The story has been updated.
The man known as “YaYa” was in negotiations to buy the property at the corner of 26th and Broadway in Louisville’s West End so he could build a proper space for his thriving barbecue business. But as Sunday night turned into Monday morning and the usual weekend crowd stayed past the city’s 9 p.m. curfew, David McAtee’s dream died when he did. The founder and namesake of YaYa’s BBQ was killed in an exchange of gunfire following a display of law enforcement power that one city council member said demonstrates how police treat black communities differently than white ones.
The folks who gathered at the intersection were not protesters, said David James, president of the Louisville Metro Council. James, who is African American, represents the district in which McAtee conducted business, had known McAtee, 53, for more than a decade and had hired him occasionally to cater events. James said the people in the streets last weekend were the same ones there every weekend: West Louisville locals who would move between YaYa’s BBQ, Dino’s Food Mart and a gas station across Broadway. These were partyers, James said, not people protesting George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
But that’s not how the Kentucky National Guard and Louisville Metro Police treated them when they rolled up on the crowd, James said.
“Maybe four-and-a-half seconds, five seconds after they get out of that truck, they’re clearing that lot using pepper-ball guns,” James said about the scene early Monday. “There was no walking up to people and saying: ‘Hey, man, there’s a curfew, and we’re trying to clear the lot and keep everybody safe. We’re just trying to get everybody to clear out.’ That didn’t happen.”
“Someone still has to explain to me why we chose to do that,” James added. “It’s as if they rolled up to a point in Iraq and they were ready to rock-and-roll.”
The Louisville Metro Police Department did not immediately respond to a call for comment. Members of McAtee’s family also did not return multiple calls for comment.
James knows a few things about policing. He spent decades in law enforcement before he became a politician. He worked as a patrolman, detective and SWAT team member for the police department and for several years was commissioner of the Department of Criminal Investigations, the investigative arm of the Kentucky attorney general’s office. James questions the tactics used by the Kentucky National Guard and Louisville police at 26th Street and Broadway, including whether they would have used the same approach in a part of town where the population tilts white.
“I have a belief that if the same scenario — people hanging out and having a good time on the east end of town — I’d think that officers would have probably walked up and said: ‘Hey, we have a curfew. I need you to shut this down,’” James said. “I would hope they wouldn’t just roll out of the truck and start blasting away with pepper balls and yelling at people about curfew. To me that just seems not a good situation.”
Former law enforcement colleagues have been contacting James since McAtee’s death, incredulous at the idea that the man who has fed police free for years would suddenly open fire on them. But Louisville police released silent surveillance footage Tuesday that appears to show McAtee firing a gun from the doorway of his barbecue shack.
“He was a friend of law enforcement,” James said. “I had so many law enforcement people call me about that since this has happened and said: ‘I just can’t believe that he would be shooting at police. It blows my mind that that would happen.’”
McAtee wasn’t just a friend of law enforcement. He was a friend to seemingly everyone in the community. John D. Marshall is the chief equity officer for Jefferson County Public Schools, and part of his job is to help homeless and hungry students in the district. Marshall said he met McAtee at a public event, and the barbecue man said if there was anything he could do to help students to just let him know.
“About a month or so passed, and I remembered it and ran into some families that had been completely starving,” Marshall told The Washington Post. “We went over there, and he didn’t miss a beat. He fed them in abundance. No guilt, no questions.”
James had similar stories about McAtee and his generosity toward those in the West End.
“Let’s just hypothetically say a meal would cost $10,” James said, “and you told him that you only had $5. He’s going to give it to you for $5.” Or if McAtee recognized you were “having a hard time, he’s not going to charge you anything. He just wants you to be fed. He was just a really good guy.”
McAtee’s community spirit — and his exceptional barbecue, people say — were why YaYa’s attracted large crowds every weekend, despite the fact the business had no apparent website, no social media presence, no Yelp page and no reviews from local critics. It was the cultural hub of West Louisville, James said, a place where locals would relax and enjoy a plate of McAtee’s “sweet and sassy” barbecue. It didn’t need the usual promotional tools to be popular. It just was.
“He just had the power of his food and his personality,” James said.
Brenda Lee Brookins has been a friend of the McAtee family her entire life, all 58 years. Her mother and McAtee’s mother grew up together. Brookins said it was always David McAtee’s goal to own his own restaurant. He went to cooking school, she said, but she wasn’t sure if he graduated. He toiled in commercial kitchens for years, much of the time in Atlanta, but moved back to Louisville about a decade ago. He set up a grill at the corner of 26th Street and Broadway before he even had a building from which to prep, said Brookins. He saved enough money to rent the small structure near the corner. He was working toward building his own place.
“He was patiently and strategically trying to go higher and higher to achieve his ultimate goal of having a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” Brookins told The Post.
The popularity of YaYa’s in general, and McAtee in particular, has made it difficult for people to process the violent way in which he died. The shooting happened not just in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis but also two months after Louisville officers fatally shot a black resident, Breonna Taylor, in her apartment. leading to protests over police violence. After learning officers involved in McAtee’s shooting had not activated their body cameras, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D) fired Police Chief Steve Conrad on Monday, hours after McAtee’s death.
James said law enforcement officers put McAtee in a “bad situation” when they fired pepper balls from the start. Once people began to retreat inside McAtee’s small building off 26th Street, the police and National Guard continued to shoot pepper balls at them, James said. You can see it in the video that police released, he pointed out. One pepper ball appears to hit and explode on contact with McAtee’s niece.
“I just feel like the way the whole thing was approached caused that situation,” James said. “I’m not making excuses for David’s behavior, and he’s the only one that can tell us what was going through his mind, and he’s not here. And the police didn’t have their body cameras on.”
“What if I were him? How would I react if I had just saw my niece get shot by something? And I just got shot by something?” James continued. “Would I try to defend myself? There are no police cars’ red and blue lights going. It’s dark outside. I think it’s possible. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t what they’re yelling. I don’t know if they’re saying, ‘Drop the gun.’ I don’t know any of that stuff.”
McAtee’s mother, Odessa Riley, is still trying to make sense of it all, said Brookins, the family friend. David is the fifth child she will have buried. One son died of cancer, two other sons died in non-police shootings and her daughter died in January from a heart ailment, Brookins said. Riley, 81, has been asking for clarification about David’s killing.
“She can’t wrap her head around how do you go from grilling — because he was actually preparing a plate for a customer — to shooting. It’s not in his character,” Brookins said. “Of course, he’s in a neighborhood where he knows he has to have protection. Everybody knew he always had a gun, but he’d been at the same location for almost three years. He never fired a gun, never had to pull a gun. He only had it for protection. So what happened that night that would make him fire a gun?”
In the days since his death, friends, family and well-wishers have stopped by YaYa’s to place flowers on the chain-link fence next to the business or hang signs, such as the one that reads “We can’t breathe,” a reference to some of the last words from Floyd’s mouth as a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee against his neck. There is a desire to remember McAtee for his years of generosity, not for the ugly moment of his death.
Edward Lee, a chef, restaurateur and humanitarian in Louisville and elsewhere, wants to create an initiative to continue McAtee’s work to feed the hungry in the community.
“McAtee was known for giving out free food to his community. He had such a big heart,” Lee said in a text message. “We plan on continuing his mission of caring for his community through the gift of food. We hope to honor his name and his legacy through our efforts.”
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