There’s no such thing as an average day for Nasser “Nash” Baker, but they do tend to start the same way.
Most people may know about Baker’s line of work from “Nightcrawler,” the 2014 film in which Jake Gyllenhaal skulks around Los Angeles to film car crashes and murder scenes. But Baker refers to himself as a “daycrawler,” leaving his home in South Los Angeles every day around noon wearing his bulletproof vest and helmet.
Baker usually parks his blue Crown Victoria at a Starbucks in a plaza at the intersection of Western and Slauson avenues, not far from his home, and starts listening to his police scanner and browsing news wires.
Inevitably, at some point, he hears three beeps over the scanner and “goes into another zone” as he drives toward the site of a shooting.
For more than 20 years, Baker, 49, has covered the aftermath of shootings and police violence in south LA’s historically Black neighborhoods and cities like Inglewood, Watts, and Compton. He works as a stringer for Onscene.tv, a Southern California news gathering service from which local outlets buy footage. And he runs A Million Hits, an Instagram account and YouTube channel that have become the go-to source of information on shootings for many Angelenos living in the communities that face the most gun violence.
Over the course of Baker’s two-decade long career, his car has been shot up, he has administered first aid to gunshot wound victims, and has had police threaten to break his equipment. Unlike Gyllenhaal’s character, he doesn’t salivate when he hears news of a shooting. But he continues to hit the streets daily to report reliable information in communities many other reporters either forget about or overlook, he says, hoping to help keep neighborhoods safe, dispel the rumors that follow homicides and can lead to retaliation, and force police accountability.
“Most outlets aren’t writing about what happened on 81st and Figueroa, so the people are using me to verify and fact check so they can do their homework because they know if I say something, it’s backed by an official,” he said. “A Million Hits is here to be the first outlet to record, edit, and report our stories. We’re here to film the officer with their knees on people’s necks.”
A South LA Staple
“South LA check-in, South LA check-in.”
They’re usually Baker’s first words on Instagram as he pulls up to the scene of a shooting.
His appearance belies his profession, wearing black-rimmed glasses, dressed in camouflage, and with arms toned by more than a decade of holding a professional camera, sometimes for hours as a crime scene unfolds. His helmet and vest can carry cell phones and holders, a flashlight, a digital police scanner, two GoPro cameras and a backup video camera.
He tells his followers what he knows – location, number of people shot, whether anyone’s been taken to the emergency room – and implores those living nearby to check on their loved ones and take their kids inside.
His videos come with a healthy dose of commentary, soliciting prayers and answers for a victim’s family, critiquing local police or speaking on the larger scourge of gun violence’s impact on Black Americans.
Baker’s profile has grown significantly in recent years, amassing nearly 15,000 YouTube subscribers and over 22,000 Instagram followers, enviable counts for an independent journalist. He was featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary series “Shot in the Dark,” which focused on the seldom-seen world of videographers who film and sell footage of the aftermaths of car accidents, fires, and homicides.
Baker’s work intersects with that of others. There are several social media pages solely dedicated to putting out information about gun violence affecting Black people living in America’s cities, like the Instagram accounts @nogunzone and @unsolvemurdersinphilly in Philadelphia. There are stringers all over the country racing to capture footage of local crime scenes. They have different approaches, goals, motivations, and reliability.
But Baker has shaped A Million Hits into its own thing: A reliable source of information on neighborhoods that rarely get the in-depth treatment, with Baker shooting, editing, and verifying the footage.
It’s made A Million Hits a staple of the news diet of many people living in places like South Los Angeles, Compton, and Watts. Many followers are families and friends of people who were killed. He now regularly gets calls from people in jail or prison, who ask him what he knows about a recent shooting. He’s happy to take the calls, he says, since they allow him to dispel rumors that have made their way around the streets or jails and can lead to retaliation. “You have to be a counterweight and can’t let things get too out of control,” Baker said.
In addition to making sure verified information is available to the communities where the most shootings occur, Baker has come to see himself as an ardent defender of the First Amendment. So much so that he’s gone head-to-head with police officers to ensure that he can film the aftermath of shooting scenes. He’s filed a complaint against the Los Angeles Police Department and sued the LA County Sheriff’s Department over incidents in 2020. Baker alleges that Los Angeles Police officers targeted him and photojournalist Nicholas Stern with batons and rubber bullets and unjustly arrested them while covering a protest following the police killing of George Floyd. He also says that later that year, sheriff’s deputies assaulted him while he was filming an interaction between protesters and deputies outside of a hospital where two deputies were being treated for gunshot wounds. One deputy threatened to break his camera, he says.
Both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on Baker’s allegations, citing pending litigation.
Baker has also worked with the Los Angeles Press Club to push for the enactment of SB 98, state legislation that makes members of the press exempt from police dispersal orders at demonstrations the journalists are covering.
“We have to protect our First Amendment rights,” Baker said. “I continue to film police and file complaints and lawsuits to make sure our rights will be protected. And that’s something I’m going to pass down through generations. It’s our civil right.”
‘I Cover What My Children Need to Know’
Baker was born in Chicago and grew up in South Central LA in a Muslim family. Growing up, he learned martial arts and prepared the bodies of other Muslim people for burial in a process called Ghusl. He made Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, when he was 18. He credits these experiences as the driving force behind his impulse to protect his community and empower people to rely on each other.
“We grew up with those values and were trained to help the community,” Baker said. “I was trained to survive in the streets before I started filming them. I had to know the areas and work with the people in them.”
He watched high school classmates, and even his brother, become engulfed in gang life and says most of the people he met in high school have been killed or incarcerated for decades. “They were gonna be football or basketball players,” he said. “Some even went to community college. No one started off just being involved in gun violence.”
Equally formative were the 1992 LA riots. Baker was about to graduate from high school when four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the savage beating of Rodney King, and LA neighborhoods rose up. Dozens of businesses were destroyed and 50 people were killed, 10 of them by police. It put into stark focus the pain his community was facing from police violence, over-incarceration, the crack cocaine epidemic, and the gun violence that accompanied all of these phenomena.
Before his foray into news, Baker had a successful rap career under the name L.A. Nash. He got his start in the local news media in the early 2000s, doing camera work with other independent journalists who would film police interactions throughout South LA.
He got his first press pass when he started working for Ombudsman International, a local outlet for the oversight body that investigates claims of misconduct against officials, law enforcement, and government contractors. Baker would take photos for the outlet, conduct video interviews, and film police stops and other interactions throughout the city.
He knew nothing about stringing and selling footage to local news stations until he was thrust into what he refers to as the worst day of his life.
On February 19, 2008, Baker was on a job for the Ombudsman in an unincorporated neighborhood of South Los Angeles, when he heard a high-pitched long beep on the scanner, followed by the announcement of an apparent shooting with multiple people injured on Denker Avenue. Back then, Baker’s only equipment was an eight millimeter video camera and the analog police scanner that picked up a few Los Angeles police, county fire, and sheriff’s channels.
Baker recognized the address the dispatcher on the other end of the device gave as Washington Preparatory High School, the school he graduated from in 1992.
“There was a football game going on and by the time I got to the school there was a lot of yelling and screaming,” Baker recalled. “The paramedics were just getting there, and it was like a war zone. I didn’t know if there was an active shooter on the loose. I just wanted to come in and help.”
He began filming as people were loaded into ambulances and showed the footage to terrified parents who were desperately seeking information about their kids. A reporter noticed what he was doing and suddenly multiple people were coming up to him asking who he was with and how much the ambulance transport footage was going for. From then on, he started filming footage of transports via ambulance or coroner van and detectives as they analyzed a crime scene, and selling them on his own. He joined Onscene.tv later that year.
At Onscene.tv, he continued to focus on the areas he knew best: South Central, Watts, and Compton. Car accidents and fire footage was, and in many cases still is, the bread and butter of stringing for local news, he said. And over the years, news stations would buy shooting footage less and less frequently. Uninterested in covering weather or car crash scenes, he started A Million Hits, which he named after an excerpt from a speech that was given during the fifth anniversary of the Million Man March in 2000. “I cover urban stuff in my area. I cover what my children would need to know,” Baker said.
In March 2019, Baker covered his most high-profile shooting yet. He was driving toward Leimert Park, when he heard on the scanner that three people had been shot at the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, just a u-turn and a few minutes’ drive from where Baker had been.
Once he pulled up, he realized the shooting was at the Marathon Store, which was founded by rapper Nipsey Hussle. Baker parked at a nearby donut shop and watched as police taped off the scene, police cars arrived, and a crowd of locals began to gather.
No one knew who had been shot until a woman yelled, “Nip!” and the crowd went under the police tape to get answers. Baker went to the back of the store and saw Hussle’s beard. “That’s when I realized it’ll never be the same around here,” he recalled.
‘We Work to Serve the People’
Between the protests and the homicide scenes, Baker says he’s seen things so traumatic that he has to leave them at the door before coming home to his two young sons and wife. “My wife strings with me, so we have to let out those cries and make sure the stories are edited and published that day. You can’t keep it in. If we hold all these stories in, it’s like cancer. We spend most of our time helping so we don’t carry the weight.”
Baker met his wife, Mia Robinson, in the Starbucks on Western and Slauson, and they bonded over their shared passion for videography.
Robinson went to film her first shooting scene in 2016 and says she, too, has been hooked on stringing ever since.
“It’s real, it’s almost like you feel alive for the first time, and you realize that gun violence is real and it’s breaking up families,” she said of her time as a videographer. “You’re tapping into a world that, if you look, is right under your feet, but people don’t pay attention.”
They both worry about each other’s safety in the field, but say they see how much the people who live where gun violence is concentrated value A Million Hits. To soothe her anxieties, Robinson surprised Baker with an upgraded bulletproof vest for Christmas.
The couple hopes A Million Hits will eventually be able to compete with other local news outlets and stand out as a site specifically for the communities where gun violence happens most.
“One of the benefits of A Million Hits is that I have my videos on both sides, the social media and the news, but we work to serve people who need to know what happened to their loved one,” Baker said. “I don’t need a major endorsement from anyone to do this because this is the area I grew up in.”
Over the years, Baker has seen the communities he covers, and the gun violence within them, evolve. In his teens and early adulthood, nearly everyone he knew was affiliated with a gang, he said. As years passed those people either died or were locked up in prison. “Gang life is what it was out there. Whether it’s prison or more violence. They both begin with a gun in LA. There was no other tool people would use to solve their issues,” he said of the 1990s.
Since then, South LA has transformed from a place that people living outside of its neighborhoods once primarily associated with violence and crime. It suffered from the disinvestment that comes with this perception, he says, but is now rapidly gentrifying. For more than a decade, gun violence in Los Angeles has decreased exponentially, as has the Black population in communities where they were once sequestered because of the racist housing policies of the mid-20th century.
“We were losing people in South Central LA, and this is the first time people are moving back and walking their dogs,” Baker said of how he’s seen the area change. “No one even cared about what was happening back then but some of us never left.” And even as he’s seen rents and property increase and new businesses emerge, he says that gun violence remains a stubborn constant for South LA natives.
“Black folks have to realize that we’ve done so much violence has happened among us I think that going forward it’ll be hard to curb,” he continued.
For South Central LA natives like Tina Sampay, Baker has been a go-to outlet for years. She started following A Million Hits from the early days to keep up with what was happening in her hometown while she was away at college in Northern California. “He was the only one doing that type of work within South Central and other inner-cities,” she said. “I would hear about shootings here and there but it was hard to find [more] information. But, Nash was the one who had his boots on the ground.”
Since coming back to Los Angeles, Sampay has founded her own news media outlet under the name Slauson Girl, gaining nearly 40,000 Instagram followers with daily news posts about topics ranging from celebrities to local crime and politics. She first met Baker when she was driving through her neighborhood and came across a shooting scene where Baker was also filming, and hopes that Baker will become an outlet of record and play an integral role in the larger Black media ecosystem in LA County.
“For the level of work he has done, he should be compensated and have his own van and production space,” Sampay continued about Baker. “If we as Black media are not able to compete at the same level as other journalists with more resources, then we’ll have to keep allowing people to exploit our communities for views.”