the campaign given its unusual nature, and the pandemic?

ZT: You live in a small place for a few years and you get to thinking that you know everybody, and you don’t. So I’m trying to think about how to do a general, more informational meeting at some point soon. I think the thing that’s coalescing for me as the strategic plan is, if i’m able to rope people in because they share the political beliefs that are core to this campaign, then I immediately want to use that as a force to help out local orgs that are doing the work. My theory is that the impact of that work, the news of that work will reverberate back [to the campaign] in a positive way. The primary thing is, we’re in a historical moment of like ten kinds of simultaneous crisis, so the urgent need is helping the community. Get people interested in the campaign, and redirect force where it’s needed.

BZ: So, almost like the late Bernie Sanders campaign, where he’s directing people to mutual aid groups and has formally suspended his campaign, but is still getting lots of votes.

ZT: You could say that, sure.

BZ: What other issues do you see being important to your campaign?

ZT: Another really big one for me is housing, if there’s anything I can do in the way of helping with that and supporting the work that’s going on, with tenant organizing, that feels very important to me. One of the things that came up at one of the really well attended City Council meetings, someone at the Northampton Arts Council talked about how they had been able to pivot at this time to offer more direct support, so I’m really curious about that. How can the resources of a relatively wealthy community be turned around to the people who need it? [Note: Tuck also expressed support for participatory budgeting earlier in the conversation]. 

BZ: Have you connected with Springfield No One Leaves or any of the housing lawyers in the area? Some of the folks who drafted the Guaranteed Housing Stability Act are local and could probably help you figure out what’s possible for legislation on the municipal level.

ZT: No I haven’t but that’s great! That’s the other part of this thing is I could be plugged in so much deeper. There’s so much of it that I’m still learning. I’m not actually a politician, I’m just a poet who’s trying to learn how to do this.

BZ: Have you discussed any collaborations with other potential candidates? How would you imagine abolitionist candidates could support each other?

ZT: I’m still waiting to see who surfaces, because part of what I think is happening right now is that there was a really hot national political moment that coincided with a local political moment. There was a lot of action, a lot of people in the streets. I’m noticing the echo aftermath of that, where things are quieting down a little bit. In terms of people thinking about running, I’m like, who’s still in? Who’s gonna try to do the long haul? I don’t know that I have any brilliant ideas of how to make a common cause. To bring up Defund 01060 again, it really synced in well with national organizing efforts, and this #8toAbolition thing. Something like that is a useful starting place, before getting into the nuances: thinking about how to be a local manifestation of some generally agreed on national abolitionist principles and tactics. And from there working to see how we can manifest that stuff here.

BZ: So, to wrap things up, do you have a vision for an abolitionist Northampton? What kinds of challenges do you think the city would face in that future?

ZT: I’m forgetting who it was, this is one of those things that becomes a meme, that AOC thing that’s like, “what would an abolitionist future look like? It’d look like the suburbs.” I saw some people embrace that enthusiastically, and others push back on it. I would say first off that I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out what it looks like. I think it would be safer. And, hopefully, in my utopian abolitionist future Northampton, there’s some pushback on some of the walls visible and invisible that are drawn here around class and racial and linguistic and national lines. I also think, when the elected government is not acting on behalf of or in the interest of the general populace, you have to take electoral politics and voting as not the end all be all. Abolitionist Northampton is a place where a lot of people are engaged in the immediate work of helping each other and creating a strong community in a way that the government could hopefully assist, but hopefully the locus of where politics are meaningfully happening is shifting towards—I don’t want to say NGOs, but small grassroots organizations of people working on behalf of the vulnerable people in their community. More people being engaged like that, and whatever the city could do to support that, and not co-opt it, and not pinkwash it. I think that’s what I have for vision right now.

BZ: Right, I only ask because I feel like one thing that’s become clear over the course of the last few months is that even the city councilors who are maybe sympathetic to the abolitionist cause don’t really seem to have a vision of the better Northampton that they want. So that’s where that question comes from.

ZT: I see. I would love to be pushing the abolitionist agenda, and I would also love to be in a City Council where I’m sort of middle of the road. I’m getting the feeling that I’m seeming kind of radical right now; maybe it’s my bubble but I’m feeling like there really is pretty broad support here for things like police abolition. The other thing is that, it has to be mentioned that I’m not coming up with anything or inventing anything, and everything that I’m learning in the ongoing process of forming my own politics is through black radical writers and thinkers. So that’s where the thought process is coming from, that’s where the ideology is coming from, and I’m just trying to help translate it into what can happen here.

Brian Zayatz is The Shoestring’s city council columnist and a regular contributor.

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