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What Could Have Saved Oluwatoyin Salau?

Two years ago, at the height of the George Floyd protests, 19-year old activist Oluwatoyin Salau was murdered. Her story reveals the complications of community care in an age of mass incarceration.

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From June 9, 2020, until her death four days later, Oluwatoyin Salau was most likely alone and terrified. She was facing the end of her life, but she had met this kind of death before. Her life in its darkest pockets had told her that she was not worth finding. But across town, other Black girls, the ones who had clothed her, housed her, and deep conditioned her hair just a few days before, were looking for her, desperately wanting to remind Toyin that she was somebody worth saving.

Ashley Laurent, then a Florida A&M sophomore, knew Oluwatoyin Salau’s face before she knew her name. Laurent had seen Salau at protests against police brutality around Tallahassee. This was the late spring of 2020 when, after the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, protests broke out nationwide in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against police brutality. Laurent and Salau were both part of the crowds of those seeking justice, but they didn’t meet until May 29, 2020, and they quickly became good acquaintances, checking in on each other at rallies and passing out water to other activists in the dead of the Florida heat.

Then, on June 6, 2020, Salau tweeted about being sexually assaulted in March of 2020. That same day, she was reported missing by her mother. Attempts to speak to the Salau family and the Redeemed Christian Church of God, where Salau was a member all of her life along with her family, have been made, but they remain uninterested in speaking to the public, and attempts to contact Salau's relatives overseas have been met with tension.

A week later, on June 13, Salau's body was found along with that of Victoria Sims, a local community elder and AARP volunteer. Aaron Glee Jr., who had a history of violence against women, later confessed to kidnapping and murdering both women.

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A memorial for Salau, Manhattan, New York on June 19, 2020, USA. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Laurent remembers hearing Salau speak at a protest for Tony McDade, a Black trans man killed by Tallahassee Police Department shortly after Floyd’s murder. Salau was 19 years old but already finding her voice as an organizer against police violence. She was sometimes nervous to speak up, but when she did, she spoke powerfully. “Can’t nobody silence me … at the end of the day, I cannot take this fucking skin off. So guess what—Imma die by it. … Y’all need to know who the fucking enemy is,” she proclaimed, as dozens of protestors recorded her speech. It’s a now-infamous clip of Salau that lives on YouTube. Moved by her story, most did not know that she was recently estranged from her close-knit Orthodox Christian Nigerian family and had been living near FAMU in Tallahassee, when she began her short but impactful time as a local activist.

Oluwatoyin Ruth Salau's agency was taken from her before it was ever hers to begin with. Salau lived a life much darker than originally reported. When the abuse she suffered was at its peak, though, she was met with welcoming local community care networks. Despite this support, they could not intervene in her kidnapping. The complicated details of Salau’s last days show a young woman who had to make use of a criminal justice system she knew could not serve her needs. The solutions that a system gave her still put her back in harm's way. Salau, like many survivors of sexual violence, was ultimately left dependent on a system that did not guarantee justice or safety.

There are no easy answers, no one thing would have kept her alive. Patriarchal violence is insidious in that way. It finds you at your most vulnerable, it makes a bed of your worries, and it feeds them back to you. Living in a time when the cultural fight for abolition and community care networks remains infantile, all while gender-based violence surges, means that systems of harm fold into each other, with Black girls always falling through the cracks.

McDade and Salau lived within earshot of each other, and Salau had heard the gunshots the fatal night that Tallahassee police killed McDade. McDade’s death and the murder of Malik Jackson were part of a larger legacy of anti-Black policing practices that have since led the Tallahassee Police Department being put under federal long-term investigation for their own history of LGBTQ neglect. As of this summer, the department remains under investigation.

But at the rally in 2020, Toyin spoke passionately about the erasure of violence against trans men and was met with cheers and teary eyes from the crowd. “That was my first time calling her my friend,” Laurent says. “I had just met her, but she spoke all the way down to her heart.”

Their casual friendship shifted in early June of 2020, when Salau called Laurent to confide about the ongoing sexual violence she had been suffering at the hands of her then roommate, a Black man. Laurent and her friends took Salau to the New Life United Methodist Church, where the lead pastor Rev. Dr. Latricia Scriven helped Salau move out of her home under the protection of a police escort. Toyin did not take lightly not only reporting the sexual assault, but in knowing how it lived in contradiction with the reality of anti-Black state violence that she herself was constantly fighting to end. However, in a world of many deaths, choice is stolen from you before you know it has a name.

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People gather during a candlelight vigil for Salau at Torch of Friendship Bayfront Park Miami on June 16, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
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“Toyin was crying, screaming, and couldn't stand still. … She told me that she didn't want another Black man to get hurt,” Laurent says. Salau, like many Black survivors, was conflicted about reporting her assault. Joshua Price, author of Structural Violence writes on how the weight of mass incarceration, race, and marginalization of Black and Brown survivors impacts their willingness to report. In addition to these conditions, there are state mandates requiring those in positions of authority to report suspected abuse. Those laws, originally created in an attempt to combat abuse, have created coercive and emotionally harmful structures for survivors. It “takes[s] decision making out of the hands of women,” as Price states in his research.

The Violence Against Women Act was made law in 1994, but was recently reinstated in March of 2022 by the Biden administration. It is the leading legislation that creates the conditions for coercion that impact victims of sexual violence such as Salau. After decades of advocacy in the 1980s for gender equity and protection, the 1994 VAWA gave funds to rape crisis centers, but much of its funding goes directly to police departments. This is harmful to survivors, as many police departments have decades-long cases of neglect, abuse, and revictimization of survivors of sexual violence. “Decades of data show that police and prisons do not end gender violence or even act as a deterrent. We also miss the long history of communities, particularly women of color communities, that rejected these state responses, these carceral responses to gender and sexual violence,” abolitionist Erica Meiner says about how policing cannot and will never address the core issues that create gender-based violence.

Faith Ferber, LMSW, a licensed trauma therapist, asks specifically what being dependent on systems of harm says about societal guilt around sexual violence: “How can we possibly expect Black survivors to engage with systems that are designed to enslave them in order to be seen as "good" survivors worthy of help? How can we assume that all survivors will have people they feel safe confiding in, people they feel safe connecting with, people they feel safe counting on? Why do we demand survivors respond in ways that might not actually make them any safer just so we, as a society, can feel better about our responses to violence?”

In Salau’s story, we see the uneasy mix of the community responses that abolitionists believe should replace the state, and the ways those safety nets still sometimes cannot protect them in the world we currently live in. Salau’s friends took care of her, giving her fresh clothes and a place to sleep. In the few short days that Salau knew Laurent and Hemphill, the young women all confided in each other around their lived experiences of patriarchal violence. Despite these burgeoning connections, the day after this show of support, Salau slipped away in the crowd during a protest for McDade, leaving Laurent and friends confused and worried about her whereabouts.

Laurent was especially concerned, because she knew the weight of Salau’s childhood experiences of harm. Salau, who at the age of 19, had experienced years of sexual violence, family instability, and isolation, was known to slip away at rallies.

Jordan Beckum, M.Ed., NCC, APC, says that signs of dissociation are classic symptoms of a survivor looking to keep themselves safe while deep in the throes of PTSD. “Erratic behavior, reliving traumatic moments, whether through flashbacks, nightmares, or disassociation throughout the day, being emotionally distant or numb, as well as avoiding people, are all common symptoms of PTSD,” Beckum says. Laurent only knew Toyin for less than two weeks and still at times feels regret for not keeping a closer eye on her the day she slipped away. “I just feel like I could have done more,” Laurent says.

Ferber says that supporting survivors is complicated and should be about respecting people's agency “We just have to be open to the possibility that someone might respond in a way that we don't understand, and that doesn't make it wrong or bad,” Ferber says. What most impacts survivors' ability to access and reach out for support is often societal preconceived notions of “good victimhood.”

Beckum more specifically states that Salau herself was doing the best she could alongside other young people dealing with their own set of experiences and trauma. “I would consider her a child even, especially with the trauma that she had endured, there's no telling how that affected her developmental growth, and it sounds like from the accounts of a lot of her story that she did not get the environment we would see as normative in order to thrive at the capacity that she deserved to,” Beckum says.

The last public record of Salau alive is on June 8, trying to get safe lodging at the Kearney Center, a homeless shelter. In Glee’s confession, he said that he lured Salau to his home when she sought a shower and a place to change. Victoria Sims, the other woman killed by Glee, met Salau at the nearby bus stop where Glee regularly caught rides from Sims to his home on Monday Road. According to a court document, Glee killed Sims after realizing she knew of his interaction with Salau days before.

Glee’s long record of violence, incarceration, and abuse of women goes back to 1994. He had assaulted another Black woman on May 29 of 2020, only days prior but was not considered a threat to the community by Tallahassee police.

The misstep by Tallahassee Police Department to not prosecute Glee after assaulting a woman just days before he kidnapped Salau calls into question if the police actually prevent or solve crime. Data show that police rarely solve major crimes, and the numbers of actual convictions are even lower. “In reality, about 11 percent of all serious crimes result in an arrest, and about 2 percent end in a conviction. Therefore, the number of people police hold accountable for crimes—what I call the ‘criminal accountability’ rate—is very low,” says Professor Shima Baughman, of the University of Utah, in her report on criminal accountability in looking at more than 50 years of crime data. The statistics around the police's regular neglect of cases of sexual violence are even worse; a 2019 report by The New York Times explored the failure of seven police departments across the country where survivors have sued the police for neglecting their cases. These national complaints included everything from failing to pursue sex offenders, complaints of unequal treatment in comparison to victims of other violent crimes, and failures to test physical evidence that delayed prosecution.

Much of the long-standing frustration with the abysmal criminal legal system for survivors of sexual violence has birthed a wave of abolitionists, active decades before the summer of 2020, who see the end of the police, prisons, and surveillance as a way forward. They advocate for focusing on the core issues that predicate violence and giving agency back to survivors and the communities surrounding them to resource their needs internally. Following the words of Meiners, “Our lives are made more vulnerable because of the lack of childcare, health care, livable wages, stable housing. All of those factors create vulnerabilities in people’s intimate and domestic lives. We live in a culture where people’s lives are constructed as disposable through systems of homophobia and white supremacy. Those harms are felt in the lives of everyday people, particularly women.” In the case of Salau, a community intervention following the abolitionists' logic would have possibly looked like the removal of Glee from a community and the immediate support and resourcing of Salau in the wake of her assault from her former roommate to safe and adequate housing.

Laurent says that the bodies of Salau and Sims were found only after Sims’s family reported her missing and the police were able to track her cell phone to Glee’s residence. A police dog found Salau’s body a few yards away buried under a pile of leaves in the midst of the search for Sims.

The #justicefortoyin hashtag that took over social media made Salau’s disappearance and murder a national cause, all on the heels of the police murder of George Floyd just two weeks before. Politicians, celebrities, and public figures expressed their grief and shared Salau’s image, which became a social justice meme: Salau adorned in a crown of flowers, took over the Internet in response to the limited images shared by police of Salau in her last days. The image shared by the Tallahassee Police Department was blurry and did not show the clothes that Toyin regularly wore. Cheryl Neely, author of You're Dead―So What?: Media, Police, and the Invisibility of Black Women as Victims of Homicide says even the smallest details of a homicide investigation for Black victims can be make or break. “When media or police use images that reinforce the idea that this person isn’t worthy of attention or protection, it reinforces [us] as more criminals than we are victims. The images are deliberate and they reinforce Black criminality,” Neely says.

Toyin’s friends struggled to get timely responses from local police when it came to the search for Toyin. They were not family but had been the last people with information on Salau’s whereabouts. Hemphill and Laurent led local organizers to build out their own search parties. The insistence on informing only legally recognized families of searches means that people who live on the margins, or those a part of chosen family, are even more likely to be ignored by police investigators, their community ties deemed not legitimate enough without the sanction of marriage or blood. Chosen family may materially save lives, but often in the eyes of the state, is meaningless. Neely says that police neglect of Black homicide victims is a commonality that many Black families know too well, referencing the latest case of Lauren Smith-Fields whose family was informed of the death of their daughter by a landlord.

For Salau, it was her friends who worked to memorialize her in public. “You spent your life being abused by family, sexually assaulted, and you still managed to fight for black lives. You protected black lives. Only for you to be raped and killed. We need to protect our black women. They are dying while fighting a war for us,” Hemphill wrote in a Twitter post to Toyin after her death.

In the wake of the uprisings of 2020, community organizers and advocates for ending gender violence began to ideate out loud about what a world free of police, cages, and surveillance would mean for the protection of Black women and girls. “It turns out that many of the people and places that claim to protect the public from gender violence are often horrific sources of that very same violence. And—unlike a neighbor, partner, or family member—the abuse carries the power and protection of the state,” says Nia T. Evans, a journalist, says. As much as Salau was a victim of Glee, her marginalization—being cut off from family, a safe home, and a place to sleep—meant that she was more easily targeted by her abusers. Specifically, Salau was left vulnerable to her murderer, because she was unable to seek resources from a local shelter, What would be possible if Toyin had the resources to shelter herself on June 9 instead of taking a ride from Glee that day?

Salau’s murder motivated Brianna Baker, executive director and founder of Justice for Black Girls, to found the Freedom Fighters Fund. The fund supports Black women under the age of 25, who can request grants up to $750 for overnight housing, rent relief, food, or other life-sustaining support. In the one year since the creation of the fund, JFBG has been able to disperse $90,000 worth of direct aid to Black girls. As Baker sees it, this world “actively undermines Black girls and not only strips them of their innocence through adultification, but also interrupts their ability to breathe and just be. If that’s so, “then where can Black girls be anything?” Baker asks.

The murder of Black women and girls in the media is often misrepresented by words such as “isolated events” and “lone cases,” which are phrases that minimize the nature of the violence and precarity Black girls are facing in their everyday lives. Statistically, Black women and girls remain four times more likely to be killed than white women. It is an issue that still remains deeply underreported. They not only are incarcerated at larger rates and experience more common occurrences of intimate partner violence, but they are met with a world that deems their pain as void and not nearly as important as the plight of Black men and boys when it comes to instances of police violence and state neglect. Racial stereotypes and long-held misogynistic controlling narratives affect what institutions such as police, schools, and the media deem as victims worth looking for when it comes to Black women and girls. It is a cycle that bears unraveling. A world predicated on seeing Black girls like Toyin as disposable.

The brilliant light of Toyin’s life remains in the look in Laurent’s eyes when she speaks of Toyin’s smile. It gleams in the ways this world inadvertently builds new generations of other Black women unwilling to forget their loved ones' names, willing to fight to make a safe and joyous world.

Toyin Salau and the Black girls and women who came together to support her were calling out for a better world, one where care would be enough to keep each other safe. But they still lived in this one, in which they knew that all they had left was their voice and hopefully another Black woman or girl looking for them in the dark.

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