The Possums, the Police, and the Burger Barn

Looking back at the infamous 1981 incident.

By Marty Patail September 26, 2020 Published in the October 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

The Burger Barn

On March 12, 1981, the son of George Powe, owner of the popular Burger Barn on NE Union (since 1989, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) near Shaver Street, watched as Portland police officers threw dead possums onto the sidewalk in front of his family’s business. Officers had run over the animals earlier, tossed them in their cruisers, and then radioed in backup to laugh as they deposited them at the Burger Barn ... which just happened to be a popular Black hangout.

Facing criticism, the police bureau cried prank gone wrong. Powe wasn’t having it: this was just one example in an escalating campaign of racial harassment, he said.

Outraged demonstrators marched on city hall, calling for more police oversight, a citizen review committee, and the firing of all cops involved. Police commissioner Charles Jordan, who was Black, fired two officers. Then came counterprotests from the police union, demanding Jordan’s removal for having “knuckled in to the pressure of the opportunists,” as the union president was quoted in the Oregonian. Jordan was assigned a bodyguard due to death threats—and the officers were eventually reinstated by an arbitrator’s order. The Powe family filed a $3.8 million suit against the city and 10 officers, later settling for $69,000. National watchdogs warned the largely unpunished possum incident was being used as a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tool. The officers’ actions were “one step away from putting the hood on,” C. T. Vivian, the Atlanta minister who cofounded the National Anti-Klan Network (and who died this summer at age 95), would say later that year, after the officers were reinstated.

“They are looking at the newspapers just like you are,” Vivian said of racists who might be inspired by the incident. “When they see this kind of action they know they can come in.”

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