The Louisville Community Who Loved David McAtee Has Questions About His Death

Originally published on June 5, 2020 7:07 am

David McAtee, owner of Yaya's BBQ, was a beloved fixture in the Russell neighborhood of Louisville, Ky., remembered as a pillar of the community and known to give out his food free of charge, even to local police officers.

His death at the hands of law enforcement has come as a shock to those who knew him.

McAtee, a chef, was killed early Monday morning at his barbecue business when Louisville Metro Police Department officers and National Guard troops responded to reports of a crowd gathered after the city's 9 p.m. curfew near the corner of 26th Street and Broadway.

The officers were using pepper balls to disperse the crowd when a gunshot rang out. Shortly after, officers fired live ammunition, striking and killing McAtee. Officials say McAtee fired a weapon first.

In a February interview with the local photo blog West of Ninth, McAtee said he had been in the business for 30 years, but at this location for the past two. He had plans to buy the lot his business was on so he could expand.

"I always wanted to be in this spot, and when the opportunity came, I took it. If I go, somebody else will snatch it. I've already built my clientele, and I'm not trying to give up my clientele," McAtee said.

'He's basically a grandma, but he's male'

Family, friends and community leaders have questions about what took place early Monday and have doubts that events unfolded the way police describe.

"He fed everybody," McAtee's nephew, Marvin McAtee said. "Fed everybody, even the people that killed him. For free."

Speaking to NPR's Ari Shapiro in front of his uncle's business, the younger McAtee said he remembers the man he called "unc" as big-hearted, someone who enjoyed his family and known, by some, as the BBQ Man.

"Businessman first," McAtee, 28, said of his uncle. "Big on family, family-oriented. He's the one that — he's basically a grandma, but he's male — sticks the family together, you know?"

Marvin McAtee was among several family members and friends who had gathered to grieve together Tuesday at Yaya's BBQ, where the elder McAtee both worked and lived. Marvin said his uncle made it a welcoming place, with friends and family stopping by every day.

Marvin was not present when his uncle was killed early Monday morning but did not believe his uncle would have shot at the officers.

"He's gonna calm and diffuse any type of situation. Even the police, they have no type of problems with this man," he said.

The younger McAtee said he is still trying to process his new reality.

"He died just how I imagine[d] it," he said. "The only way he could die is saving somebody. And that's exactly how he died."

McAtee said he believed "unc" died trying to save his niece.

Before David McAtee opened Yaya's BBQ, he worked as a head cook at a Volunteers of America shelter and halfway house in Louisville.

Brandon Smallwood worked alongside him as a kitchen manager, and said McAtee loved caring for people almost as much as he loved cooking for them.

"All the shelter residents that were there, they were like family," Smallwood said. "He loved to feed everybody. He loved to make people happy. He was just, like, a joyful person."

Police Investigation

YouTube

McAtee's killing sparked an immediate outcry in Louisville, where daily demonstrations were already being held to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were also killed by police.

Later Monday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired the chief of police when it emerged that the LMPD officers who responded to the scene Monday morning had all failed to activate their body cameras, a violation of department policy.

Officials released two security camera videos Tuesday that police said appear to show that McAtee had a weapon and shot first, before they returned fire.

In the two videos, one interior and one exterior, roughly a dozen people can be seen rushing inside the open door at McAtee's establishment as police advance on them. McAtee is seen reaching out of the doorway. Soon afterward he clutches his chest, stumbles back inside and collapses on the floor.

Kentucky State Rep. Attica Scott said David McAtee, owner of Yaya's BBQ, was loved by the community in the West End section of Louisville. "Mr. McAtee had never been an issue for anyone. He was loved by his community. Then suddenly we get the National Guard and the state police, and he's dead."
Becky Sullivan/NPR

"I'm just going to say that we still have a lot of questions, and that this video may raise more questions than it answers," Assistant Chief of Police LaVita Chavous said Tuesday.

Marvin McAtee said he wants to know why the National Guard showed up heavily armed to respond to a call about broken curfew.

"Answer me this question: Why are National Guards even in the West End? The protests are not going on in the West End. They're downtown," Marvin said. "Then y'all are strapped with lethal rounds. What happened to the pellets, the tear gas? They had lethal rounds right here, a vacant parking lot?"

State Rep. Attica Scott, who represents the part of Louisville where McAtee was killed, said his death is attributable to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's decision to bring in the National Guard to help manage the protests in Louisville, a decision she calls "an escalation from law enforcement against our community."

"It makes me angry that police violence is being met with more police violence," Scott said. "Mr. McAtee had never been an issue for anyone. He was loved by his community. Then suddenly we get the National Guard and the state police, and he's dead."

: 6/04/20

The radio version of this story incorrectly states that police killed Breonna Taylor when she was asleep in her home. Taylor was awake and out of bed when she was killed.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since these protests began, Louisville, Ky., has been in the national spotlight. It's where police killed an EMT named Breonna Taylor while she was asleep in her home back in March. Now there's another reason people in Louisville are demonstrating. Just after midnight Sunday night, police and National Guard troops went to break up a gathering after curfew far from the protests. They shot and killed a chef named David McAtee, who was a fixture in the community. Our co-host Ari Shapiro is reporting from Louisville this week, and he begins his story at the intersection where McAtee died.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There is an American flag, bouquets of flowers, red and blue ribbons and a sign saying zero days since an innocent black person was murdered, here on the corner 26th and Broadway. This is where David McAtee ran his barbecue joint called YaYa's. He would feed anybody in the community, whether or not they could afford to pay for it.

MARVIN MCATEE: He fed everybody, even the people that killed him, for free.

SHAPIRO: Marvin McAtee is David's 28-year-old nephew. He calls them Unc (ph).

MCATEE: Where to start, where to start. First and foremost, businessman - business first. Big on family, family-oriented. He's the one that - he's basically a grandma, but he's a male. Sticks the family together, you know?

SHAPIRO: Marvin says he hasn't slept since the shooting early Monday morning. A bunch of David's relatives are gathered under a tent on the blacktop just outside YaYa's. This is where David lived and worked. Friends and family members would come by every day. Marvin says he would help clean up. There's a smell of barbecue smoke in the air. They're cooking in his memory.

MCATEE: He's going to calm and diffuse any type of situation. Like, even the police, like, they have no type of problems with this man, like, for years. They come eat with this man.

SHAPIRO: Some people only cook for a paycheck. For David McAtee, cooking was as much about taking care of people, says Brandon Smallwood. They worked together at a Volunteers of America shelter and halfway house, where McAtee was head cook.

BRANDON SMALLWOOD: All the shelter residents that were there, they were like his family. He loved to feed everybody. He loved to make people happy. He was just, like, a joyful person.

SHAPIRO: The shelter is in a neighborhood called Smoketown. Smallwood says there's a lot of strife there, and there was one incident he'll never forget.

SMALLWOOD: Somebody got shot in the neighborhood one day, like, about a block from us. And he selflessly ran out there to comfort the guy while he bled out on the street.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of questions about what happened in the minutes leading up to McAtee's death. Police say they returned fire after someone shot at them. At a press conference on Monday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer revealed that none of the officers had turned on their body cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG FISCHER: As I learned about some of the details about what happened last night, I learned that the body cameras of the officers were not activated. This type of institutional failure will not be tolerated.

SHAPIRO: So he fired police Chief Steve Conrad, who was already set to retire in a month and will still receive his full pension. Then yesterday, police released two security camera videos, and it's tough to tell what's going on in them. You see lots of people crowding into the small barbecue shack as police advance. It's very chaotic. Police say McAtee leaned out the door and fired a gun. But the footage isn't clear. Yesterday, assistant chief of police LaVita Chavous said this at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVITA CHAVOUS: I'm just going to say that we still have a lot of questions, and this video may raise more questions then it answers.

SHAPIRO: The Louisville police declined our interview request. Marvin McAtee wasn't there when his uncle was shot. He told us he's watched the videos hundreds of times, and he doesn't buy the police story. And whatever happened, he says, his uncle didn't deserve to die. He wants to know why the National Guard showed up heavily armed at that corner on 26th and Broadway far from where protests were happening.

MCATEE: Like, ask me this question. Why are National Guards even in the west end? The protests are not going on in the west end. They're downtown. And then you all are strapped with lethal rounds. What happened to the pellets, the tear gas? They had all - they had lethal rounds right here, a vacant parking lot.

SHAPIRO: Adding to the grief, David McAtee's body wasn't removed for more than 12 hours while police investigated. People stood in the street shouting, begging, praying to treat the man with some respect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: God, I pray that you will comfort this mother and these family members.

SHAPIRO: State Representative Attica Scott is the only African American woman in the Kentucky state legislature, and she represents this part of Louisville.

ATTICA SCOTT: This is my district. Where Mr. McAtee was murdered is my district. 26th and Broadway, I can walk here from my house. People hang out at that spot all the time, all night. They're having a good time - having a good time.

SHAPIRO: She says when Kentucky's governor called in the National Guard to manage the Louisville protests, it was inevitable that something like this would happen.

SCOTT: It makes me angry that police violence is being met with more police violence. Mr. McAtee had never been an issue for anyone. He was loved by his community. And then suddenly we get the National Guard and the state police, and he's dead. So we can use a video to make excuses all we want to. But someone who was loved by their community is still dead - still. And we cannot turn our eyes away from the fact that that occurred because of this escalation from law enforcement against our community.

SHAPIRO: The governor has ordered a federal investigation into David McAtee's death. His family says they'll keep YaYa's Barbeque going as a way of remembering the man who always fed this Louisville neighborhood.

KELLY: That's Ari Shapiro, our co-host reporting this week from Louisville, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.