When I saw the video of George Floyd, with a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes while his life drained away, it reminded me of another black man I’d seen slowly die while detained by police 20 years ago – my own brother, Christopher Alder.
Christopher was born on 25 June 1960, the third of us five siblings. At school, he was quite protective of me as his younger sister. Being the only black children there, we were automatically a target. I would feel upset when the older boys gave me grief; many times I was called “nigger” or “rubber lips”. But if I went to Christopher, I knew he’d sort them out.
My brother was also a fantastic athlete and dancer. I remember everybody crowding around him at the school disco while he did the snake on the floor. The speed and agility! I was in awe of him.
After leaving school, he joined the army. There weren’t many jobs at that time and he really believed he was going to fight for his country. But when he joined, it was a shock. He suffered racist violence. I remember him once coming home on leave, telling us that someone had pinned him down and cut him with a razorblade. Nevertheless, he served six years and ended up being decorated for his services to the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands and Northern Ireland.
Christopher was a quiet type of guy, but very sociable. He had many friends and lived in a little flat on Hull’s quayside, just minutes away from the Waterfront Club, outside which he was assaulted on the night of his death. I’ve got a file of letters from his neighbours offering their condolences, saying how he often used to go round and help them around the house, or how he would go to the shops for them. One older couple told me that he had helped them move furniture and done other jobs for them; after his death, they were quick to get in touch and asked if they could pay their respects.
At the funeral, one girl came up to me in tears. She said: “When I was at a nightclub, everyone was picking on me and Christopher protected me and I’ll never forget that.”
No one had a bad word to say about him. At the time of his death, he had two kids and was training to be a computer programmer.
On 1 April 1998, Christopher was dragged into a police custody suite in Hull by officers from Humberside police, his trousers and boxer shorts round his knees, and abandoned on the floor, unconscious. For 11 minutes, he lay face-down, his hands cuffed behind his back, gasping for his life, while five officers stood around discussing what they might possibly be able to charge him with. Minutes earlier he had been seen, fully compos mentis and compliant, “walking steadily” into the back of a police van.
We discovered that the footage existed, captured on the custody suite’s CCTV reel, shortly after his death. But we were prevented from viewing it for almost two years. Knowing it existed, and not being able to see it – especially when we still had no idea why Christopher had died – was excruciating. It felt like psychological torture.
In the end, the coroner insisted we be allowed to see it, otherwise the first time we would have watched it would have been during the inquest, where it was due to be shown.
It was probably the most terrifying moment of my life. I was so afraid of what I was about to witness. A toxic mix of emotions made it hard for me to breathe.
[See also: In Britain, we have our George Floyds too]
Memories of us as children together returned to me – how we used to play-fight, laugh and joke around, always somehow getting through the tough times. One of my big brothers, who protected me so many times at school, and taught me to stand my ground, would never again be able to talk to me about our painful childhood or the bright future. The rights of our children to the warmth and wisdom of a loving father and uncle had been ripped away. All of this came flooding over me in an instant.
As I watched Christopher lying there on his chest, with his hands behind his back, motionless, a voice inside me wanted to scream at the callous way my brother was dumped and left on the cold stone floor, gasping. I wanted to go and comfort him, but it was all happening on screen, beyond my control. None of his family even knew he was there.
I felt his laboured breathing. It reminded me of the asthma attacks I’ve felt so many times myself: the closing of the throat, the pain in the chest, the panic. I could feel it all then, watching him. I stared in shock as the pitiless scene ground on.
I feel sure the Floyd family feels the same way: that same combination of disbelief, shock and powerlessness. And I am sure they feel, as I did, the devastating frustration when none of the officers in the video attempted to lift a finger, even those who could clearly see his distress.
In Christopher’s case, one of the officers even said he was worried about asphyxia. But none of them attempted to move him into the recovery position, let alone take him to hospital. In the George Floyd video, one of the officers asked: “Roll him on his side?”. But the (since fired) Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin did not move.
The other officer went on: “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever.” Still, Chauvin declined. Just as with Christopher, no one came to relieve George Floyd, even when apparently aware of his compromised position.
I had never before seen anyone die in real life, until I was forced to watch a member of my family dying in front of my eyes. It was clear to me that he was gasping for air, unable to breathe. We all see death on films or television, but this was real, it was my family, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.
For 11 minutes, Christopher could still be heard making “gurgling” noises as he gasped for breath through the pool of blood around his face. And then suddenly the sounds stopped. Christopher was dead, with the officers standing just feet away.
Now, I can imagine the Floyd family frozen in shock. Having seen the life squeezed out of their beloved’s chest would have been horrific enough – but then they had to deal with state prosecutors trying to deflect blame from the officers onto some supposed “underlying health conditions” in his body.
We had the same experience. In Christopher’s case the Home Office pathologist, in his original autopsy, suggested Christopher may have died of “cardiac arrhythmia” caused by pre-existing heart damage, rather than asphyxia. It made no sense to us; Christopher had been walking around with a clean bill of health, no issues with his heart, until he encountered the police. The autopsy was then used, just as in George Floyd’s case, to justify not charging the officers involved.
To hear these excuses, jarring with what we had watched in the CCTV clip, produced an excruciating psychological conflict. Like us, the Floyd family must have felt insulted.
It was not until Christopher’s heart was sent to a cardiologist that the theory was challenged. The initial findings were amended, suggesting cardiac problems were now less likely a cause of death and that the position in which Christopher had been left on the floor took on “greater significance”.
Yet still the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) refused to bring anything but the most meagre misconduct charges against the officers, stating the requirement for more medical evidence.
It took almost four years until the CPS agreed in October 2001 to prosecute the officers for manslaughter. Like the Floyd family, we had to obtain the necessary medical evidence for this ourselves. And even once we had done so, the CPS delayed and delayed.
Would a medic somehow be found who could find Christopher’s death was caused by anything other than his treatment at the hands of the police? It turned out that they could not, and the officers were charged with manslaughter. But even then, the CPS bungled the case – conflicting its own evidence and forcing the furious judge to throw the case out.
Thankfully, as a result of the worldwide protests, things seem to be moving much more quickly for the Floyd family. If justice is to be done, we need to keep that pressure up.
Janet Alder is the sister of Christopher Alder. She is currently crowdfunding for her book on her brother at fundrazr.com/christopheralder.