Why the Mushroom Masks?
By: Howard Appell
In 1988 New York Governor Mario Cuomo appointed a commission which was assigned the task of locating land on which the state would be constructing a federally-mandated nuclear waste storage facility. By mid-winter of 1990, this Siting Commission had been frustrated time and time again in its efforts to examine candidate properties in Allegany County. Protesters trained in nonviolent civil disobedience methods had succeeded in blocking the commission vehicles, blocking the highways and surrounding and detaining commission entourages in incidents which had occurred on May 31 and December 13, 1989, and on January 16 and 18, 1990. The commission reacted by obtaining a New York State Supreme Court preliminary injunction forbidding the principals in the Allegany County Non-violent Action Group (ACNAG) — and any person acting in concert with them – from interfering in any manner with the business of the commission and its staff as they visited, inspected or worked at the finalist sites. Any recognizable person now engaging in such interference could face a contempt of court charge, which would have to be answered in Buffalo. If he or she were found guilty, the protester’s penalty would be a $1000 fine and up to one year in jail. This was indeed more serious and intimidating than pleading not guilty to the charge of disorderly conduct in town court and likely having the charge dismissed by a sympathetic local judge. But ACNAG swiftly devised a counter strategy: If everyone at the next demonstration wore masks, they couldn’t be identified and wouldn’t be subject to contempt charges. Siting Commission Chairman Angelo Orazio had unintentionally provided protesters with the character for the masks. Orazio had once disparagingly remarked that the leaders of the protest movement were treating their followers like mushrooms, “keeping them in the dark and feeding them manure.” Thus was born the ‘No Dump’ mushroom mask, worn by most of the estimated 700 protesters at Caneadea on April 5, 1990. Designed by Alfred artist Hope Zaccagni, the mask was a model of symbol efficiency, with a mushroom serving as nose and forehead, the words ‘NO Dump’ forming a grinning mouth, and the ‘CO.’ abbreviation in ‘ALLEGANY CO.’ positioned for circular eye cut-outs. On that morning, the commission, accompanied by a brigade of New York State Troopers, encountered six elderly persons who had chained and handcuffed themselves across the Caneadea bridge – and that was only the beginning. Hundreds of masked protesters blocked the roadways with their bodies and farm machinery as the commission and troopers tediously worked their way towards the Caneadea candidate site. Finally a cavalry of twelve masked riders on draft horses encountered and delayed the procession. Two of the riders were pulled from their steeds and beaten by troopers before the trooper commander wisely ordered a retreat. Two days after these events, the governor sidelined his commission. Shortly thereafter he reversed his position, joining with the Concerned Citizens of Allegany County in their lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of federal legislation which mandated and scheduled construction of the nuclear waste facility. After hearing arguments, in June of 1992 the United States Supreme Court struck down the federal law which had required all 50 states to build or lease nuclear waste dumps.