“I just remember growing up there,” Raiford said. “My granny making me sandwiches, burgers, putting me to work if I wanted to earn something. ‘How can I earn a burger, Granny?’ And she’d have me go in the back and wash dishes.”
Now Raiford, the 50-year-old head of a nonprofit combating gun violence, is running for mayor as a write-in candidate.
The Burger Barn is a memory; the building was torn down in 2017, and an empty lot sits in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification. But four decades ago, the restaurant — and Raiford’s family — became a focal point for citywide protests after a racist incident initiated by police officers.
Dubbed “the opossum incident” by some historians, it unfolded on the evening of March 12, 1981, when a group of White police officers were on patrol near the Burger Barn. They dumped dead possums outside the Black-owned restaurant for the owners and patrons to find.
While two officers later admitted to what they called a “prank,” there are still discrepancies about the number of officers involved and the number of dead possums they left at the Burger Barn.
“At the time, you know, they keep saying that it was four possums. I've seen the pictures my whole life. There were seven possums. My grandmother had seven sons,” Raiford said.
Historically, possums and raccoons were often eaten by enslaved people and later used by White hate groups in death threats against free Black people in the South. George and Geraldine Powe grew up in Missouri and Mississippi and immediately understood the implications of these carcasses at their front door.
“We have to understand throwing deceased animals at this building is a KKK-style threat. People used to throw dead cats at Black homes,” said Tanya March, a Portland architectural historian. “This is something that hate groups do, not something that you expect your police department to do.”
Raiford, 11 years old at the time, remembers her father, Vernard Raiford, on the phone with the police commissioner minutes after finding the possums, demanding an investigation. Witnesses at the time claimed that five police cars were sitting in the parking lot, but three left when they saw the dead possums.
The police department’s investigation found enough evidence to link only two officers, Craig Ward and Jim Galloway, to the event. They both admitted on the record to dumping four dead opossums in front of the Burger Barn.
Even before this incident, the Portland Police Bureau had a history of bigotry, though the two officers denied any racial animus and described it as a prank.
Black activists were skeptical of this defense. In a letter to then-Police Commissioner Charles Jordan, community leader Herb L. Cawthorne wrote that the incident “unmistakably represents the attitudes, feelings, and sense of commitment within some elements of the Portland Police Bureau toward the Black residents of Northeast Portland. The action of dumping dead animals, just for laughs, in front of a Black business establishment, symbolizes a general contempt for the Black community.”
Leaders of the Black United Front organized several demonstrations over the next few weeks demanding justice for the Powe family. Hundreds of protesters marched to City Hall with signs that read, “No possum posse” and, notoriously, a pig’s head on a stick. The demands were clear: that all officers involved be fired and that a citizen review board be established to hold the police bureau accountable.
On March 26, Jordan announced his decision to fire Ward and Galloway. Following counterprotests, the two officers were reinstated by an arbitrator.
When asked about the incident in 2005, Ward — now a retired captain at the Union County Sheriff’s Office — told the Willamette Week, “It was the biggest mistake of my life. I put the city through hell and brought discredit to the bureau. But it wasn’t done out of meanness or racial motivation. It’s my fault, and I try to make amends for it every day.”
Raiford says her grandmother wasn’t the same after the incident. Once a community socialite, Geraldine Powe would hardly leave the house. She stopped working at the restaurant and volunteering at her church. She would send Raiford to deposit checks at the bank and pick up the groceries. For Raiford, it was heartbreaking to watch her grandmother suffer the repercussions of the traumatic event.
“I remember I thought food was free at the Burger Barn because Granny used to take care of so many people,” Raiford said. “But after [the possum incident], I remember her not being there as much. I remember how she became very depressed and sad. That was a place where she built community. And so for you to come there and to terrorize community, it’s hard to get your courage back.”
Raiford later moved to Texas but returned to Portland with her daughter, Tai Carpenter, nearly 30 years after the incident on a trip that was meant to be temporary. Then, on Sept. 26, 2010, she received the news that her nephew, Andre Dupree Payton, was shot and killed in a gang-related incident. He was 19.
“That’s what changed everything in my life,” said Raiford, who stayed in Portland because of the unanswered questions surrounding her nephew’s death.
She began working closely with other community leaders, and, in 2016, she established “Don’t Shoot PDX,” a nonprofit that aims to tackle gun violence in the city.
But, like many issues in Portland and cities around the United States grappling with racism in 2020, the problem is deeper than what is reflected on the surface. To address something like gun violence, Raiford said, there needs to be an examination of systemic racism in other facets of life for Black people. Many of these policies, Raiford said, must be dismantled.
While Raiford has declared her candidacy for mayor against incumbent Ted Wheeler, the write-in candidate hasn’t spent much time campaigning. She’s busy running her nonprofit and was involved in a lawsuit that contributed to the decision to ban police use of tear gas on protesters over the summer.
Though she isn’t expecting to win the race, Raiford has watched her young supporters take steps to engage the community and fight for systemic changes. Regardless of the election results, Raiford says, she’ll continue her activism, buoyed by incidents like the possums at Burger Barn and her nephew’s death.
As a historian, March says it’s not surprising that the possum incident had ripple effects. “I think it’s interesting that people at the time thought the possum incident would be forgotten in a few weeks. I think that’s pretty systemic of the problem. These things don’t go away. They’re part of a continuing dialogue.”
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