“OK, time to sing ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’” says Ted Everhart, a Ph.D. candidate, to a group of 50 or so political activists and community members on Saturday, April 29, on a UCLA lawn. He blows his harmonica to find a C and tells the group, “I’m not a professional; I’m an anthropologist,” which garners a chuckle.
The group, led by Everhart and other members of UCLA’s nascent Labor Choir, sings “We Shall Not Be Moved” a few times, gradually improving with each iteration. Even though it's a folk protest standard, the tune isn't necessarily easy to sing, especially for novices. But individual accuracy isn’t the point; it’s more about the net effect.
"We Shall Not Be Moved" is the kickoff to a several-hour teach-in on the theme of sanctuary cities. Several speakers and activists from the L.A. area, representing a variety of organizations fighting for undocumented workers and better working conditions for all, are on hand to participate. Roughly one in 10 undocumented immigrants in the United States live in the Greater Los Angeles area, making it home to the largest undocumented population in America. So battling the Trump administration's efforts to tighten America’s already dismal immigration policy has taken on a special urgency here.
This is a day designed to reflect on the intersection of labor, immigration and gentrification, perhaps three of the most important issues facing Los Angeles right now. The UCLA Labor Choir was invited to teach the group some songs as a way to inform them about labor history in America.
The Labor Choir is a new group that Everhart and a handful of other Bruins started in January to train themselves and others in protest songs, to connect activists on campus, and to fight what some have called "resistance fatigue" with a supportive space. Everhart has studied the politics of accent, dialect and "standard language" in Northeastern Japan and also has a background in music and activism.
“The Labor Choir is kind of a parallel project to the Radical Marching Band, which rehearses downtown,” Everhart explains. “So far we have been doing really classic material like ‘Solidarity Forever,’ 'The Red Flag,' ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ ‘I'm Sticking to the Union’ and a number of other 'greatest hits'–type items that appeared frequently in collections we found in the music library.”
The choir has been active in recent months, making waves at events like Bruin Day in mid-April, capturing the administration’s attention and helping to "inform parents and prospective students about the university's failure to fight sexual harassment by faculty, and their refusal to give students a voice in the new sexual violence and sexual harassment policy they are crafting right now,” Everhart says. “So singing was a friendly way to attract attention, and invite parents and students to have conversations with members of BASH [Bruins Against Sexual Harassment] who were handing out fliers.” Several BASH members are also now in the choir.
The group sings several other leftist classics throughout the teach-in, such as “Solidarity Forever,” which was originally a Union Civil War song. “This is what they sang when they beat slaveholders the last time,” Everhart says, drawing a loud cheer.
The vibe on this idyllic day is generally positive, though the presentations themselves are as enraging and depressing as they are edifying. David, an activist from the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), uses a felt octopus to illustrate all the tactics enforcement agencies such as ICE and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) use to hunt “illegals,” and how much money the Department of Homeland Security needs to operate (hint: It’s a lot).
Members are on hand from such groups as Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), affiliates of Los Angeles Tenants Unions, L.A. Democratic Socialists of America, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union 3299, the UCLA Chicano/a Social Justice Caucus, I.D.E.A.S., Koreatown Popular Assembly and Student Labor Advocacy Project of UCLA (SLAP), a coalition of student activists and labor unions on campus that is working to promote a sanctuary campus policy. SLAP succeeds in disrupting a speech by UCLA chancellor Gene Block at an education symposium while the teach-in happens outside.
On the lawn, reps from the groups listed above speak on issues like redlining, wage theft, ICE’s origins in the Texas Rangers, police seizure of property and the history of California’s colonization by Westerners. The event was created by the local L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a multitendency organization that has experienced a huge surge in membership both nationally and locally in the wake of Trump. (Full disclosure: I am one such new member of DSA L.A.)
The teach-in was designed to counterprogram against a presentation at the Moving Forward in Education Symposium by California State Senate president pro tempore Kevin De León. Right before the event began, De León came up and introduced himself to one of the DSA organizers, and the two discussed points of agreement and disagreement. Whether L.A. will include all immigrants (and not frame it as “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants”) in its sanctuary policy remains to be seen. Until then, all of these groups will be putting pressure on elected officials to do better at every turn.
Earlier in March, DSA L.A. pushed Mayor Eric Garcetti to clarify L.A.’s status as a sanctuary city (he had previously been rather dodgy on the subject) during a protest on the eve of his re-election. Garcetti has since improved his position, but the DSA and its allies don’t believe the proposed sanctuary policy is inclusive enough — for example, it doesn’t provide legal defense for immigrants who have criminal records, a popular neoliberal "carve-out" based on an oversimplified narrative of “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants,” which divides communities and doles out resources based on flawed moral terms.
Phal Sok, a man who was born in Thailand and moved to America as a baby, testifies at the teach-in to getting lost in the system as a “bad immigrant.” He describes being denied representation when he was held in detention starting in 2015 and facing possible deportation. His father, he explains, had died when he was a teen, and he got into a gang. He later went to jail, was released, then detained again. He had to act as his own counsel and was trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bad policies.
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After Sok shares his moving story, the choir sings “The Internationale,” both English and Spanish versions. Perhaps it's necessary at these events to have a choir break into song every 30 minutes or so to keep the mood from getting too heavy, as it’s not difficult to get extremely depressed when confronting hard truths about how America treats the poor and the nonwhite. But it’s not just that.
“One of the other purposes of the choir is that it gives us a tactic that is less oppositional than chanting,” explains Jonathan Koch, another choir member and Ph.D. student in musical composition. “Singing is especially good for actions which are educational or outreach-oriented. Good for protests, too.”
The Labor Choir is just getting started; it has a lot more work to do. That means recruiting more members and spreading the gospel of song as a political tool. “As a group we are still very small but hoping to grow,” says Everhart.
“And [we’re] very amateur, although we do try to sing on key and in harmony. We rehearse on Thursday nights from 6 p.m. and usually walk down to Westwood for a beer afterward.” It’s still college, after all.