The Nose, The Grindstone, And The Monkey Wrench — How We Can Build Autonomous Economic Zones in Los Angeles Without Changing A Single Law

Autonomous Zones in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles informal, that is to say illegal, productive uses of land are ubiquitous. Activities like street vending, backyard restaurants, ghost kitchens, perpetual garage sales, all kinds of specialized retail, unlicensed day care, auto and bicycle repair and painting, massage and yoga studios, market gardening, music lessons, rent parties, plant nurseries, gypsy cab operations, furniture and computer repair, tailoring, live music, personal grooming services of every description, apartment-sharing by large numbers of people, raising chickens, pigeons, rabbits, parakeets, cockatiels, and even small goats. Unhoused people use land productively, illegally, and cooperatively by living on it in addition to many of the above activities.

Everywhere in this City adaptable, energetic, determined people find infinitely many creative ways to enrich themselves, their families, and their communities using whatever access to land they’ve managed to organize. Not only do they benefit themselves and their immediate communities this way, but their work makes the life and the culture of this City infinitely richer for almost everyone here.1 And yet all of these activities are illegal and the potential consequences are severe. They include eviction for renters and its attendant potential financial ruin and risk of homelessness, homeowners risk nuisance suits and potential property confiscation, also amounting to financial ruin and risk of homelessness. Everyone involved risks fines, arrest, imprisonment, and police violence.

In one sense the laws are hardly enforced, except sporadically. Like I said, informal economic activity is ubiquitous in Los Angeles so whatever the laws forbidding it are doing, they’re not preventing it.2 One thing they do is allow police to harass, cite, and arrest informal economic actors, at their discretion, randomly, unpredictably. This in turn leads to self-enforcement via internalized social norms, which makes it hard even to envision what freedom to use land might bring, let alone to organize around increasing that freedom. To see what I mean, imagine you had access to a small piece of land here in Los Angeles where you could do whatever you wanted without having to worry about legal consequences. Don’t worry about who owns the land, we’re only talking about access and use here. Think of a little square, ten feet on a side. What could you do with that?

Live on it, for one thing, with no need to pay anyone, landlord, bank, or government, for the privilege. Unfettered access to even a small piece of land can immediately double your income or allow you to work half as much.3 You could actually build a small building, maybe two stories like a little cabin, and sleep upstairs, leaving space on the ground floor for productive activities. A whole family could do it if they didn’t have to worry about zoning.4 You could sell or trade things, goods or services, to passersby, and you wouldn’t need much money without having to pay rent. You could conduct all kinds of economic activities, support yourself and maybe your family. Make your contribution to this City’s dazzling, intricate, miraculous informal economic life without risking everything by breaking laws.

Hundreds of thousands of Angelenos are doing this relatively successfully now even having to pay rent, mortgage, property tax, to evade police, pay fines or serve time when they can’t escape. Without these law-imposed costs, none of which are inevitable, all of which are political decisions, this illegal economic activity would be even more successful. The productive power of unregulated access to land is almost unimaginable to us, living in a time and a place where it has been effectively eliminated for almost everyone. And this is only to do with the productive potential of a small piece of land in the hands of an individual, famously the least productive form of human organization. What if a whole community had unfettered access to a bigger piece of land? What could they do with that?

Imagine a vacant lot managed by the people who lived around and maybe even on it, right here in the City. Think of all the productive activities people already do informally, illegally. All of those things, food, services, retail, education, human beings relating to one another in all the infinitely many ways we know how to do to meet our needs, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, happening right there on a piece of land without anyone having to worry about being shut down by the cops or any of the other dozens of law enforcement agencies operating in Los Angeles, without having to ask City staff or anyone else for permission or approval or just to be left alone.

Imagine community-planned bathrooms, green space, gardens, living areas for those who need them, barber shops, little schools, and on and on. People working together in community multiply their powers a zillionfold. It could be the world’s best market, fair, campground, park, temple, farm, community, right there on a city street in Los Angeles. Imagine people who live in the vicinity coming together to plan how to use the piece of land, coming together to create their own organizational structures to administer the resources. As I said, I doubt my own ability to imagine what free people working in community without any of the impediments imposed by municipal laws will be able to accomplish, but given what we see around us now under the current oppressive conditions, it can’t fail to be miraculous. Why can’t we have this?

Friend, we can. We can have it right now, today. Here’s how a willing Councilmember and a willing and dedicated community could create this world on a City lot right here in Los Angeles. We already have the community. The Councilmember’s role is to pick a piece of City property in their district and let the neighbors decide what to do with it, how to manage this resource, without any interference, monitoring, or goals. This could be a City lot or some other property, e.g. a public housing project. Let the residents and neighbors decide how they want to organize themselves to use the productive potential of the land. Implementing this in public housing obviously has to include giving the residents full communal control over every aspect of the housing. Property managers, especially in public housing, are a primary enforcer of economic prohibitions.

Maybe the CM can also provide access to City staff to build things, or some money, or other assistance in the work at the direction of the community, but this isn’t necessary, only potentially useful. Angelenos have all the same skills that City employees have because City employees are mostly Angelenos.5 We can certainly build what we want to have built. I have no doubt that the money could be raised in all kinds of ways. Look at the costs now imposed by the City through enforcement. Not just financial, but costs in fatigue and anxiety from evading enforcement and probably others I can’t think of. Freeing all this up for a community to use as they see fit allows an awful lot of money and labor now being coercively extracted for the people involved to contribute towards effecting their purposes.

The last thing the councilmember can do is instruct all City agencies responsible for enforcing laws forbidding informal economic activity to stay away, leave the laws unenforced on the property, and thereby let us all see what the community could do with the resources actualized by unconstrained access to land.6 Let us see how people organize themselves to manage the resource as well as to use it. I imagine both location-based and affinity-based communities being involved. Let the miraculous creativity, energy, imagination of Angelenos blossom in the freedom afforded by a lack of enforcement. No one can now be sure what would happen, but it can’t conceivably be less marvelous than what we have now, already miraculous. What are some potential objections to this plan?

Objections and replies

Councilmembers aren’t able in practice to suspend enforcement — the law is the law and it must be enforced.

This objection is baseless. Councilmembers not only have this ability but they use it continually. It even has an official name — relaxed enforcement.7 They do this all the time for commercial property owners. They absolutely have the ability to order that laws not be enforced in a specified area in their districts.8 Even LAPD will honor such orders from councilmembers.9 Presently councilmembers only exercise this ability at the behest of zillionaires, but that’s a function of the particular councilmembers’ loyalties rather than of the ability itself.

With respect to LAPD recall that every homeless encampment is illegal under the Los Angeles Municipal Code, and yet police drive by them all the time and do nothing about them. LAPD only enforces anti-encampment laws at the specific direction of the relevant councilmember, which means that they also fail to enforce then at the CM’s specific direction. There’s no immediate reason to suspect they won’t do the same in this case.10 They drive by street vendors constantly and don’t arrest them even though they’re violating the law, but they will enforce laws against vending if the CM tells them to.11 Whether or not to enforce a given law is at the discretion of individual officers, so clearly they’re willing to not enforce laws when they choose to.

Councilmembers lack the explicit legal power to locally suspend enforcement of selected laws and to do so will create legal liability for the City or the councilmember.

The correct response to this objection is so fucking what, who cares? And why do they care about this rather than the thousands of already existing City policies that are illegal, that incur all kinds of liabilities? Wantonly violating laws is standard operating procedure for the City of Los Angeles. Every homeless encampment sweep is an avalanche of civil rights violations and other illegalities, every poverty tow a potential lawsuit. The City is constantly held liable for violating employment laws, civil rights laws, the California public records act, and on and on and on. Cities can’t be imprisoned, beaten, or killed so the only possible penalties are fines and court orders not to violate the law in the future.

But of course they do violate the law in the future, why wouldn’t they? The only penalty is a fine and another court order, and it’s not their money so no one cares. The City of Los Angeles would stop functioning as intended immediately if City staff started following laws. It would probably stop if they even paused to consider whether some planned action was illegal. It’s not a practical option. So again, my question to anyone with this particular concern is why care in this case when not only does no one involved in actually running the City care, and even if they did, it’s literally impossible for them to stop?

Councilmembers shouldn’t have so much personal power and we shouldn’t exploit the regrettable fact that they do.

Well, sure. They shouldn’t have so much personal power. The two choices we have then are to take away some of their power or to use the tools we have, one of which is precisely that personal power, to effect our goals.12 I’m not sure how to take away some of their power other than through either electoral politics or outright revolution. The second doesn’t strike me as anything to pin my immediate hopes for our future on, while the first seems like a bottomless sink for both time and resources. I think it’s ultimately a more effective use of my time to advance liberation in ways like the one I’m describing here.

I see this as a personal choice rather than a normative principle, though, so I guess that if this objection seems convincing to you we should pursue our shared goals in parallel using our own preferred methods. I don’t know how to change this City permanently for the better. If I did I’d have done it already. So I’m reluctant to lecture people on how they should use their brief time here on earth to change things. People whose goals are compatible with my own may be my allies even if we disagree completely on how to reach them.13 But that allyship doesn’t commit me to spending my own time or resources pursuing goals in someone else’s manner.

Under this plan drugs, sex, and guns would be sold openly.

Again, in Los Angeles at this very moment drugs, sex, and guns are sold more or less openly in every neighborhood in the City. Everyone who wants to buy these things can find them. The forms these economic activities presently take are determined entirely by the fact that they’re illegal, which means effectively that they’re organized by LAPD. I don’t know if a community would choose to use access to land to reorganize how sex work and/or contraband sales are carried out in their neighborhood. Maybe they would, maybe not, but if they do, what could happen as a result that’s somehow worse for communities than what’s already happening now?14

It’s just not plausible that people working in community on one particular City lot to organize these transactions could create outcomes worse than what now exists. Even if illicit goods or services end up being sold openly because that’s how the community wants it, well, they’re sold openly now in ways chosen by the police and people with enough political power to influence the police. How could community control over these activities create worse conditions than we have now? It seems unlikely to me that it would, but if it does, well, then we’ve learned something and can re-evaluate the project.

If this project succeeds and proliferates it will radically transform the economy of Los Angeles.

Unlike the previous objections I think this claim is absolutely correct. The question is more about whether it’s an objection or an expression of approval, a bug or a feature. If all the laws I’m discussing here were repealed citywide instead of just being suspended temporarily and hyperlocally the economy of Los Angeles would indeed be radically transformed. None of these prohibitions was enacted accidentally, none without specific purposes, specific targets, in mind. These laws were written for the benefit of some to the detriment of many. If they were repealed, then as I’ve argued above many people would benefit but a few would indeed suffer.15 Roughly speaking employers and landlords would suffer while employees and tenants would benefit.16

If people had effective access to productive property they’d need significantly less money to support themselves and their families, they’d have less incentive to work for wages rather than for subsistence.17 If people who are now tenants could live on public property in community, sharing autonomous authority in community with their neighbors they’d have significantly less incentive to pay rent to a landlord. Even if they don’t otherwise participate in informal economic activity, even if they keep working for wages, certainly many would choose not to give a huge fraction of that money to landlords. Why would they? The only reason most people who can afford it do choose to pay landlords is because the police violently prevent them from arranging rent-free housing using our common resources.

It’s tempting to argue in support of this radical economic transformation from morality — it’s good for workers to have all the value their work creates and bad for employers and landlords to use laws and the violence with which they are enforced to appropriate a share — or from utility — this outcome produces a greater good for a greater number of people than would otherwise occur. I don’t find either of these arguments convincing, but maybe others do.18 The argument that does convince me is from political power in the form of the ability to get laws written, enacted, and enforced.

The economic prohibitions at issue are the results of exercises of political power, and ultimately this is the only justification for their existence. If some people have the power and desire to create a law then the law will be created. If not, it won’t. If Angelenos manage to get any or all of these laws repealed this outcome will be the result of exactly the same thing — the political power to have done so. Supporters of these economic prohibitions are committed to political power as a justification for all the laws the creation of which they’ve arranged. How then will they make good faith arguments against repealing laws if people have the political power to get them repealed?19

The ruling class of Los Angeles will never let this happen.

This may be true. This City works really effectively in some people’s favor, and they will try their best to stop projects like this. The kind of change this could bring would cost them too much money and they have too much power to let that happen without a fight. So we fight. They don’t win every battle and they may well not win this one, not least because it leverages their own powers against them. They’re the ones who created and rely on a City Council whose members have executive, even dictatorial, powers in their own districts.

They did this to more effectively exploit employees and tenants, so let’s make them fight to change the rules if they don’t like the outcomes. Sure, they can change them more easily than we can, but it still isn’t easy. Charter changes require voter approval, and nothing less than a charter change will reduce councilmembers’ discretionary power over their territory. Also, Los Angeles considered as an exploitation machine is a complex network of mutually interoperating parts. If one cares to preserve its functions, and the ruling class here certainly does, well, it’s not necessarily easy to change one thing without messing up a bunch of others.


I don’t think political descriptors clarify much so I didn’t use them in this essay, but it’s apparent that what I’m describing here is a hyperlocal form of anarchism. Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, in his 2021 introduction to Anarchism and the Black Revolution, describes cities as potential laboratories for anarchist experiments of all types. This is exactly right, one reason being that despite the systemic nature of all the problems we’re dealing with, every one of them is enforced almost completely at the most local level, whether city or county. These are also precisely the jurisdictions most amenable to political influence, whether informally as I’m suggesting here, or through electoral politics, or protests, or insurrections. The American city is where the nose meets the grindstone, but it’s also where the grindstone meets the monkey wrench. Let’s break that motherfucker.20

  1. Everyone except the people who make their livings from exploitation, the people whose livelihoods the prohibitions protect, the people with the power to have the prohibitions enacted and enforced.
  2. Does the idea of deterrence seem remotely plausible to you? It doesn’t to me. I’d like to see some evidence that it happens before I feel like it’s an objection worth accounting for.
  3. Whatever fraction of expenses one pays to the landlord or the bank. Fifty percent is just an example, albeit a perfectly realistic example here in Los Angeles.
  4. Don’t worry about putatively practical matters like utilities and sewage. This is a thought experiment, and not only that but they’re not actually problems, which I discuss below.
  5. In case it’s not completely obvious I’m not talking about the police here, LAPD or otherwise. They mostly live outside Los Angeles and anyway, the point of the exercise is that we don’t need their skills.
  6. There are endless kinds of enforcers in Los Angeles. Obviously LAPD, but also street services, sanitation, building inspectors, fire marshals, deputy city attorneys, neighborhood prosecutors, and so on. I can’t list them all, and I doubt that many people in the City government can either. The city is blanketed with enforcement, almost all of it directed at squelching unauthorized economic activity.
  7. I’m talking about ability rather than power because I don’t know if it’s written down anywhere that they can do this. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but in actual fact they do have the ability to do it.
  8. So-called deference among councilmembers regarding their own districts is essential to this plan.
  9. LAPD is effectively an autonomous branch of City government. In practice they’re unconstrained by any form of civilian control, including the directives of individual councilmembers. I don’t know why LAPD obeys relaxed enforcement orders. I’m sure that they have their own self-serving externally inscrutable reasons. But under normal conditions they will comply.
  10. There are some not immediate reasons to suspect that they in fact won’t do the same, which I discuss below.
  11. Traditionally street services enforcement officers cite and arrest street vendors, but they very clearly take direction from councilmembers.
  12. These choices aren’t necessarily exclusive of one another, because successfully implementing this proposal by whatever means it can be done would take away some of their power, not least by showing Angelenos and the world that we don’t actually need a City government managing every aspect of our economic lives. But this is speculative.
  13. They may not be my allies. Means outweigh ends, as in the adage.
  14. Very possibly community control over how these activities are carried out would be worse for some people, but just not for the community. The very illegality of these transactions now increase their value for the people who do control them, but those aren’t the people this plan would benefit.
  15. Economically, of course. Whether they’d suffer emotionally or elsewise is a personal matter and not important in this context.
  16. A lot of homeowners in Los Angeles are economically much more like tenants with the bank and the county via its property-taxing authority being much more like landlords than whatever they might appear to be on the surface. A detailed argument for this claim is the subject of a different essay.
  17. The word “subsistence” conjures up images of barely scraping by, of grubbing stunted potatoes out of a forsaken patch of wasteland, but this isn’t how I’m using it here. By subsistence labor I mean work that goes directly to people’s support without being mediated by wage labor. Subsistence labor in this sense isn’t just likely but is essentially guaranteed to be more fruitful, to create more abundance, than wage labor. How could it be otherwise? Obviously if the employer, the middleman, is eliminated from the transaction then the share of the fruits of the labor they appropriate will go directly to the laborer, so there will be more of it.
  18. Why I don’t is the subject of a different essay.
  19. Of course they will make bad faith arguments against them. If you have one drop it in the comments and I’ll refute it there.
  20. Cities are very, very different from one another on a pragmatic level, however, despite the comforting but ultimately misguided temptation to map half-remembered lessons from civics class onto their political structures. This is why only locally expert people can find effective ways to implement local anarchist projects. This essay is an attempt to describe how this might unfold in Los Angeles, but I would be absolutely unqualified to write anything sensible or even defensible about even LA’s nearest neighbors, let alone cities in other states. Long Beach, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, each is its own world, each might as well be a different planet as far as the actual pragmatic political functioning of the city. I have no doubt that experiments such as the one I’m proposing here can be implemented in those cities, in every American city, but I can’t say how.