Sunday, December 24, 2006
Mike Mason was closing the deal when the police moved in.
Inside a black Pontiac Firebird parked at a mall, he was buying a kilo of cocaine. Suddenly he saw flashing blue lights and grabbed the door handle.
It was too late. Police officers and federal agents were on him.
"Freeze! You're under arrest!" they yelled, their guns pointed, as he was pulled from the car. Then he and the dealer were on the ground, their hands being cuffed behind their backs.
But Mason wasn't really under arrest. Tall and lean and dressed in scruffy jeans, he was an undercover FBI agent with a wire under his T-shirt.
As he lay on the cold pavement, Mason saw a crowd of white shoppers gathering and staring at him. He knew what they were thinking.
Just another lowlife black guy dealing drugs. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
"God, did I hate that," Mason recalled.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he had known guys like the one he was pretending to be, but he had avoided them. He was the Boy Scout who never used drugs or smoked, the kid who worked his way through Catholic school and college, who had gone on to command a platoon in the Marines.
"I wanted to stand up and tell everybody, 'Yes, I'm a black man,' " he said. "But I'm an FBI agent. I was in the Marines. I'm a college graduate.
"People were looking at me like I was dirt. Like I was trash."
And there it was. For his entire life, Mason had been determined to not be defined by race. But race was a formidable foe. Even though he knew the arrest was fake and he probably would never see the onlookers again, the feelings had cornered him there on the ground -- and they cut deep.