They say a rose by any name would smell as sweet, but what’s the aroma stirred up by the name “The Memphis Mob?” Well, compare it with names like, say, The Oak Ridge Gang, the Nashville Nation, The Knoxville Kontingent. Would I be way off base if I said, most people would identify the Oak Ridge, Nashville and Knoxville groupings as likely to be of a Caucasian persuasion, while “The Memphis Mob” is more likely to be taken for African-American?
There is good reason for the assumption. While the population of Oak Ridge is less than 10% African-American, and in Nashville and Knoxville it’s 15 and 17% respectively, in Memphis, 63% of the population is African-American.
The 35 people – most of them African-American — arrested by police in Albuquerque, NM in April of 2009 were called “The Memphis Mob.” They were described by police to T. J. Wilham, the Journal reporter on the story as “a drug gang that moved to Albuquerque in recent years and created “havoc on the streets.”
To then Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz, “The Memphis Mob” could truly be counted among the worst of the worst. “Every law in the book, they broke,” he said.
Breaking up this “mob”, then-Mayor Martin Chavez said, was ““one of the biggest gang busts in the history of Albuquerque.”
But 2 former APD detectives, who spoke with our guest today, investigative reporter Jeff Proctor of NM in Depth, don’t remember the connected cases they worked that way.
“I remember doing some surveillance on some African American guys, and one of them might have been from Tennessee,” one said during an interview. “They were moving some small quantities of dope, and one or two of them might have been involved in a homicide. But there was no big, interstate nexus, and I honestly don’t remember hearing the term ‘Memphis Mob’ till it hit the papers.”
Still quoting from Jeff Proctor’s most recent piece in NM In Depth. “The other [APD detective] said he arrested one of the men on suspicion of a $200 cocaine sale, but was never told the man was a gang member until he saw the Journal article.
These guys, the detectives agreed, were nothing like “the worst of the worst,” nor were they tied to anything called “The Memphis Mob.”
But 7 years later, 2016, when an ATF “flying squad” came to Albuquerque to stage a series of raids of local criminals, one of their contacts at the APD primed them by giving them the 2009 Albuquerque Journal story, and what Proctor describes as “a multi-page wanted poster with dozens of mugshots showing black men, their personal information and partial criminal histories. The phrase “Memphis Mob,” in bold, topped the document.”
Then, Proctor reports, the APD officer gave the leader of the ATF Albuquerque operation another document, which he says, “listed 20-some names of current members of the “Memphis Mob.”
These “leads” helped produce 16 arrests for the ATF team, 14 African Americans and 2 Hispanics. That identifier, “The Memphis Mob,” and its scary image of a massive African-American organized crime group, were used to make headlines shortly after arrests were made, but they’ve completely disappeared as the individual cases – most of them penny-ante, not “worst of the worst,” have gone to arraignment and trial.
The mythical Memphis Mob is just one aspect of the ATF’s 2016 Albuquerque operation that suggests racial bias.
Jeff Proctor is an investigative reporter based in Albuquerque, NM. He works for the news website NM in Depth (nmindepth.com) and the Santa Fe Reporter. His work has appeared in the New York Times and on the NPR investigative news magazine Reveal.