Terence Harrell’s cellphone buzzed at precisely 2:33 a.m.
It was a message alerting him that an up-and-coming rapper named Lil Nizzy had been shot while riding a bike in Grays Ferry. By 8 a.m., Harrell had posted a publicity photo of the 20-year-old performer, whose given name is Nasir Talington, and the words “Pull through youngin, you just getting started!!!” on his Instagram page called No Gun Zone.
When Philadelphians, particularly young people, hear of shootings and other killings, many turn first to Harrell’s nearly four-year-old Instagram account. As of last night, it had more than 42,000 followers. Even members of the Philadelphia Police Department use it.
I learned about the site recently from a high-ranking police official who suggested I follow it because, as he put it, “they have things that you guys don’t.” That officer is on it religiously, and now I am as well. If you are interested in what grassroots-level people in these bloodstained streets are saying, you will be too.
It’s how I learned that 17-year-old Jihad Jordan was critically injured on July 1 while riding a dirt bike in Kensington. According to relatives, the teen has a long road to recovery. No Gun Zone posted information about a rally in Jihad’s honor, which took place on Sunday, that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Since I started following Harrell’s Instagram page, I’ve been scanning it every day. Ameera Sullivan, a counselor at Strawberry Mansion High School, does the same thing.
“I usually check it to make sure I don’t see any of my students,” she told me. “I like staying in the loop. I watch the news three times a day, and this is just another source.”
Harrell has no affiliation with the Police Department. He also doesn’t have any police sources who provide him with information. No Gun Zone is a one-man operation.
Harrell also isn’t a journalist. He mostly copies and posts what he gets from traditional news outlets such as Philly.com and the local TV stations — without attribution, which is problematic.
Going forward, he really needs to clearly explain where he gets his information. I give him a pass for now, though, because he’s still new to the game and figuring things out.
By following his instincts about what to focus on, Harrell has garnered an enviable following. In comparison to No Gun Zone’s more than 42,000 followers on Instagram, 6ABC has 99,000 and Fox29 has 75,000.
If you log onto it, you’ll see what I mean. The language is crude and the grammar is often even worse. But reading all of the back and forth, it’s as if the back alleys themselves are talking, putting forth various theories about why the latest shooting victim may have been targeted or speculating about who’s behind what act of retaliation. Harrell will sometimes wade into conversations to remind followers about the importance of nonviolence. Tipsters inbox graphic videos of crime scenes, but he has learned the hard way to refrain from posting them out of respect for grieving relatives. Harrell, a former behavioral health worker, is a self-trained social media activist.
“My hope was that I could actually spread the message that guns are basically destroying the community in Philadelphia and have been for some time,” Harrell told me.
Interspersed with news of the latest shootings, the 33-year-old University City resident and father of two gives information about community meetings and requests prayer for certain neighborhoods. He’s inspired in part by his community activist uncle, Mark Harrell, the executive director of Men United for a Better Philadelphia.
“It’s not only reporting on the incidents, but it’s also telling people, this is what you can do if you want to stop the violence,” Mark Harrell told me.
“It’s not the newspaper,” the uncle added. “It’s a platform that young people actually use, read and interact with. I think it can make a difference, and I’m very proud of him.”
I’m proud of him, too. At a time when many traditional news operations are struggling to connect with millennials, Harrell has figured out how to do it.