A few days after they first met, Ashley was speaking to a crowd of protesters when she saw Toyin again. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s my friend! Come up here!’” She passed her the mic. Later in the march, in a video that has since become recognized across the country, Toyin spoke directly into the microphone, unfurling a speech that brought encouraging whoops from the crowd and nearly 10 million views.

In the video, protesters mill behind her on the steps of the Capitol building, fanning themselves in the heat, clapping and nodding occasionally. “Tony McDade was a Black trans man,” she tells the camera. “OK? We doing this for him. We doing this for our brothers and our sisters who got shot. We doing this for every Black person. Because at the end of the day, I cannot take my fucking skin color off. I cannot mask this shit, OK? Everywhere I fucking go, I am profiled, whether I like it or not. I’m looked at whether I like it or not.”

At this, she takes a step back, gesturing to her face, glistening with sweat, and to her locs, bouncing with each word that she launches at the camera. “Look at my fucking hair. Look at my skin. I can’t take this shit off. So guess what? I’mma die by my fucking skin.” As she raises her voice to say this, the crowd comes to life, breaking into cheers and applause. “You cannot take my fucking Blackness away from me. My Blackness is not for your fucking consumption.”

As the cheers erupt around her, she gazes, brow furrowed, into the camera, indifferent to the noise. The protesters vocally supported her. Some may even have understood, at a deeper level, the pain and fury that crackled in her voice. But nobody there knew, not really, what she was feeling in that moment.

On Thursday, June 4, after nearly a week of daily protests, Ashley woke from a nap to her phone buzzing. It was Toyin. She was upset., She told Ashley that a man who had assaulted her back in March had tried to force himself on her again, in her home. He was gone, but his friend was still there.

Ashley, shaking off a fog of sleep, heard panic in Toyin’s voice. She made a plan: when she got off the phone, she would call other women in the activist network, and they would come get her. This was the first she was hearing about the assault or anything about Toyin’s history with trauma. She didn’t know a lot, but she didn’t need to: she could feel Toyin’s distress through the phone, and it alarmed her. “You’re not going to stay inside that house,” Ashley told her.

She picked Toyin up, and brought her to New Life United Methodist, where she had been planning to spend the afternoon making sandwiches for the protests. There, Toyin called a lawyer but declined to write a statement about the man. She came out of the room crying. “She was like, ‘I’m not a victim’” Ashley recalled. “She said if she pressed charges then he would get killed by the police and become a hashtag. I got so mad.”

Toyin’s response was rational considering the history of disproportionate police violence against Black people. According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Urban Health, Black women often consider fear of an “overzealous law enforcement response” as one of many reasons for not reporting their assault. Overall, only 23 percent of sexual assaults are reported — a distressingly small number that is in part the result of an inherently sexist criminal justice system. Survivors point to concerns of being retraumatized, feelings of self-blame, fear of reprisal, a lack of perceived “proof” or injury as some of the reasons they do not report—a set of reasons that is only exacerbated for Black women. “This navigation of competing priorities is emblematic of how Black Americans have been taught to manage police dynamics in light of historical discrimination and ongoing instances of police violence,” the study reads. “This barrier was not discussed by any White study participants.”

Black women deal with overlapping structures of inequality. In addition to navigating a sexist system, the police’s historical, discriminatory violence against Black people—indeed, the very reason for the protests that brought the young women together—and the country’s history of disproportionate mass incarceration are twin pillars of a prison industrial complex that wreaks unmitigated terror on Black communities. For Toyin and other Black women, the lack of alternative recourse becomes a double bind, one that reflects the reality of negotiating trauma and sexual violence in a world that does not value Black lives.

Instead, Ashley called the church pastor, Latricia Scriven, and asked her to speak with Toyin over the phone. They had never met before. At first, over FaceTime, they spoke vaguely about living through pain, but soon she began to describe her March assault. Then she explained what had happened earlier that day. Scriven remembers her saying emphatically she was not a victim. “I know I’m fighting for things I’ve been fighting for, for a very long time,” Scriven recalled her telling her. “These are my brothers and sisters in Christ, so I know I just have to forgive them.” Scriven listened, then told her that even if she forgave them, that did not mean what she experienced was OK, or that there could not be consequences. They prayed together.

Ashley and Tamra, another FAMU student and activist, took Toyin to her house to help get her things. Meanwhile, Dani began texting people to organize a chain of places Toyin could stay until she found stable housing. They plumbed their network to gather extra clothes, toiletries, and meals. “I saw a young woman in trouble surrounded by friends who wanted to help,” Scriven told me. “These groups of students, who are becoming her community, were asking the question, ‘What will happen to her if we will not try to help?’ And this is the meaning of being a good neighbor.”

They called the Tallahassee Police Department and requested a police escort, who arrived when they did. He followed them inside, as they picked up her clothes and belongings, bundling everything in her bedsheet. In a video Ashley took at the time, documenting the interaction with police in case something went wrong, Toyin sobs as she leads them through the house, moaning, “Oh God, oh God almighty.” Her friends grabbed a painting she had made, her mannequin she used to practice for cosmetology school, her immaculate white sneakers. Ashley reminded her to get her shea butter.

According to Ashley, when they had called the police to request the escort and report the assault, the department asked Toyin if she were “a victim or hurt.” Toyin declined either characterization—as she repeated again and again, she did not consider herself a victim. And the assault had not been technically violent—she wasn’t injured. Because of this, the officer had shrugged when they demanded that he take some kind of action. Toyin had just confessed that her abuser had been in this house and had harassed her here—wasn’t TPD going to even try to investigate? “There’s not enough evidence,” they recalled him telling them; the man had already left the house, and they didn’t know where he had gone. “There’s not much that we can do.” (When asked about this, TPD’s public information officer told me they could not comment on the case, as it is still open and now under grand jury investigation.)

For Dani and Ashley, the police’s apparent indifference showed them how little their concern and distress meant to the people they were told protected them. What they found frustrating they believe was traumatic for Toyin. Even when she did everything right, seeking help and notifying the police, there wasn’t much they could do. Her assaulter could simply walk away. “If my Black ass was to go and get pulled over with a gram of weed, they will pull up six squad cars deep,” Dani said. Where was that urgency when a woman says she’s being harassed?

Toyin stayed at Dani’s place that night. She took a shower and changed into Dani’s clothes. She had blisters from wearing Jordans with no socks to the protests every day, so Dani gave her the white Crocs she used at her job as a vet tech. Sitting on Dani’s bed, they talked about their shared traumas. Toyin talked about getting kicked out of her childhood home and having to stay at friends’ houses through high school. Dani told her about her dad’s and brother’s deaths. They talked about boys and crushes. They talked about Nigeria, where Toyin’s parents had immigrated from shortly before she was born. Dani, surprised, told her the names of her dog and her cat: both Yoruba words. Soon, they went to bed; Toyin slept on the left side.

The next day, Friday morning, Dani, Ashley, and Toyin drove to the county courthouse and collected any paperwork they saw relating to sexual violence, including a form to file a restraining order. They went to Ashley’s apartment and deep conditioned Toyin’s hair. Dani oiled her scalp. It was like any gathering they had before a protest: communal and electric with anticipation—the young women rushed between the bathroom and the kitchen to the bedroom, dancing to conversation that was buoyed by peals of laughter. Ashley’s mom FaceTimed her and said hi to Ashley’s new friend—they all leaned into the frame and sang hellos.

Together, they drove to the Leon Arms apartment complex, where Tony McDade had lived and had been shot, for the protest. There, during a moment of silence, Toyin whispered to Dani that she needed to get some fresh air and walked off. “Those were the last words I heard her speak,” Dani said.

Toyin had been out of touch for almost a day when she posted on Twitter that she had been assaulted. “I was molested in Tallahassee, Florida by a Black man this morning at 5:30 on Richview and Park Ave,” she wrote. A man had given her a ride to get her things from New Life Methodist. After bringing her to his home, he had exposed himself to her while she showered. He offered to give her a massage, and she wrote that when he did, she froze. He was naked. When he fell asleep, she left and called the police, which TPD later confirmed. She tweeted a description of the man, his car, and his house. “I will not be silent,” she wrote. “Literally wearing this man’s clothes DNA all over me.”

A friend, concerned by the thread, messaged her shortly after. Where was she? Toyin told her that she was at a library. The friend urged her to give a location so someone could collect her and bring her someplace safe. “All my friends are PTSD victims,” Toyin replied. “I don’t want to trigger anyone.”

Dani and Ashley had been worried since Friday night. After the protest, Ashley and a friend had spent two hours looking for her. And Saturday morning, at 8 a.m., Dani had driven to the police station to report her missing. Police told her she couldn’t, as she was not an immediate family member. According to several activists in the city, small groups of people began looking for her that day, talking to local businesses and combing through areas near where she was last seen. “We were out there from the jump,” Dani said. Chancellor Crump, who had been a part of the early searches, said that the twitter thread had terrified people. People took screenshots of it, posting it on their social media platforms or sending it to their group chats. “It spread like wildfire,” he said.

After days of informal searches, on June 10 the police department released the official missing person flyer. As Toyin’s name circulated on the internet that day, the Tallahassee Community Action Committee (TCAC), a local grassroots activist group that organized several of the George Floyd protests, coordinated its first official search party. These continued through the week, bringing over 50 people a night to scour the city. “It’s a very close-knit community,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t take much for people to recognize somebody.” This was especially true for the people who began to protest in the streets every day—many protesters became fast friends with people they had never met before in the city. “Even though we got to know each other in such a short amount of time, these protests have allowed people to become close. They’re intimate,” Guyton told me. “You get to know each other on a really personal level.”

Thomas told me that the community of activists who showed up for Toyin had amazed her. “In a matter of two weeks we’ve met well over a hundred people,” she said. TCAC created a GoFundMe to raise money that Toyin could use to find a new place and feel secure. “We created some posts saying that this money is for you to stabilize your life,” said TCAC’s Pierre. “Just in case she was looking at social media, she could see that we’re not trying to put you back in that situation.”

Between searches, they were still protesting. They were also organizing support for people who were arrested while protesting. “We’re out here not only fighting on the frontlines, but we also working behind the scenes to keep things going,” Dani said. The police, meanwhile, had hardly interacted with the people leading the searches—even Dani, Ashley, and Tamra, the last people she had been with, barely heard from the cops. Ashley said she spoke to one detective over the course of the week for about 30 minutes. “Then I never heard from him again.” Dani said she was in contact with a detective, too, but he eventually stopped responding to her. Indeed, the police viewed some of the community’s decisions as more of a nuisance.

After the viral tweet that announced Toyin’s disappearance, TCAC offered their number to people who felt uncomfortable speaking to the police, saying they would relay the information. This was, according to an official statement TPD published on June 16, “misinformation.” TCAC had tried to forward them information they were gathering, including a text they received about a person claiming to be her kidnapper, but they say TPD never followed up. “We all felt it was indicative of how little they cared,” Pierre told me.

In a public statement posted to their website two days after her body was identified, TPD emphasized that though she had contacted them on June 6 about a sexual assault, they began searching for Toyin as soon as her “family reported her missing,” on June 7. They “intensified their efforts” to find her, reaching out to “known associates and victim advocate groups” and organizations that offer services to the homeless. “A missing person flier was widely disseminated, garnering national attention. A team of more than a dozen TPD investigators worked tirelessly to find Salau.”

Community members who were a part of the search parties find this story difficult to believe, and they are still waiting for answers to what they say are urgent questions: Why did TPD wait three days to file a warrant to access Toyin’s cell phone information? Why hadn’t they checked the bus station security camera footage they would later use to arrest Aaron Glee? And why, as they canvassed neighborhoods and knocked on doors, did it seem as if the police hadn’t talked to most of these people? “Once a week or so went gone and everybody was still searching for her, it really hit me...they’re not trying,” said Pierre. “Or if they are trying, they’re really, really not trying hard enough,”

Indeed, on June 12, Dani reached out over text to the detective she had spoken to that week. The detective asked what Toyin had been wearing at the protest when she walked off. “Was she wearing blue?” the detective asked, sending a photo. “Not at all. That picture was taken our second day protesting,” Dani responded. “We’ve been at it for 2 weeks now.” “Ok,” the detective responded. “Do you have a picture of what she was wearing?” Dani pointed out that Toyin had written in her Twitter thread that she was wearing her assaulter’s clothing. By Sunday, the officer stopped responding.

Night after night, people gathered at Bethel AME, a church near FAMU, to search, only to return without any news. People began losing hope. “I’m no detective,” Dani said, “but I know within every 24 hours after somebody has gone missing, the chances of finding them alive lessens a great deal.”

On Saturday, June 13, a family friend stopped by to check on Vicki Sims, a 74-year-old white woman and longtime community volunteer, and noticed she had left her door ajar. The friend called the police. According to probable cause documents, family and friends told officers they had last heard from Sims two days before, though officers also noted that while that day’s edition of the local paper was still on the front step, yesterday’s was in her house. Sims’s cellphone and car were gone. Family members told the police that sometimes Sims would give rides to a man named Aaron, who lives on Monday Road.

Officers traced Sims’s phone and found it in her car, parked on Monday Road, less than 50 feet from a house that belonged to a man named Aaron Glee. After “breaching” the locked front door, according to the court documents, police found Sims’s body. They noticed the room smelled like cigarettes, “as though someone was recently smoking.” Officers sent out a search dog to see if Glee was hiding nearby. Instead, the dog found Toyin’s body in the woods behind his house, on an adjacent lot of land, covered in leaves.

But on Sunday, the day after the bodies were found, Toyin’s friends were still searching. They had felt there was reason to hope. Early that morning, the owner of Big Easy Snowball, an ice cream shop in a residential area in north Tallahassee, had contacted Octavia, saying that he was sure he had seen Toyin in his shop earlier that week. When Ashley and Dani drove over, he showed them camera footage. They were overjoyed. They were also eager to find out what she might be wearing, since they were unsure what clothes she had taken from the man, and they thought it was important for the people looking for her to know. Then Dani’s eyes lit on her feet. “Those are my shoes,” she said. The white Crocs.

She posted the screenshots on Facebook. She wrote that the footage showed what she was wearing, including the Crocs, and asked people to call the Tallahassee Police Department to relay the information. “I could barely press post when I got the call,” she said.

For the community that had been rallying to give her new hope, the news was shattering — but even more, the details of how she was found struck them as an injustice. “They found her by accident. They were looking for Victoria Sims, God rest her soul,” Ashley said. “Do you know how disheartening it is for someone to find your friend by accident?”

Hours after Toyin’s funeral on June 27, it rained in Tallahassee. A Florida rain, which pounded the rooftops and let out mutters of distant thunder over the dripping trees. For most of the city, it was a relief, clearing the humid air. For Toyin’s friends, it was a minor delay in their plans. When the rain slowed, they drove out to Monday Road, where Toyin’s body had been found two weeks prior.

Monday Road is a dark, narrow side street of a residential neighborhood, dense with shockingly green Florida brush. Like many streets in Florida, the trees, heavy with moss, form a canopy that blocks out the sky. In the dark it was hard to make anything out. But at the entrance to a long dirt road that ends in the home of Aaron Glee, who confessed on June 20 to murdering Toyin, an array of candles made a warm dome of light that bounced off the signs and paintings placed in the trees and bushes.

“Have you seen all the young Black women coming up going missing?” Dani told me on the day of Toyin’s memorial service. “There is something going in this world, let me tell you, and they are trying to brush it underneath the rug like it is dust. And it’s not. This is not a game. This is not a joke. This is our lives being taken and this is real. They don’t take us seriously.”

Image for article titled The Short Life of Toyin Salau and a Legacy Still at Work
Image: Johnny Louis (Getty Images)

Several people I spoke to told me that they’re painfully aware of how little evidence police seem to need to fatally shoot someone on the street, or for a no-knock warrant, but how much evidence you need to get the police to address sexual assault. That they come out in force when people set off fireworks at a protest, but when a Black girl goes missing, they don’t seem to be anywhere at all. The investigations into both Toyin and Victoria Sims’s deaths are still open. In a June 16 statement, the Tallahassee Police Department asked the public to “report any information they may have that could aid in Salau’s original battery case or the double murder of Salau and Sims.” But even in the aftermath, they say, the police have been careless — the photo they used to post their press release on social media is a screenshot of Toyin at the first protest she went to, on May 29. It catches her mid-speech, her face distorted, side by side with a posed picture of Vicki Sims. “She had so many pictures on the internet,” Ashley said. “And they chose this one.”

For now, Dani, Ashley and the others who worked to get Toyin into a stable living situation are tired. They say they have a hard time sleeping at night. “I have to sleep with the lights on in my room,” Ashley said. Dani moved out of the apartment where Toyin stayed with her. A friend who met her on Twitter, also named Oluwatoyin, said she thinks about her all the time. “That could have been me. That could easily have been me,” she told me. “I’m a young Black woman in America. When, as Black women, are we going to be safe?” Pierre said that it has taken time to work through the initial numbness she felt after Toyin’s death was confirmed. She remembers watching, as though from a distance, as a group chat filled with people who attended the search parties began to grieve. “A lot of people took it very personally,” she told me. “Even though we didn’t know Toyin very long, we saw her. We saw her potential.”

On June 16, the day after police made her death public, over 100 people marched through the streets of Tallahassee, flanked by cars blasting music, to the spot on Monday Road where her body was found. They blanketed the road in votive candles and flowers and strung balloons to the trees. (At least six police cars followed them, their lights whirling.) The next day, hundreds more gathered at the steps of the Capitol building and raised candles over their heads in her honor. (When some of the attendees set off fireworks, police approached brandishing zip ties.) Activists across the country organized their own vigils for her: in Providence, Houston, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Tampa, Boston, Miami, Atlanta.

At the same time, Toyin’s story has already started to change Tallahassee, too. “The conversation has gotten a lot bigger as it relates to sexual assault. Even on the university level, there are greater conversations surrounding sexual assault that haven’t happened before,” Thomas told me. “How are we changing things on all levels? Not only the policy, but how are we changing both men and women’s attitude as it surrounds rape?” For Dani, although Toyin is gone, she believes that there are lives that can be helped that are still here. She says that’s what Toyin would have wanted. “She wanted to help people,” she told me. “Somewhere out here in this world, you have a young man or young girl—and I say men because men are sexually assaulted, too—scared to come out and speak about what they’ve gone through, or who did it and why, and where, because of how much fear they instill.”

Scriven says she has seen this herself. The day after she spoke at Toyin’s vigil on the steps of the Capitol, a young woman approached her and asked to speak with her in private. She told the pastor that she thought she might be in a predatory situation and that the vigil had given her the courage to reach out. “That is Toyin’s legacy of life still at work,” Scriven told me. “That is a part of her legacy.”

Samantha Schuyler is a writer and fact-checker living in New York. She has written previously for The Appeal, The Nation, and The Baffler.