Louisville barbecue vendor killed by police was ‘like a part of your family’

While the community mourns, state and federal officials continue to investigate the killing of David McAtee.
David McAtee

David McAtee was the kind of guy who, if you said you only had $5 to pay for a $10 plate of barbecue, would give you the food for free, a longtime friend said.

The Louisville barbecue vendor, known to the community as “YaYa,” regularly gave out food to homeless people as well as police from his popular corner barbecue stand, said David James, president of the Louisville Metro Council, who was also McAtee’s friend for more than a decade.

McAtee, 53, who is black, was killed early this week outside his YaYa’s BBQ stand on Louisville’s west side, in what city officials are describing as an exchange of gunfire involving the city’s police as well as members of the Kentucky National Guard.

“He was a great guy,” James said. “He loved cooking. We would tell you it was the best barbecue in town. He loved everybody in the neighborhood. He was like a part of your family, like your extended family.”

McAtee’s barbecue stand was on a corner near a gas station food mart, and people would often move between the stores, talking, listening to music, eating and playing chess, he said. At the time of the shooting, there was not a protest going on in the area, though people gathered were violating the city’s curfew, James said.

Louisville and cities around the country have seen protests in recent days, some of which turned violent, in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis at the end of May. Before McAtee’s killing, tensions had been high in Louisville following the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency room technician. Taylor was killed on March 13, after a brief confrontation when police issued a search warrant to enter her apartment. She was struck at least eight times by police bullets.

Early this week, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired Police Chief Steven Conrad after learning that officers involved in McAtee’s killing had not turned on their body cameras.

“We are saddened and distressed at Mr. McAtee’s death,” Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “I did not know him personally, but understand he was a great neighbor and friend to his community.”

Jecorey Arthur, a professor at Simmons College of Kentucky who lives in the same neighborhood as YaYa's BBQ and is running for city council there, used to frequent McAtee's stand, even though he is vegetarian. 

"I've made a point to support black businesses," says Arthur, who would give the barbecue away to homeless people in the area. "We live in an area of high poverty, high crime and high food scarcity. He was one of the few restaurant owners who helped serve to our community and it was so essential to support his business because we don't get start-up capital that so many white businesses have gotten."

McAtee had been cooking barbecue for about 30 years and had been in this location for about four years, according to an interview he gave to the neighborhood blog West of Ninth. 

"Eventually, I'm going to buy this lot and build," he said in the interview. "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."

What happened in the final moments of McAtee’s life is unclear and is being investigated by federal and state authorities.

On the night of the shooting, the police and National Guard arrived at McAtee’s intersection after midnight. The city, like many around the country, had a 9 p.m. curfew.

Officers began firing pepper balls into the crowd. Video from the night, released by Kentucky’s governor, as well as bystander video analyzed by The New York Times, shows diners from the BBQ stand rushing to take shelter amid the firing. Footage shows McAtee in a red shirt, with a gun holstered on his hip, peer outside from a door frame, raising his arm. Two police officers and two National Guard members fired off about 18 rounds. McAtee was killed by a single gunshot to the chest.

“We were already in the middle of a police shooting incident,” James said. “And then this happened. And we were already going through COVID. It’s just a very defeating situation. I was over there on Monday and people were just standing in the street, crying. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of questions.”

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