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.”
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.
“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.”