black lives matter

The Countless Lost Friendships

Ashley Burch with Trayvon Martin. Photo: Courtesy of Burch

When Ashley Burch remembers her friend Trayvon Martin, she thinks of him walking around Carol City, the neighborhood north of Miami where they were teenagers together. They weren’t old enough to drive, so Trayvon walked nearly everywhere when he couldn’t catch the bus, sometimes so far that he would call Ashley to come and pick him up. “With what?” she would ask. He would joke his Cadillac was in the shop — the nickname he had for his bicycle.

That Trayvon liked walking was among her first thoughts a decade ago when Ashley heard how and where he had been killed. George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon, had told the police that he looked “real suspicious” in his dark-gray hoodie on the night of February 26, 2012, idly walking around the housing development where he was in fact staying with his father and his father’s fiancée. To Ashley and the rest of his friends, that was just Trayvon. It was unthinkable that normal things about her friend were now being used to characterize him as some kind of menace. “We knew Trayvon liked to walk,” Burch, now 27, says from Jacksonville, Florida. “And he always had a hoodie on.” Of course he did — it was raining that night.

Burch would spend the next few days, months, and years getting angry about those kinds of details, the ones that people on TV, in the news, and in public would get wrong or twist about Trayvon Martin, as his story ballooned from community tragedy into a national conversation on anti-Black racism. “They used to say Trayvon was bigger than Zimmerman and he used to play football, and I was like, ‘No, he played ball as a child.’ He wasn’t even built like a football player. He was actually tall and really skinny.” The Trayvon that Burch knew was relatively quiet with a goofy streak. He was often scheming — planning an elaborate “seafood party” at a friend’s house with no budget or permission — or teasing her about being a “flagette” in the school marching band. They would head to the Galaxy skate rink every Saturday to cruise around to hip-hop and R&B. Burch spoke to the press about Martin at a march the family held for their son a few weeks after his death. “That was one of my best friends, somebody I talked to every day, he was very nice,” she said. She was immediately flooded with Facebook messages from Zimmerman supporters, who told her that her best friend was a thug.

In 2013, Burch watched Zimmerman’s trial from home every day. When he was acquitted, and the movement around Trayvon’s murder grew bigger still, with protests taking place throughout the country, she found herself angry even with Trayvon’s supporters. A picture went around social media of a baby-faced Trayvon in an aviation uniform at “space camp.” He never went to space camp, Burch would hotly comment whenever she saw it. (The photo was actually from a seven-week aviation course Trayvon attended in 2009. He had been interested in a career as a pilot.) There was a girl at Carol City who would wear a Trayvon T-shirt for months, and it made Burch and her friend Aiyanna seethe. “You don’t even know him,” they would whisper to each other.

After graduation, Burch left Carol City for Jacksonville, where she eventually attended Edward Waters University, an HBCU. She graduated with a criminal-justice degree, concentrating in forensic science. Now she is a probation officer. It sometimes surprises people that she works in law enforcement, if they know about her friendship with Trayvon. “It makes me feel bad sometimes, you know?” she says. “’Cause I know at the end of the day I have a job to do.” As part of her position, Burch works with offenders to find drug-addiction treatment, employment, and housing. “But for me to have to make the arrest — I don’t like that. Or when I’m in court, seeing people getting sentenced to 25 years in prison.” Her experience hasn’t turned into political activism, however. When Black Lives Matter protests engulfed the country again in 2020, sparked by the murder of yet another unarmed Black man, Burch stayed home. She finds demonstrations overwhelming ever since attending one in Sanford held a month after Trayvon’s death. “Everybody there had on a Trayvon shirt; he was on signs and everything. I think it was just too much too soon.”

Burch rarely talks openly about Trayvon. She has tried to move on and into her adult life. But she has never changed the background of her Facebook profile: a now-infamous black-and-white photo of Trayvon in his hoodie, looking straight on, taken by his computer camera. “I don’t want anybody to forget about him,” she says. Every year, she and friends text each other on his birthday. She wishes she could introduce him to her daughter, Skylar, now 3 years old, and imagines that he might have had his own children. He would have certainly had his own career, his own accomplishments to share. Burch says she is just now finally starting to discuss him in therapy. For this tenth anniversary of Trayvon’s death, she will likely head back to Miami to attend the annual peace march held by his family. It may be the first time that Burch actually visits Trayvon’s grave site, which she has avoided ever since his funeral. “I’ve been scared of how I will feel when I actually get there,” Burch says. “I miss everything about him. I miss his laugh. I miss talking to him all the time, just miss him being around.” There are songs she can’t listen to, like Tupac’s “Changes,” where the chorus goes, “I’d love to go back to when we played as kids / But things change, and that’s the way it is.”

Burch has just a few low-quality photos of Trayvon saved from those days before everything was documented on social media, a sweet, mundane time capsule of their teenageness. One is a screenshot of the two of them chatting on ooVoo, a video-chat gamelike app they would play on forever when they weren’t texting or calling. Just a few hours before he headed out to a 7-Eleven on the highway for snacks, Ashley had called Trayvon, annoyed that he wasn’t being responsive while they were messaging. He told her he was watching a movie and that he would call her back.

The Countless Lost Friendships