Virginia Commonwealth University student John Wade has had a lot of time to think about the upcoming Environmental Film Festival he helped organize.
He's a convicted felon who spent three years in federal prison in Petersburg for, among other things, conspiring with two friends from Douglas S. Freeman High School to vandalize SUVs, suburban homes, fast-food restaurants and construction vehicles in 2002.
The trio made up a local cell of a national radical environmental group -- the Earth Liberation Front -- that also conspired to blow up a construction crane at Short Pump Town Center by dousing an American flag in Kerosene and inserting it into the crane's gas tank. It was considered an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act, since it was a crime "with the intent to coerce the civilian population."
In 2002, the FBI considered the national group, also known as ELF, one of the most "dangerous domestic terror groups" in the United States, according to news reports.
All three agreed to a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office, according to news reports, which reduced the environmental terrorism charges to vandalism. Damages totaled more than $200,000.
"I have attempted to stop the destruction of the environment with any tools available to me," Wade says by e-mail when asked about his past. "For a short period of time I was involved in illegal activism, but I have always been more involved in radical legal activism."
He says he intentionally didn't tell sponsors or other media of his past when organizing the event for fear of "alienating" people. He also says he wasn't involved in acts that involved arson, including the crane incident.
Since getting out of prison, he's been taking classes at VCU, which is where he got the idea to stage a film festival, after taking a class on nonfiction film taught by Michael Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit Richmond Moving Image Co-Op.
With the help of Jones, Wade and other students have assembled "The Biggest Picture," Richmond's first environmental film festival, which is set to feature eight films, mostly documentaries, and four speakers at the Byrd Theatre -- including former presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Organizers hope to create awareness about specific issues such as overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, mountaintop removal mining, global warming and corporate profiteering.
The sponsors of the event, and Nader, were apparently unaware of Wade's conviction and involvement in ELF. It's unclear as of press time how news of Wade's past might affect the film festival, Feb. 9-10. But Jones, the VCU film teacher, says it shouldn't distract from the event.
"I don't see why it should affect anything," Jones says, noting that he did not agree with the severity of the Patriot Act in this case. "The bulldozers are insured but these kids, who were seniors in high school, are paying for the rest of their lives. He paid for his crime. ... He's doing this [festival] because he still cares very deeply about the environment."
Then again, Jones admits that a little controversy is always good for the box office.
When Wade started organizing the event, he knew he needed a big-name speaker for added oomph. But Robert Kennedy Jr. wanted $30,000 and Al Gore costs $150,000 -- plus there's a two-year waiting list for the Nobel laureate. After hearing a Baltimore speech months ago by longtime consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Wade waited in a book-signing line and simply asked for Nader's help.
"Do you think I should have told Nader?" Wade poses to a Style reporter.
Nader is currently exploring a possible bid for presidency. When asked if they were aware of Wade's radical past -- he was released from prison in January 2007 -- an official in Nader's camp said they did not know about it. Wade was supposed to arrange to pick Nader up in Washington, D.C. to save transportation costs. Nader is still plannning to speak at the festival, a spokesman for Nader says.
"I hope people are motivated to get to work on whatever environmental issue they find most alarming or inspiring," says Wade, a longtime vegetarian who says he's never owned a car and bikes everywhere. "There will be lots of environmental groups at the festival and it will be a good chance for people to get involved."
After citing Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson as heroes, Wade admitted he did not want people, namely sponsors and guests, to know about his crime because he knew it would cast a pall over the festival.
Sponsors for the event include Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, Style Weekly, Goodwill, Richmond Moving Image Co-Op, 96.5 The Planet, Capital Ale House, Black Swan Books, Carytown Teas, Keithfabry, Alchemy Eco Boutique and Ipanema. VCU officials have not yet responded to requests from Style about their involvement with the event and Wade's status as a student.
Style Publisher Lori Waran says the newsweekly was unaware of Wade's conviction and has since pulled its sponsorship. "It is too bad the history of the organizer is distracting from the message of the event," Waran says. "We do hope the event is a success."