Robert Markey

Robert Markey

I grew up on Long Island and my first political happening was in 1962 when my 9th grade teacher wanted to do a debate about the Cuban Missile Crisis. My friend and I took the Cuba side because no one else would. We did our research and in the debate pretty much blew the other side away.  Then the teachers stepped in and told us that we were wrong and started debating for the other side. After that we were called communists in the hallway. It was an interesting learning experience.

During high school, the civil rights movement was happening, but I was too young to really participate in it. My second bump with politics came in my high school graduation speech in 1965, when I advocated civil disobedience to change unjust laws. The administration was outraged and the next year they censored the speeches.

I went to M.I.T. and was very involved in many of the anti-war protests and happenings. I got to hear and spend time with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and was inspired by them. During 1968 I worked for the Eugene McCarthy campaign and went to the Democratic convention in Chicago where I was tear-gassed and saw friends get beaten and arrested.

When the draft lottery happened and my number was 38, I assumed I would leave the country when it was time for me to be called. I met with people who counseled about going to jail and I thought about that possibility, but I wasn’t ready to do it.

When I graduated in 1969, I rode my motorcycle across the country, sold it and bought an airplane ticket to Japan. I spent three months in Hiroshima. It was there that I met hibakusha (atomic bomb victims) and participated in and spoke at several anti-war rallies. While I was in Hiroshima, I got my first draft notice to appear for my physical. I sent back a refusal to do so and included several pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima and photos of some of the victims.

After Hiroshima I went to live in a spiritual community near Kyoto for seven months. During this time I received an application for conscientious objector from my draft board. I sent this back refusing to apply, giving my reasons and basically saying that it isn’t for me to convince you why I shouldn’t go to war, it is for you to convince me why I should, and that is impossible. I had respect for those who did the CO alternate service, but for me it felt like doing that would just be upholding the system, which I couldn’t do.

On my way home from Japan I went to Vancouver to visit friends. In a music store I was talking to the owner about the fact that I would be moving to Canada because of the draft. In support he told me if I needed work, he would give me a job at the store. I very much appreciated that.

I came back to Massachusetts and got my induction notice. I was going to leave immediately for Canada, but a lawyer friend said it would be better to refuse in person than to just leave. If I refused in person I would have more time before my trial date to prepare to leave. I felt that it would also be more of a political statement to refuse rather than to just leave. So I decided to go and refuse induction.

The night before my induction, I was at a party and someone said that to fail my physical exam all I had to do was to sing during the hearing test.

When I got to the induction center, they noted that I never had a physical exam so they said I had to have a physical. I got to the hearing test, which is in a booth where you press buttons with each hand when the sound comes on and then when the sound goes off. It records and prints out a graph of your “hearing threshold”. So I thought, “Why not?” and I sang during the test.

When I had my meeting with the doctor, he looked at the hearing graph and told me to take the test again. So I did and sang again and brought back the graph. The doctor asked me if I had had hearing problems and I said, “Never”. Then he said something else to me which I actually didn’t understand and I said, “What?” He looked at me real funny and then told me in a loud voice to go over and sit down.

At the end of the physical, before going to the induction, I had to go by the table with the officer and the doctor and get checked out. As I did this they looked at me and said to go take the hearing test again. I thought, “Wow, this might actually work!” This time I didn’t sing. I used all my concentration and my musical training to just wait until the sound got to a certain loudness and pressed the button and then released it at the same loudness. I had to do this a number of times with the different pitches in different ears.

When I brought this back to the doctor and officer, they looked at it and then the officer looked at me and said, “Sorry,” – and my heart dropped – “you’re not good enough for the army,” – and my heart leapt. So I left and got a 4F and was no longer eligible for the draft.

That was in 1970 and for the next ten years or so I did very little political activity. I worked, built my house, went back to school, but in the mid 80’s when the contra war was happening in Nicaragua I knew I had to do something. I organized a group to go there with the human rights group Witness for Peace. It was my first time in a war zone and I knew I had to continue my work to stop these horrible wars.

Since that time I have worked in an orphanage in Guatemala for indigenous children whose parents were killed by the death squads. I have gotten arrested numerous times protesting the wars that the US has started. My artwork has often been focused on violence and brutality and the need to stop it.

Currently I spend time each year working with kids in difficult situations to create mosaic murals in their home towns. I’ve done this in Brazil, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India and Israel. I have met young people from around the world who are doing wonderful work to bring peace. I have great hopes that they will succeed.