They asked Jama, who describes herself as a storyteller, to use her platform to talk about the 25-year-old Black man, Jelani Day, who had been missing in Illinois for a month. (Police on Thursday confirmed that his body had been found in the Illinois River on Sept. 4.)
So on Tuesday — when Jelani Day was still a missing person, Jama made a TikTok, saying, “Stop and listen, you should care about missing Black people too.”
It’s part of a growing campaign in the true crime community in response to Petitio’s case going so viral despite the disappearances of others, mostly people of color, that have been largely ignored.
Jama’s TikTok included an emotional clip from a Newsy interview with Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden, who broke down as she pleaded for the same kind of attention for her missing son that Petitio — a 22-year-old #VanLife influencer who went missing last month while on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie — was getting. (Petito was later found dead in Wyoming, while an arrest warrant is out for Laundrie, who has disappeared.)
“I know about Gabby, the missing girl,” a tearful Bolden said in the Sept. 17 clip. “And she’s been missing for two days and her face is plastered everywhere, and the FBI is involved, and I do not understand why Jelani doesn’t get that same coverage.”
In her TikTok this week, Jama ended by asking her followers to “go do your FBI and detective work and find him.”
The TikTok got more than 1 million views and over 80,000 shares, including a repost from musician Lizzo, who used the hashtag #FindJelaniDay.
“It’s been proven before, and most recently with the Gabby Petito case, that TikTok can blow up a missing person’s case and get that family the sources they need to bring that person home,” @TrueCrimeCam said in another viral TikTok highlighting Jelani’s case on Tuesday.
“Gabby’s case was the catalyst that drove Jelani’s case,” Jama told BuzzFeed News in an interview Wednesday, the day before his death was confirmed.
After Petito’s case went viral, Black people on TikTok began having conversations about how cases of missing people of color are treated differently than Petito’s, Jama said. Some of her followers even DM’d Jama asking her to post about Jelani’s case.
Petito’s disappearance, and now killing, has fueled a weeks-long national obsession with the young, white woman whose Instagram photos dominated news feeds and airwaves, highlighting the blatant disparity in media coverage and public interest between cases of missing white women and those involving people of color.
The national fixation was sparked, in large part, by true crime enthusiasts on TikTok and Twitter who fed their followers a steady stream of updates, combed through Petito and Laundrie’s Instagram pages for the tiniest details, and shared their theories on what might have happened.
“The world goes into a frenzy when a white woman is missing versus a Black person,” Seve Day told BuzzFeed News in an interview a day before his older brother’s death was confirmed by authorities.
“We see because of the color of our skin what type of attention or how much attention a case gets,” he added.
“It’s a shame I have to compare and I definitely sympathize with this family but this missing person case has only been going on for 2 days and it has already received 100x more media coverage all over the world compared to my brother Jelani Day,” Day’s older sister, Dacara Day, wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 16, referring to Petito’s case. “My brother has been missing since AUGUST 24,2021!! That’s 23 DAYS!!”
Jelani, who aspired to become a speech pathologist, was reported missing on Aug. 25, the day after he was last seen on the Illinois State University campus and later at a cannabis dispensary in Bloomington. His car was found in a wooded area in Peru, 60 miles north of Bloomington, with his clothes inside. Investigators found a body in the Illinois River on Sept 4, but took nearly three weeks to confirm that it was him.
While his disappearance did get local media coverage at the time, the attention dissipated until the interest in Petitio’s case encouraged social media users to dig into the stories of missing people of color.
“Shouldn’t be surprised I’m just hearing about this, but still am. Blow this case up like Gabby Petito and please #FindJelaniDay.” one Twitter user said on Sept. 19.
“I don’t know much about her case, but let’s get the same energy going to help locate #LaurenCho as we did for #GabbyPetito.” another Twitter user said in a widely shared tweet, referring to the case of the 30-year-old New Jersey woman who disappeared in Yucca Valley, California, on June 28.
Another viral tweet called attention to Daniel Robinson, a Black geologist, who went missing in the desert outside Buckeye, Arizona, on June 23.
But Seve didn’t believe it was Petito’s case that brought attention to his brother’s story. Instead, he credited his family and friends who persistently posted and tweeted about Jelani “to bring his story out and not get overshadowed by a white woman.”
Jama, the TikTok user, agreed that people focused on Jelani’s case because of his family’s social media outreach.
She highlighted the clip of Jelani’s mother crying on TV in her TikTok so that people could relate to the heartbreak of a family member, she said.
Jama also spoke to Jelani’s mother and brother to get more details about his disappearance that would “attract the public’s attention” and get internet sleuths trying to crack the case.
“Social media likes a good story,” she said. “They want a mystery to solve.”
When a missing person doesn’t have a social media presence, or when the family is not willing to share information, it becomes harder for people to get interested in the case, she added.
Jama said that social media helped put public pressure on authorities to act faster and be more transparent.
John Fermon, the public information officer for Bloomington police, which is investigating Jelani’s case, said that apart from a few bad tips that distracted detectives, he was happy about the attention the case has gotten.
Fermon, who spoke to BuzzFeed News a day before Jelani’s death was confirmed, said police are limited by policies on how much information they can release about a missing person’s case.
When authorities do release details about a high-risk missing person, he said, it was up to social media and the news media to determine whether it was an interesting case.
In an ideal world, Jama said, Jelani’s case would have drawn interest irrespective of Petito’s case. But the disproportionate attention on Petito made people aware of the “missing white girl syndrome,” she said.
It has led to a lot of conversations and people have realized, she added, that “it’s always the pretty girl that gets the attention.”