The disappearance and death of activist Oluwatoyin Salau, explained

On Monday morning, Tallahassee police confirmed the death of 19-year-old recent high school graduate Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, setting off an avalanche of calls for justice for black women across social media. Salau, who had been active in Black Lives Matter protests, went missing on June 6, after she tweeted about being sexually assaulted.

According to a press release, Tallahassee Police Department investigators found Salau’s body on the night of Saturday, June 13, on Monday Road in Tallahassee while pursuing a missing person’s case. A second woman, identified as 75-year-old Victoria “Vicki” Sims, a community volunteer, was also found dead in the area. Police have arrested Aaron Glee Jr., 49, as a suspect in the double homicide investigation.

The police have not released any additional information about the case and have not announced details on the connection between the two victims and Glee. However, the search for Salau, which kicked off after she was reported missing, prompted #JusticeforToyin to trend for a week and is highlighting the plight of black women and other hyper-marginalized black people, like the disabled and those in the LGBTQ community, amid calls for justice for black lives.

Many activists have noted that the Black Lives Matter protests and calls for justice have centered on cisgender heterosexual black men, ignoring the oppression of black women and LGBTQ people within the black community. For example, Breonna Taylor’s death has not received as much attention as George Floyd’s; three months later, officers still haven’t been charged in her death. The names of other black women killed by police, like Priscilla Slater and Pamela Turner, are largely unrecognizable to the greater public. Meanwhile, the #SayHerName campaign has morphed into #SayHisName online and at protests.

In a video that has gone viral since she went missing, Salau points out the need for greater inclusivity in the movement as she speaks at a Black Lives Matter protest on behalf of Tony McDade, a trans man killed by police in May. “Tony McDade was a black trans man,” she said. “We’re doing this for every black person, because at the end of the day, I cannot take my fucking skin color off. … Wherever the fuck I go, I’m profiled … I’mma die about my fucking skin. … My blackness is not for your fucking consumption.”

What we know about Salau’s sudden disappearance and death

Salau was reported missing on June 6 and was last seen in the area of Orange Avenue and Wahnish Way in Tallahassee, according to Tallahassee ABC affiliate WTXL. On that same day, Salau released a series of tweets detailing a sexual assault she said she had recently experienced.

The thread of tweets starts off with Salau explaining that she had been staying at a church for safety due to “unjust living conditions.” That morning she apparently got into the vehicle of a man who offered to give her a ride to get her belongings from the church and find somewhere to sleep. “He came disguised as a man of God,” she wrote. “I trusted the holy spirit to keep me safe.” (A report has confirmed that she had been staying at Wesley Impact Church in Tallahassee.)

Salau went to the man’s home, took a shower, and changed into clothing that he provided her, she tweeted. Eventually, the man began to touch Salau without her consent. “He started touching my back and rubbing my body using my body until he climaxed and then went to sleep,” she wrote.

In the tweets, Salau noted that she had been the victim of another sexual assault in March. Salau says she told the man who picked her up that morning about the March assault. So when he asked her if she wanted a massage and started touching her she wrote, “I was laying on my stomach trying to calm myself down from severe ptsd.”

Her string of tweets ends with her explaining how she left the man’s home that morning when he was naked and asleep. “I escaped from the house and started walking from Richview Road to anywhere else … Literally wearing this man’s clothes right now DNA all over me because I couldn’t locate his house the moment I called the police because I couldn’t see.” (Earlier in the thread Salau explains that she has complications with eyesight.)

A friend of Salau, Danaya Hemphill, emphasized on Twitter that Salau was not homeless but was escaping abuse at the hands of her family. According to the friend, Salau had been sexually abused repeatedly.

“Oluwatoyin, 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 tribute to Salau on Jun 15.

Newly released surveillance footage of Salau at the Tallahassee ice cream shop Big Easy Snowballs on June 10 is the latest known report of someone seeing Salau alive.

Investigators with the Tallahassee Police Department found her body a week after Salau went missing, on June 13, along with Sims’s body in the same area. Sims, who was reported missing on June 11, was a “retired state worker and a grandmother well-known for her volunteerism and work in local Democratic politics,” reported the Tallahassee Democrat. Sims was a longtime volunteer in the Tallahassee chapter of AARP Florida, according to WXTL.

The deaths are being investigated as homicides and are now in the hands of the department’s Violent Crime Unit. Though police have taken Glee into custody as a suspect, they have not yet released information about Glee or details about the homicide investigations.

In late May, Glee was arrested on a charge of aggravated battery after an officer observed him kicking a woman in the stomach, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. The woman told police that she had been drinking alcohol with Glee but he became angry, shoved her to the ground, and begin kicking her after she turned down his proposition for sex. A misdemeanor battery charge was filed against Glee on June 6, according to court records obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat.

Salau’s death calls attention to the need for inclusion in the fight for justice

Salau’s death calls attention to the people who are often not included in the fight for justice for black lives: black women, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled.

“Breonna Taylor died of police violence. #DominiqueFells and #RiahMilton died of gender violence toward trans women. #ToyinSalau died sometime after being sexually assaulted. If this movement values Black women’s lives, it cannot afford to focus solely on police violence,” wrote activist and scholar Brittany Cooper.

The fight for an inclusive movement is not new. In the 1960s, black women fighting for civil rights and as part of the black power movement were told to wait. Though they were doing a great deal of the work, their liberation came second to that of black men. This continues today, as many of the protest organizers around the country are black women; the Black Lives Matter movement itself was founded by three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Meanwhile, black people in the LGBTQ community have had to fight in liberation movements largely unrecognized by the people at the top of the black community’s hierarchy, and under the weight of homophobia and transphobia; Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman, is credited with starting the Stonewall uprisings in 1969 but has been mostly left out of larger histories of police protests. As Cooper pointed out in 2016, “Once every 19 hours a Black woman is killed by a man, usually by an intimate partner, usually with a gun. Once every 21 hours, the man killing her is a Black man,” and “trans women of color have a reported life expectancy of 35 years.”

However, when black women call out the violence that heterosexual cis black men inflict upon the rest of the community, they are often criticized and deemed traitors to the black agenda. For example, black women who come forward with sexual assault allegations against black men — Vanessa Tyson, Meredith Watson, Anita Hill, all of the women accusing rapper R. Kelly — are viewed with an especially high level of suspicion because they are black women, and are thus accused with trying to attack one of their own.

Even the most straightforward methods to draw attention to the number of black women killed and assaulted get overshadowed. #SayHerName was created around 2016 by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw — who also coined the term “intersectionality” in the late 1980s for the way inequalities overlap — for the specific purpose of identifying how state violence affects black women. But the term can be co-opted for justice for black men, too. #SayHisName trended and was recited at protests for George Floyd and other men. And the New Yorker’s forthcoming June 22 cover illustration titled “Say Their Names” identifies both black men and women killed by police, effectively erasing the original purpose of the phrase.

Public officials like Sen. Kamala Harris have also pointed out how violence against black women is overlooked.

“Heart-wrenching. Oluwatoyin Salau used her voice to fight for the Black community and speak out against injustice. She was only 19 and had her whole life ahead of her,” Harris wrote on Twitter on Monday. “We must do better to protect Black women and value their lives. #JusticeForToyin.”

Ultimately, the outcry underscores how black women are fighting multiple debilitating battles at the same time — from white supremacy and the patriarchy to police brutality and sexual violence. There are also the issues of colorism (discrimination based on skin tone) and texturism (discrimination based on hair texture) that dark-skinned, kinkier-haired black women like Salau face in the community. Such pressure has created a small, steady movement of black women encouraging other black women to rethink fighting on the front lines of a movement that prioritizes the lives of black men.

But a greater call has been made for straight cis black men to come to terms with their violence against black women — and for black women to just move on from seeking protection from men overall.

“The same way we tell white people their work is to engage other white people around racism, it is for men to engage each other around misogyny. We do not owe them our labor,” tweeted activist Feminista Jones, author of the book Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets. “Sistas you will exhaust yourselves trying to prove to them that your life matters. Leave it. Rest.”

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