The Burger Barn on Northeast Union Avenue was a late-night gathering place for Portland’s black citizenry. To some of Portland’s Police Department it was a hangout for the disreputable.
In the spring of 1981, two of PDX’s finest deposited four dead opossums at the front entry to the black-owned business. Witnesses said four police cars and seven other cops were present. News of this prompted protest marches through downtown. Charles Jordan, the city commissioner in charge of the Police Bureau, fired the two officers. An arbitrator later reinstated the two officers with thirty-day unpaid suspensions. Hundreds of angry cops marched on City Hall. The Burger Barn filed a $3.4 million suit against the city but eventually settled for $64,000.
The police union gave Commissioner Jordan, who was African American, a vote of no confidence. Mayor Frank Ivancie fired the police chief and placed the Bureau under his own supervision, removing it from Jordan’s oversight.
(Ivancie had made his reputation a decade earlier. As Parks Commissioner, he placed a curfew on Portland’s parks to combat hippies gathering in them, particularly in Lair Hill Park.)
The Burger Barn is long gone. The spot where it stood on what is now Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard is empty, awaiting gentrification.
Why opossums? The story I’ve been told is that African Americans brought opossums from the South as pets. Jobs at the Kaiser shipyards in Portland during the Second World War attracted workers from the South. I can’t vouch for the truthfulness of the story, only that possums became part of the racial stereotype.
Portlandians and their household pets contend with opossums as part of the landscape. Opossum roadkill on Portland streets was so common that it inspired a joke:
Why did the possum cross the road?
To see if it could be done.