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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948)

“An unjust law is itself a species of violence.”

 

Photo of Mohandas K. Gandhi
The years from 1942 until his assassination in 1948 were ones in which Gandhi “saw the full flowering” of his philosophy of non-violence. In August 1942, before the All-India Congress in Bombay, Gandhi delivered a speech calling on the British to voluntarily withdraw from India and for the Indian public to peacefully protest until the British complied. When the British government arrested Gandhi and other Congress leaders, the public responded with strikes and demonstrations, during which the British government arrested over 100,000 people. While the Quit India movement did not immediately result in India’s emancipation, it was successful in mobilizing and uniting the Indian people in their fight for independence from British rule.
The quote is taken from Gandhi’s response to this question posed to him in 1946: “Non-violence in your opinion is not cowardice, but it is a form of resistance to injustice. You have admitted that it is wrong to arrest and imprison innocent persons which civil resisters are. And you have cheerfully courted arrest and imprisonment. Is this not inconsistent and cowardly?”
In his response, Gandhi countered that an unjust law is a type of violence and “arrest for its breech is even more so.” Gandhi believed that violence should be resisted not by counter violence but by non-violence; thus, submitting peacefully to arrest “is an essential condition of non-violence, not a symptom of cowardice.”
M.K. GANDHI, NON-VIOLENCE IN PEACE & WAR 92 (1958) (1942-49), Publishers’ note.
Making Britain, The Open University, 1942 Quit India Movement, http://www8.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/1942-quit-india-movement

 

Anonymous African Proverb

“Corn can’t expect justice from a court composed of chickens.”

 

Photo of woman with corn and chickens from World Vision Australia

Proverbs are a colorful and dynamic feature of most African cultures. They are used by educators and parents to teach children the mores and ethics of society, by elders and political leaders to showcase their knowledge, and by lawyers and judges to ground their arguments and decisions in common wisdom.  Scholars have documented the extensive use of proverbs in Nigerian tribal courts, and found that litigants who skillfully used proverbs to illustrate their points could gain an advantage over less eloquent speakers. This anonymous proverb, commonly used in Nigeria, is similar to one attributed to the Cape Coast in Ghana: “The chicken is never declared innocent in the court of hawks.” It has been “used to express the fact that among your enemies or potential adversaries, you cannot expect to be treated fairly.” It might also be used to point out the differences between races or genders in legal systems, or between the powerful and powerless. For example, a poor black man accused of theft might find it difficult to exact a fair verdict from a panel of middle or upper class whites.
John C. Messenger Jr., The Role of Proverbs in a Nigerian Judicial System, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1959), pp. 64-73
Kwesi Yankah, Proverb Rhetoric and African Judicial Processes: The Untold Story, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 393 (Jul. – Sep., 1986), pp. 280-303
http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/weekly-african-proverbs/248-2002-weekly-african-proverbs.html.
Gomiluk Otokwala, HLS ’10

 

 

Anacharsis (600 BCE – 501 BCE)

“Written laws are like spiders’ webs, and would catch the weak and poor, but easily be broken by the mighty and rich.”

 

Greek vase with runners at the Panathenaic games 530 BCThe philosopher Anacharsis was known in ancient world for his wisdom, quick wit and pithy observations. Born into a noble family in Scythia he travelled to Greece during the 47th Olympiad (592-589 BCE). As an outsider, he brought a fresh perspective and plainspoken sensibility to contradictions of daily life invisible to native Greeks.  Although we do not have any of his original writings, many ancient authors quoted his observations, and some even included him among the leading sages of Ancient Greece.  In his travels, Anacharsis became great friends with the Athenian leader Solon.  Plutarch reports that, upon learning of Solon’s efforts to develop a written code of law, Anacharsis responded with the quote on our wall, comparing the law to a spider web. Solon replied that “Men keep their agreements when it is an advantage to both parties not to break them; and he would so frame his laws, as to make it evident to the Athenians that it would be in their interest to observe than transgress them.” Plutarch goes on to observe, however, that the short life of Solon’s reforms after he left power proved that Anacharsis was closer to the truth than the hopeful Solon.  Anacharsis eventually returned to Scythia, where he was killed by his brother the king.  Some sources indicate that he was killed for observing Greek religious rites upon his return.

 

 

Bandamanna Saga (c. 1000 CE)

“Which carries greater weight, the two clauses concerning truth and justice, or the one that concerns the letter of the law?”

1590 map of Iceland, commonly attributed to Map of Iceland commonly attributed to Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson

 

The Bandamanna Saga (or Story of the Confederates) is one of the Sagas of the Icelanders that takes place in the Saga Age of the 10th and early 11th centuries. These oral histories were finally set down in written form two centuries later. The Bandamanna Saga is especially interesting as the only one that takes place after most of Iceland converted to Christianity.
This saga illustrates the workings of the early Icelandic legal system as the story revolves around a law suit, bribery and the pitfalls of procedural technicalities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nadine Gordimer (Born November 20, 1923)Portrait of Nadine Gordimer, 1986,

“In a democracy – even if it is a so-called democracy like our white-élitist one – the greatest veneration one can show the rule of law is to keep a watch on it, and to reserve the right to judge unjust laws and the subversion of the function of the law by the power of the state.  That vigilance is the most important proof of respect for the law.”

 

A 1991 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s preeminent authors. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid as a member of the white middle class, Gordimer wrote about the deep racial divide in her country in her many novels, short stories, and essays. An outspoken critic of apartheid, Gordimer said these words during an Academic Freedom Lecture given at South Africa’s University of Natal in 1971. These lectures were typically hosted by English-language universities in South Africa in the 1970s in an attempt to “reaffirm their commitment to the renewal of academic freedom….”  The title of the lecture was “Speak Out: The Necessity for Protest.”  During the course of her lecture, Gordimer commented on the hypocrisy of white academics who believed that apartheid was wrong but did very little to protest against it, because, they claimed, they respected the law. She felt this “respect” was a sham; and only served to give those fearful of retribution an excuse not to act.

NADINE GORDIMER, THE ESSENTIAL GESTURE: WRITING, POLITICS AND PLACES 92 (Stephen Clingman ed., 1988).
This reaffirmation was thought necessary after the passage of the Extension of University Education Act in 1959, which allowed South Africa to set up tribal and ethnic colleges, but had the effect of segregating them.

 

 

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