© 2022 Louisville Public Media

Public Files:
89.3 WFPL · 90.5 WUOL-FM · 91.9 WFPK

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact info@lpm.org or call 502-814-6500
89.3 WFPL News | 90.5 WUOL Classical 91.9 WFPK Music | KyCIR Investigations
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Residents, Advocates Welcome National Guard's Reduction, Hope For Deescalation

DSC07681
A National Guard Humvee at a protest over police brutality in downtown Louisville on May 30, 2020.

Norman Martin doesn’t know what happened in the moments before Louisville police and Kentucky National Guard members shot and killed David McAtee at his barbecue restaurant Monday morning.

But he believes the violence could have been avoided entirely if the National Guard hadn’t been there in the first place.

“You send down the National Guard down here, which are trained killers,” said Martin, a lifelong Louisville resident who frequented McAtee’s restaurant. “And when they heard gunshots — if there were gunshots, nobody’s been able to substantiate that — they fired in that direction.”

Gov. Andy Beshear activated the National Guard on Saturday, after seven people were wounded by gunfire the first night of protests and significant property damage was done to downtown Louisville on Friday. More than 17,000 National Guard troops have been activated in 23 states as similar protests have spread.

By Tuesday afternoon, on the sixth day of protests, Gov. Andy Beshear announced the National Guard will reduce its presence in Louisville, based on the recommendation of Brigadier General Hal Lamberton, Adjutant General of the Kentucky National Guard. He declined to say how many guard members would still be in town because of strategic reasons. Reporters in the West End, downtown and the Highlands on Tuesday evening saw almost no National Guard members in the field as of 10 p.m.

“I believe that the Guard has been necessary... I called them in solely to try to ensure that people are safe,” Beshear said.

But civil liberties advocates and Louisvillians said the National Guard’s presence likely escalated tensions and, ultimately, violence.

Martin figures most of the National Guard members stationed in Louisville this weekend had never even been to the West End before, and they don’t understand it.

He said he knew McAtee to be a peaceful man, and he knows some Louisville police officers personally. In fact, he called to check up on one on Monday after the death of McAtee.

“The ones that I know personally, they are crying and feeling the grief and pain just like we are,” Martin said. “Those National Guardsmen that were down here, they are not in this community. They don’t know nothing.

“If they were a true person in this community, they’d know this guy sits on this corner, they know the audience sits on this corner, and nobody bothers nobody.”

Aaron Tucek, a legal fellow at the ACLU of Kentucky, was the co-author of a report by the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations entitled Defending Dissent: Toward State Practices That Protect and Promote the Rights to Protest. The report examined how governments can protect the right to protest and free speech. Tucek said that, in the course of that research, they heard a consistent refrain: “uniformed soldiers are almost never beneficial to protest responses.”

“The National Guard was sent in with a mission to maintain peace,” Tucek said. “And as several days passed since they’ve come here, that does not seem to be what has happened. After they’ve arrived there’s been more violence, and in fact were present when a man was killed.”

Tucek said the situations from this past weekend that have gone well were situations where authorities showed restraint.

“If you look at what the National Guard does, they are an auxiliary to the United States Armed Forces,” he said. “They travel around the world and they’ve seen combat, and that is primarily the role that is imagined for them.” 

But in protest situations, he said, it’s restraint that’s really helpful.

One of the units in town is from the 138th Field Artillery of Lexington, which is currently assigned to the National Guard Reaction Force, known as the NGRF. 

Every National Guard force assigns a unit to NGRF duty for year-long missions. They’re trained to handle “rapid response capability focused on incidents requiring law enforcement or security support,” according to a fact sheet provided by the Kentucky National Guard. The NGRF receives specialized training in civil disturbance control, securing locations and personnel and setting up roadblocks or checkpoints.

Tucek said that training could be unproductive when dealing with protests like the ones in Louisville. 

“If all that training is looking at how to use violence in response to crowds, that is not going into the kind of de-escalation training or non-escalation training or dialogue and engagement that can actually allow protests to go very smoothly,” Tucek said. “I’ve seen no indication that these Kentucky National Guard troops or really National Guard troops across the country have had that sort of specialized training.”

The 138th Field Artillery unit’s NGRF assignment was set to end on Monday, but Maj. Stephen Martin, the director of the Kentucky National Guard’s Public Affairs Office, said they will see the current mission in Louisville through.

On Monday evening, President Donald Trump called for military action to quell the protests. Shortly after those comments and in the wake of the shooting, Louisvillians saw an unfamiliar sight: Black Hawk helicopters flew into Louisville and landed at Bowman Field. 

In Washington, D.C. that same evening, the helicopters flew low over protesters, prompting the District of Columbia National Guard to investigate.But city and state officials said the helicopters were not connected to the Guard’s enforcement, though they do have UH-60 Blackhawks.

Maj. Martin said the helicopters were not the Guard’s; Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said they were from the Fort Knox Aviation Group and were performing “a routine training landing mission.” She referred further questions to Fort Knox, and a public affairs officer didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Maj. Martin said the NGRF is equipped with crowd control equipment similar to pepper balls and teargas used by the Louisville Metro Police Department. Such equipment includes shields, batons, crowd dispersal pellets and cartridges, flashbangs and stingballs.

When the National Guard accompanied LMPD to the corner of 26th and Broadway, however, the confrontation ended in a hail of real bullets that left David McAtee dead. 

LMPD and city officials released silent surveillance footage on Tuesday that they say appears to show McAtee fires first, and the National Guard and police officers returned fire. But officials have acknowledged the video is far from conclusive. The officers who fired their weapons didn’t activate their body cameras, in violation of LMPD policy.

Kentucky executive cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown said on Tuesday that a total of 18 rounds were fired between the National Guard, carrying CAR-15 rifles, and the Louisville police, but it appears McAtee was killed by a single bullet to the chest.

Tucek of the ACLU said there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding why National Guard soldiers were in the West End when protests were in another part of the city. City officials said they were enforcing the curfew by breaking up the large gathering at the intersection.

U.S. Senate Candidate and State Rep. Charles Booker also questioned why the National Guard was on the scene in the first place. “The decision to send an armed military force into the West End of Louisville is a clear escalation of an already tense situation,” Booker said in a statement. “I have not heard a reasonable explanation for why the National Guard was deployed to 26th and Broadway, or how their presence was intended to make our city any safer.”

Beshear said at Tuesday’s press conference that, after McAtee was killed, the National Guard had been instructed to stay out of the West End. But when a fire broke out on the roof of Dino’s Food Mart, across the street from Yaya’s BBQ shop where he was killed, a group of National Guard members assigned to assist the fire department arrived on the scene. 

The National Guard left before the fire trucks and other law enforcement, but Beshear said the guard should not have been there. “We made sure we rectified that,” Beshear said.

Kate Howard contributed to this report.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.