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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Untimely End of the Echo Base Collective

Police shut down Walker’s Point bike co-op and performance

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  On April 23, the Echo Base Collective prepared for what they thought would be a quiet Wednesday night of folk and performance groups. The 20 people who showed up had just heard a New York spoken word group, Batter Recharger, and were waiting to hear a Chicago band and the local group Dharma Bumz. Members of Dharma were loading equipment through a garage door on the side of the building when two police officers appeared.

  “I told them they should talk to Dave,” said Keith Armstrong, singer for the Dharma Bumz, referring to Dave Casillas, the organizer of Echo Base. “They said they already had and were already in the building.”

  Meanwhile, Casillas had gone through the front door and saw squad cars spread out for blocks on every corner. Approximately 10 officers searched the building, top to bottom. One underage drinking ticket was issued. Casillas said Echo Base had a “loose no-alcohol policy.” Alcohol wasn’t encouraged, but, at this event, people had brought their own beer.

  Police told Casillas that they had received a tip that an “illegal rave” was happening at Echo Base, and everyone was told to leave. Casillas says he is frustrated because prior to this event there had been “no knock on the door, no warning, nothing.”

  Two weeks later, the Echo Base was completely shut down.

  What Casillas really wanted to do was start a grassroots bicycle collective. He recalls a life-changing bicycle trek he made across the country. He encountered a number of helpful bicycle collectives along the way, and says he brought some of that energy home with him. He wanted to form a collective that would offer workshops, repair bicycles and provide resources for traveling cyclists. After searching, he found what he thought would be an ideal spot at 830 S. Barclay St., in Walker’s Point. This became the Echo Base Collective.

  He quickly went to work. The building had been vacant, though some drug addicts had been squatting there. Casillas says he and his collective saw the potential for a positive new force in the neighborhood. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee donated old bikes that needed to be fixed and they acquired workbenches.

  The collective decided to start hosting benefit shows with local and touring bands. Donations were taken, with some of the money helping to maintain Echo Base. They hosted their first fund-raiser March 7. The buzz spread quickly, and soon they had booked shows for every week through August.

  Two weeks after the April 23 show was busted, police returned with a building inspector. They issued Casillas more than $1,000 in tickets for allowing underage drinking and for not having liquor and occupancy permits. Casillas and two roommates lived in the upstairs portion of the building, and the inspector returned the next day to write them up for various violations. They were given a notice to vacate the premises within 24 hours. Casillas says the paperwork to convert the upstairs from commercial to residential had not been finished by his landlord. They were able to get an extension for seven days, and began a mad scramble to clear the collective.

  Kevin Soens is a member of the Borg Ward Collective, another organization that hosts live music and arts events. He says that after the Echo Base raid, his collective has rethought how it operates and adopted stricter policies. They have been careful to review the limitations of what they can do.

  “I was surprised it all happened so quickly,” Soens says. “I was disappointed by how the city handled it; they treated it like a meth lab or something. It was a worst-case scenario right in front of us.”

  Alderman James Witkowiak, who represents the 12th District, where Echo Base was located, says he respects what the bike co-op was trying to do, but adds, “They had a multitude of violations. If that were to happen anywhere in the city, they would get shut down. I don’t have anything personal against these guys. It became large enough that people called our office and the police.”

  Although Echo Base’s concerts may have seemed harmless, Witkowiak says the city was obligated to act.

  “Suppose the city knew about (these concerts), and there was a major fire or tragedy,” he says. “The fact that the city knew about it and didn’t do anything about it would make the city liable.”

  Casillas and his former roommates are currently staying on friends’ couches. Casillas says these events have not discouraged him. He visualizes starting two separate spaces in the future: an all-ages venue and a bicycle collective. Next time, he plans to make sure that everything is done by the book.

  “(These events) have made me more passionate and twice as serious about what I want to do,” Casillas says.

  You can get more info on Casillas’ new collectives by e-mailing him at echobase1@riseup.net.