Guest interview: Cindy Samantha

Over the last two years during my epic book tours, I’ve had the honour of meeting some incredible activists across the world. In this brand new series, I’ll be giving interviews to bring you some of their work, thoughts and inspirations. My first interviewee is Cindy Samantha in Brooklyn. We talk revolution, prisons, bodywork and cats.

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Otter: We met in New York when you kindly gave me a place to sleep during my East Coast tour this summer. It was the same week as the national prison strike.

Cindy: It’s true! We met briefly through a wonderful, wonderful mutual friend with whom I became close organizing over exploitative conditions for workers and youth at an LGBT youth shelter 7 years ago, and who has since also developed her skills as a healer. I know you had a really long tour, but you still took time to make food for me and took great care of my special, special cat friend.

O: These connections are really beautiful. And oh my gosh. I fell in love so hard with that special, special cat friend. First question: When we were together we talked a lot about the strike – what work are you doing on prisons at the moment?

C: Mostly what I am doing now is working to support family members and people directly impacted by incarceration through an organization called Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (incarceratedworkers.org).  IWOC is a group that is made up of people who are incarcerated and was started by people in an independent black prison organization, Free Alabama Movement, reaching out to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to build a union in prison because no typical trade unions would unionize them.

As an organization, our goal is to support the struggles of those who are incarcerated, both personal–such as being locked in solitary, the torturous conditions inside, isolation, and parole denial among other aspects of the hell of prison– and social–strikes, political demands, challenges to new restrictive policies, etc.  We write letters, do prison visits, and publish 2-3 times a year inside newsletter made up of writing and art from people inside and news and study aggregation from the outside. We also do fundraising for commissary and books, to help with family visits and phone calls, go to court dates, host gatherings for family members to meet and build struggle together, and stage our own direct actions when called for by people inside/to support people inside.  I could go on!! 

But mostly I would say the work IWOC does is to support the struggles of folks inside, while working for the abolition of prisons and policing in general.  The majority of the work is done by folks inside, people who are formerly incarcerated, and family members and loved ones of people incarcerated. 

O: Amazing. And what is the personal connection to that work for you?

I started doing political organizing in high school, first around queer (I think we called it LGB at the time, and there was NOT a lot of trans consciousness at the time, which was a real limitation) liberation, which impacted me as a young “bi” person, and a lot of my friends who were queer; then after 9/11 I started doing some organizing against the war. 

After that I went through a lot of the humbling and embarrassing political foibles and activities that young organizers go through and became a “self-conscious revolutionary” when I was 23, working with a group that focussed on queer and trans liberation, Palestine liberation, from below worker’s struggles, and anti-white supremacy.  I was humbled and fortunate to be a white jewish person organizing with majority brilliant people of color militants, and to get called on my bs frequently, while still being given the chance to grow and learn. 

Fast forward to 2014, we were involved in the anti-police struggles following the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the acquittals of the cops involved.  While walking across a bridge to avoid police activity with friends who had prior arrests/other vulnerable legal situations we were attacked by two police officers, and in an attempt to liberate and protect ourselves, were filmed in an altercation.  Given the political climate at the time, we were made literal poster children of the “bad activists” and given trumped up charges, mostly felony assault charges.  Everyone ultimately indicted was white, and even those who were convicted of felonies got off much easier than had we been black or brown and not known organizers with extensive support groups. 

I was always in theory a prison and police abolitionist, but going to court once a month, being in my own (very brief) period of lock up and mostly seeing the horrors and explicit white supremacy of the court and prison system made me really passionate about tearing the system down.  With other comrades, I helped begin the NYC IWOC branch a few months later.

O: A hard story, thank you for sharing. Next question: like me, you’re an activist but also a bodyworker. How do your political awareness and bodywork overlap?

C: Well that is a good question and also really hard to answer.  My initial response is “they don’t really”, because I’ve been through a lot of different contradictory feelings about my work-work (bodywork) and my political organizing. 

When I started practicing, I imagined that I would do bodywork to help people heal to struggle harder against capitalism.  At some point (just to be transparent, we’re talking recently like the last couple of years), I realized I was imposing my notions of “healing” on people I was working with politically, and that I was creating/contributing to power dynamics that were unhelpful by positioning myself as a “healer” with people I was trying to be in political struggle with. 

That being said, I also feel a really strong connection between bodywork and revolutionary struggle!!  On a practical level, I don’t position myself as a healer within groups I am organizing with.  I do provide a sliding scale and pretty low rates for comrades and people struggling against systematic oppression (and at several times have done pro bono work especially following police and right-wing violence), but I see this more as an appropriate way to be a community practitioner, rather than revolutionary or political in and of itself. 

O: That’s a really beautiful way of putting it

C: The reality is it is my livelihood.  What skills I have are on offer, but it’s not the same as my political work.  That might change, but it’s where I am now. There are many, many wonderful practitioners who practice group healing and work to facilitate liberation, and I prefer to make space for them to do their thing. However, my position as a practitioner is definitely, deeply impacted by my political perspective, and I believe helps me as a practitioner, and vice versa as a revolutionary.  Being a revolutionary has taught me a lot about building-from-below struggle, and the necessity of what I kind of think of as imminence…that a new society rests in the activity of the struggles we are engaged in against the current state of things.

While they are not exactly the same thing for a lot of reasons, I approach bodywork and “health” as a process.  Obviously there is the goal of reducing symptoms, and I want to work the best I can with that, but just as there is no ideal or normative body, there is no ideal mode of health, except whatever a person’s own goals are.  It’s hard and I fuck up, but my main goal as a bodyworker is to facilitate movement and self-recognition.  I think and hope I approach revolutionary struggle in a similar way.  As an individual, and as part of a broader group of militants, I see my role as facilitating the imminent abolition of the present state of things that in its very activity builds liberation.

O: What motivates and inspires you to continue your work?

The passionate belief in an end to capitalism and the birth of a new society.  I feel lucky because so many revolutionaries before me have envisioned different forms of what this means.  And because it’s just fucking there in everyday life–to look at the world and see the endless possibility of life, of humanity, of creativity, or non-human organization…it’s soo strong and so present and makes so much more sense than a society organized around enslavement to an inverted form of labor.

So that keeps me going, as well as seeing people continually struggling against the prison system, which they know might not end in their lifetime, but they struggle with everything against it anyway.  A comrade and I were talking recently about the prison strike, and I said how blown away I was by people inside who were striking with consequences of beating, solitary, isolation, more time incarcerated, and ultimately the real possibility of murder by incarceration.  He said (paraphrasing) that he imagined it was the same way slaves who fought for abolition felt.  They knew they might not be free as indivduals, but they knew they had to fight anyway–the struggle for liberation was so clearly beyond their own lifetime.  This blows my mind.

O: Yes. That’s massive.

C: The other thing that moves and inspires me honestly is queer revolutionary science fiction that deals with contradictions. I should also say I’m newly/differently motivated because I am about to be a parent.  I believe that each generation of people will have more revolutionaries, more queers, and more connectedness to the world around them. Their as-yet-unborn ideas inspire me.

O: What other things are you involved in that you’d love more people to know about?

C: There a lot of other amazing things happening in the world, and I am absolutely an internationalist, but also encourage people to build struggles where they are, from below, free from the repression and control of non-profits, the state, and formal trade unions (and if anyone wants to know why, read Otter’s books for great analysis :)), and to use that as a basis to build broader connected struggles across the globe.

I am an ongoing herbal student, and studied most recently with Karen Rose at Sacred Vibes Apothecary (sacredvibeashealing.com) and think there is a lot of good work being done there by mostly black people, brown, indigenous people of color practitioners against colonization of knowledge.  I’m a queer who is excited about being a queer parent so maybe some of your readers have suggestions for me?? especially in raising a kid in a non-gender coercive/gender liberatory way in a society that is itself coercive! 

O: I love this interview so much. Final question: What is your connection to more-than-human nature in the place you live?

C: Oh I love that language and wish I had used it before!!!  Briefly, I live with (the aforementioned) cat, who teaches me A LOT about contradiction, boundaries, love, and imperfection.  I grew up in suburban sprawl outside of Philly, which politicized me a lot and taught me about class, destruction, grief, and interconnectedness, which I think ultimately led me to plant medicine.  Living in New York is amazing because plants (many medicinal, even if I wouldn’t harvest them for medicine given contamination levels) grow in abundance, often literally cracking the sidewalk.  When I’m lost, or just forgetful, they remind me how to fight.

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Cindy Samantha is a bodywork practitioner and anticapitalist prison abolitionist living in Brooklyn, New York, which occupies stolen Lenapehoking land. She is a white queer person of jewish descent and soon-to-be parent.  Her work can be found at cindysamanthalmt.com, and the group she discusses, IWOC, can be found at incarceratedworkers.org, Instagram (iwoc_nyc)  and Facebook (iwocnyc)

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