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Downtown Birmingham Riots: 1 year later

Published: Jun. 1, 2021 at 6:03 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Monday marked one year since chaos erupted in downtown Birmingham following the death of George Floyd.

WBRC sat down with the man accused of starting the riot and looks back at that night’s impact.

May 31, 2020, downtown Birmingham, the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement, once again cradled the demand for equality, but this time was different.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages were left behind, and Comedian Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson was blamed for starting the riot.

Earlier that day, thousands gathered in Kelly Ingram Park for the “World is Watching” rally, which remained peaceful.

But during a speech, Johnson said, “We need to tear something down tonight. They need to see Birmingham.”

Johnson was referring to the Confederate monument located at the south entrance of the park.

As darkness fell, a growing crowd descended on Linn Park, focused on taking down the obelisk erected there 115 years ago.  But the attempt to remove the Confederate monument was futile, and the focus soon shifted downtown.

Rioters smashed, vandalized and burned whatever they could, including the American flag.

One year later, Johnson sat down with WBRC to provide answers for what happened one year ago.

“Multiple times I told these people, ‘Do not tear up our city,’” Johnson said.

He said despite his pleas to the crowd to focus on the monument and not downtown, Johnson was charged with inciting a riot.

“Other individuals showed up with different intentions other than mine,” he said. “I’m not just talking about the people that threw rocks, but people who are officials in the city, they showed up with different intentions, and that’s why things went the way they went.”

Seeing what was left behind was difficult for Johnson.

“It hurt more than anything,” Johnson said.

That same hurt was felt by Dr. Juanakee Adams, owner of Adams Eye Care, when she got a call around 1 a.m. that her practice had been hit.

Adams is the first Black female Optometrist in the state of Alabama. She said all of her years of overcoming adversity as a woman of color seemed miniscule compared to the pain she felt when she saw her business.

“Four windows [were] broken, and the door [was] broken. It was overwhelming,” Adams said.

Adams said all her high-end frames were stolen.

She also noted two other businesses in the Fifth Avenue Square complex were targeted, both owned by Black doctors. One of the practices shut down soon after.

Although Adams celebrated 40 years of practicing in 2020, the devastation almost pushed her to give up.

“I was thinking about retiring, but what this has done, it has rekindled my fire,” Adams exclaimed.

Since the riot, Adams has published two children’s books with a third set to be released soon. She’s also upgraded equipment and started a mentorship program to encourage diversity in optometry.

Adams said the outpouring of love from the community after the riot helped her move forward.

“I looked out that door and it was so many people from near and far,” Adams recalled.

Acts of kindness, like that of comedian Roy Wood Junior, who helped clean up the damage, and Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson, who she said donated money.

“When you have a rainbow, you’re going to have to have some rain. And I saw the civil unrest as the rain, but the outpouring and rededication of my patients, the assistance of my friends and family, I saw that as the rainbow,” Adams said.

Seeing the positive outcome brought Johnson, who said he donated tens of thousands of dollars to local businesses, to tears.

“You didn’t have to do that to me,” Johnson teared. “I love Dr. Adams so much.”

But trouble continued to follow Johnson, who said he became a target of racist taunts and threats. He also still faced charges of inciting a riot.

“They eventually dropped the charges,” Johnson added.

Johnson said knowing people like Adams and other businesses were able to recover helped him move forward as well.

“Every so often we get out in the community, and we have cleanup days. I think May 31, 2020 was a cleanup day. There are still a few statues standing, and if you read that one over there, it says, ‘Remember The Maine’. I think the park looks really pretty now without that statue standing there, and hopefully, because of the efforts of last year, people will ‘Remember the Maine,’” Johnson chuckled.

Johnson planned to continue the fight for equality in Birmingham as well as mentor youth.

In part two of this special report, Johnson weighed in on the removal of the monument.

We also spoke with Mayor Randall Woodfin and Attorney General Steve Marshall about the cost and the domino effect its removal had on the state of Alabama.

That report airs Wednesday night (6/2/2021).

Copyright 2021 WBRC. All rights reserved.