Nobody was protesting when the police and the Kentucky National Guard rolled up to 26th Street and Broadway in Louisville at 12:10 a.m. Monday.
The world had been upended by a pandemic and the whole nation was being rocked by protests against police brutality, but people had gathered at this corner because 53-year-old David “YaYa” McAtee was cooking his world-class barbecue at an outdoor stand. He had been doing so every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night for two years.
“I have always been blessed with the skills to cook,” McAtee told a local blog in February. “I didn’t need anything else. People have to eat every single day, and all I need is my skills.”
He said that his culinary abilities had stayed with him through rough stretches of his life, during which he had been shot and robbed. And he had kept thinking about the corner that was the place to establish himself.
“I always wanted to be in this spot, and when the opportunity came, I took it,” McAtee told the blog. “I’ve already built my clientele… I’m here for a reason. Eventually, I’m going to buy this lot and build. I gotta start somewhere, and this is where I’m going to start. It might take another year or two to get to where I’m going, but I’m going to get there.”
And the success of YaYa’s barbecue seemed assured not just because of the food, but also because of his generosity of spirit. He was welcoming and warm. A person who was hungry but short of the price of a meal needed only to step up to the stand and ask.
“Anybody wanted something, he gave it to them,” his mother, Odessa Riley, told The Daily Beast. “He extended his good will to those who are sworn to be our protectors.
“He fed the police for free,” she said.
That did not prevent the police from arriving with the National Guard and ordering McAtee’s patrons to disperse for being out after a 9 p.m. weekend curfew.
"It looked like something out of a movie,” a customer named Kris Smith told a local reporter. “It looked like a freaking war zone... This is really what it comes to? We're just having drinks, chilling, and the National Guard pulls up with machine guns?... Never thought I would experience that here in America.”
A cellphone video captured a loud sound that may or may not have been a gunshot. There was a nine-second pause, a considerable time in that circumstance. Then came a dozen shots.
For the previous four nights, people in Louisville had been protesting a police killing there in March as well as last week’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Louisville narcotics detectives had fatally wounded a 26-year-old African-American off-duty EMT named Breonna Taylor, bursting through her front door on a no-knock search warrant. Taylor was in bed at the time. She was shot eight times. No drugs were found.
Now, police officers and guard members had shot an African-American chef at the street corner stand where he was realizing his dream, doing well while doing good.
One of several family members who were at the scene informed Riley at home that McAtee had been shot and killed. She had already lost four of her nine children over the years. Her youngest daughter had died suddenly on Jan. 22.
“That is my baby girl,” she said.
McAtee had been her youngest son.
“Now I’ve lost my baby boy. They come along and they killed my son.”
She said of McAtee: “He was just a good son. He treated everybody right. He was just a good person.”
Chief Steve Conrad of the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) made a pre-dawn statement. He began by saying the city had been through a long four days of protests.
“Our officers were working very hard to keep people safe and protect property,” he went on. “While doing that, we’ve had officers shot at and assaulted. I think it’s very, very clear that many people do not trust the police. That is an issue that we’re going to have to work on and work through for a long time.”
He meanwhile had another fatal shooting to explain.
“Tonight’s protests once again turned from peaceful to destructive,” he said. “We moved quickly to disperse the crowds. At around 12:15 a.m. this morning, LMPD and National Guard units were dispatched to… 26th and Broadway, to clear a large crowd in the parking lot. Officers and soldiers began to clear the lot, and at some point were shot at. Both LMPD and National Guard members returned fire. We have one man dead at the scene.”
Anybody who did not know McAtee and the neighborhood might have assumed from the statement that the dead man had been party to the protests where officers had been assaulted and shot at.
“We have several persons of interest we are interviewing now,” the chief continued. “We are collecting video from the scene [that] we expect to release sometime later today.”
But it turned out that the officers’ body cameras had not been activated. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer responded by firing Conrad. The police did not reply to a query regarding who those persons of interest might be. The FBI, the Kentucky State Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will reportedly investigate the killing.
On a corner where a crowd had come to enjoy great food and good company the night before, several hundred people gathered to protest this latest killing. They really were demonstrating.
But they were doing it in their own way, one befitting a good son. A pastor led Riley and the rest of the family in prayer. His quiet words were accompanied by sobs.
“God, I pray for every protester out there that they will fulfill this mother’s wishes and protest in peace.”
Those in the crowd did exactly that. They stood mute and held their right hands raised in a fist as a lone woman sang “Amazing Grace.” The solemn scene affirmed something the mother had said earlier.
“He was a pillar of the community.”