The Danger of Sending in the Troops: The Killing of David McAtee

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests erupted across the United States. Along with the demonstrations came some looting and violence, which gave states the excuse to deploy National Guard troops and enact curfews in major cities. A beloved barbecue chef in Louisville, Kentucky was shot and killed in the doorway of his home and business by National Guard soldiers enforcing a 9 pm curfew on June 1st around 12:15 am.

Fifty-three-year-old David McAtee was not a protester, rioter, or agitator. He was tending to a grill outside his restaurant YaYa’s BBQ when police and National Guard began breaking up a crowd across the street at Dino’s Food Mart, miles away from any protests. Video shows law enforcement descending on a group gathered outside of YaYa’s and firing pepper balls at the crowd. Surveillance video from inside McAtee’s restaurant shows him inside as people rush into his doorway to escape police. The group going inside was not enough for the cops, as they fired pepper balls into McAtee’s doorway, almost hitting his niece in the head.

McAtee then raised his arm out of the door, security forces claim this is the moment when McAtee opened fire on them. A few seconds went by, McAtee peered out of the door and raised his arm again when police and National Guard unloaded 18 rounds. One bullet from a National Guard soldier’s rifle hit McAtee in the chest and killed him.

Although the video shows a gun in McAtee’s hand, there is no definitive proof that he was aiming at law enforcement. From the angle, it looks like McAtee pointed the gun in the air to fire a warning shot. Investigators claim they found shells and residue from two rounds of McAtee’s gun. No matter what McAtee did that night, the cops initiated force on the crowd and fired pepper balls directly into McAtee’s doorway.

It appears Louisville police violated their policies the night of McAtee’s death. Louisville police guidelines say officers must “avoid the use of force” when dispersing non-violent crowds. The cops must also identify themselves, give a dispersal order, and allow the people a reasonable amount of time to disperse. The day after McAtee’s killing, the assistant Louisville police chief said police policy for using pepper balls is to shoot at the ground, not into doorways and at people’s heads like the cops did at YaYa’s BBQ.

McAtee’s family attorney Steve Romines said McAtee was only acting in self-defense, and the only people who get the benefit of the doubt in similar situations are cops. “The people who get the benefit of the doubt in these stressful situations for firing a gun are always cops,” Romines told reporters. “An unarmed black kid with a toy gun, gets killed they say ‘well there was no way to know that it wasn’t a real gun.’ Then well, how is David supposed to know, one they’re cops since they didn’t announce themselves and two that those aren’t live rounds.”

After McAtee’s killing, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired the city’s police chief when he learned the two officers who fired on McAtee did not have their body cameras activated. One of the cops that opened fire on YaYa’s BBQ found herself in hot water over a Facebook post.

Officer Katie Crews posted a photo of a protester offering her flowers a few days before McAtee’s death that suggested she enjoys firing pepper balls on unarmed citizens. “She was saying and doing a lot more than ‘offering flowers’ to me … P.S. I hope the pepper balls that she got lit up with a little later on hurt … Come back and get ya some more ole girl, I’ll be on the line again tonight,” Crews wrote on the post.

Kind words for McAtee from his neighbors, friends, and family were not in short supply in the wake of his killing. Besides being loved by the community, McAtee was also liked by local cops, and even fed them for free. Christian Lewis, a Louisville cop and friend of McAtee’s, took to Facebook to express his sorrow over his friend’s death.

“Today, I had my breaking point. When I found out an OG lost his life early this morning. Mr. D was from my childhood, and someone who watched over me throughout the years. Mr. D always looked out for me, fed me and always loved that I became a Black Officer of change,” Lewis said in his heartfelt post.

McAtee’s nephew Marvin McAtee, who was at YaYa’s BBQ the night of the fatal shooting, is looking for an apology from the Louisville Police Department. Marvin has spoken with many reporters, always stressing his uncle’s generosity towards local cops. Despite that generosity, Marvin said, “No police came here and shook my hand and said ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or nothing.”

In an interview with The Courier Journal, Marvin even said police were in YaYa’s two days before the shooting and advised his uncle to get a gun because of the property damage associated with the protests. Marvin said he did not see what his uncle did that night in the doorway since he was focused on keeping people out of McAtee’s basement apartment. Marvin also stressed that his uncle would never knowingly shoot at police.

The people of Louisville are still reeling from the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT who was killed by Louisville police during a no-knock raid in March. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, was recently released from prison after being detained for firing on cops who kicked down the couple’s door and never announced themselves. The horrific 911 phone call from that night makes it crystal clear Walker had no idea the invaders who murdered his girlfriend were police. Taylor’s death, as much as George Floyd’s, fuel the demonstrations in Louisville and across the country.

The National Guard refuses to release the names of the soldiers that opened fire on McAtee, and say an investigation into the incident is ongoing. “This civil unrest mission is one of the most difficult homeland missions we are asked to support. The Soldiers and Airmen we called upon are of the highest caliber, and we believe the investigation will conclude that it was a measured response from the National Guard that night,” a Kentucky National Guard official said last week, after it was revealed a soldier’s bullet killed McAtee.

Throughout the civil unrest the US has seen in recent weeks, President Trump, his allies in Congress and in the media, have repeatedly called to send in the troops. The killing of David McAtee shows the danger of enacting curfews and calling in an army to quell civil unrest. Miles from any demonstrations, David McAtee, a black, small-business owner, was gunned down in his home for the crime of serving barbecue to his neighbors and acting to protect his family and property.

Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.