Sports

Alabama Football Fans Loved His Videos. Then He Called for a Confederate Statue to Come Down.

Construction workers with large machinery examine a graffiti-covered white obelisk.
Workers remove a Confederate monument at Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 1. Marvin Gentry–USA Today Network

Jermaine “FunnyMaine” Johnson is a comedian known for his popular videos reacting to college football games from the perspective of an Alabama superfan. These videos typically get millions of views, have won him a loyal following in the most college football–obsessed place in the country, and turned him into a state celebrity. But his public profile took a sudden turn in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests against police brutality.

On May 31, Johnson, a resident of Birmingham, delivered a speech to a crowd of peaceful protesters calling for an end to police violence and some more immediate action:

What I’m not telling you to do is walk to Linn Park. I’m not telling you to walk to Linn Park after this rally. I’m not telling you to tear something down in Linn Park.

That’s what I’m not telling you to do. I’m not telling you that I’m going to be over there after this rally. That’s what I’m not telling you to do because the law says I can’t tell you to do that.

After Johnson’s speech, the crowd attempted to remove a 115-year-old Confederate Soldiers & Sailors monument from the park. The city government sprang into action and removed the statue the next day, in violation of the state’s 2017 “memorial preservation” law. That evening, some violent unrest in the city resulted in fires and damaged buildings. On June 1, a warrant was put out for Johnson’s arrest on charges of inciting a riot, to general outrage from racial justice advocates. On Wednesday, the charges against Johnson were dropped.

Slate spoke with Johnson on Thursday about his journey from sports comedy to activism, the response he received from his once-loyal audience, and what he thinks about the sport he loves—and its often white, conservative fans—in one of the most racially polarized parts of the country. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: Can you describe your work for those who aren’t diehard Crimson Tide fans?

Jermaine Johnson: I’ve been a comedian for the past 15 years. I served as a radio host for a hip-hop station here in Birmingham for about seven years. And my audience grew in 2016 when I started these “How Bama Fans” videos. We average about 2 million viewers per week during the fall season, and with the success of those videos, I got a large Republican, sometimes far-right, following. The majority are very Trump-loving. So for years, I’ve had to maneuver entertaining my Black, young audience and entertaining this older, conservative audience.

How did you manage that?

By making it Southern. Just talking about what I know of the things that we experience here in the South. And it worked for four years, but it limited my material because everything was based around, you know, the friendly, neighborly issues. It wasn’t dealing with cultural issues that can be very polarizing here. I didn’t do politics. I didn’t do social issues. The one time that I did decide to step into that realm, I lost tens of thousands of followers.

You’re talking about the speech you gave on May 31?

I told the crowd to take a stand against the Confederate monument that has been sitting in Birmingham for 115 years—even though Birmingham was not even founded until six years after the Civil War ended. I surmise that that statue was put up in cities like Birmingham as a reminder to minorities to stay in your place.

How did you end up there, giving that speech?

I attended a rally at the same park the day before. There was a great crowd, it was a beautiful thing, but I walked away feeling empty. I felt like there was no real action being taken. The next day, I came back. I was scheduled to speak about the census on behalf of the city. But when I got up there, I chose not to talk about the census.

Why did you decide to give a speech about the statue?

I just understood that these opportunities don’t come around often. Here you have a crowd that was majority-white, holding signs and in that park in the name of Black lives. My thinking was, let me see how much y’all really care about Black lives. Because I’m tired of faking it. I feel like here in the South, in Alabama, we smile in each other’s faces every day. We say we love the same Jesus, but we don’t treat each other according to that word. I just figured we needed to do something to show unity about having a common enemy. And the enemy was not a statue, per se. It was the ideology behind that statue.

Was there a moment you realized you were saying something that would blow up?

Not until I started doing it. I did not write that—it was all free style. [When I was] done with the speech, I was like, “Whoa, that didn’t really happen.” You could kind of gauge it from the audience reaction—there were a lot of nods, a lot of “right on” or “amen.” There was a little bit of nervousness, honestly. I knew the speech was risky. But they were apparently motivated by my speech and as convicted as I was.

What happened after you gave the speech?

During my speech, I told them to meet me at Linn Park, and when that time came, I was shocked when they came out in strong numbers. It was an out-of-body experience. I had to get another impromptu speech ready. I let them know: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never taken down a statue in my life. But if y’all feel like me, let’s put our hands together, and we can come up with something.” I don’t know where the young people got their tools and ropes and trucks from, but they did. They started chipping away at the monument, and I felt like they were chipping away at the ideology.

It turned into a watch party. For the next three hours, there were tens of thousands of people across the country watching us, live, trying to get the statue down. And people were sending in tips. There’s one tip that went viral from an [Egyptology] professor. People were really rooting for us to get it down. The mayor came in at the end, along with the police chief and others, and he asked for a little time to get it done. We negotiated 24 hours for him to do it, and he kept his word. But I think the tens of thousands of people watching us said, “Man, we’ve got some statues in our city too.”

Many people blamed you for encouraging the looting and vandalism that happened in Birmingham that night. Did you see how that started?

We stayed out a little while longer. It became like a little fellowship. And then I remember getting on the megaphone, saying: “Hey, the mayor wants 24 hours, and we’re going to give him that. But if he doesn’t come through, I’ll see y’all back, Tuesday at noon.” We walked away, and a totally different group of people—agitators, looters, whatever—[came in].

They really killed the momentum and brotherhood and sisterhood we developed that night. They started throwing rocks into windows, and it wasn’t anything we stood for. We were out there peacefully for hours.

When did you start getting the negative feedback?

It was instant. They were saying I encouraged these people to come out and tear up the city, when there’s video evidence of me saying do not do that.

I think the people who sympathize with the Confederacy just needed a villain, and I was the perfect person for them to be angry with. The majority of it was that conservative audience—people across social media unfollowed me en masse, and they were, in the comments, making me the face of riots. They were encouraging other people to never support me again. Even city officials, when asked, didn’t say that I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was, “Well, we’ve got to investigate.”

How did you find out about the warrant for your arrest?

People were texting me. I didn’t think it was true. We made a call to the municipal court and found out there actually was a warrant. So I immediately turned myself in and paid whatever I needed to pay and got my lawyer.

How did it feel when you turned yourself in?

It felt like a slap in the face. I didn’t fully understand it. They were more than happy to make me the villain. You had city officials who were making their media rounds and taking credit for bringing the statue down. But I’m like, “OK, if you guys were a part of it, we should have been on the same team.” It should have been a victory for the people.

You’re known in Alabama for football videos. Have your feelings about the sport and its fans changed at all because of this experience?

For a minute, it did. I’m familiar with Southern college football culture. There’s always been some underlying covert and overt racism around it. At the end of the day, it’s something that I’ve enjoyed my entire life, and the majority of the players are young Black males, so I would continue to support them. It’s not a perfect environment, but I don’t think it has to be for me to continue enjoying it.

A lot of white college football fans like to think of the sport as independent of issues of race. What do you think about that?

I think when you’re in that stadium, most times, it’s pleasant. We’re all rooting for the same team, the same cause. It can be unifying. But we only play football one day out of the week. So if we’re playing on that one day, and then we’re treating each other in a different way the rest of the days, we need to address the behavior on those six days.

Look at the recent incidents with Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State or Dabo Swinney at Clemson, wearing that shirt. Black people in the South, we’ve always felt like we could never trust a lot of these white institutions and the people that lead them because their history doesn’t give us a reason to trust them. In the SEC, Black players weren’t even allowed to play until like 50 years ago. There’s a lot of people who were alive when football in the South was segregated.

So what do you want the football fans who watch your videos to know?

I still love this state. I still love them as people. I think a lot of people who believe in certain ideologies have been hoodwinked and bamboozled by terrible, hateful marketing over the years. I think once they accept the truth about what the Confederacy was, what racism is, and what we’re dealing with in this country, they will come back to me and we’ll have a different conversation.

Do you think this episode will change how you do your comedy going forward?

A little bit. I think now it’s a blessing, because I definitely have a chance to be more open in my comedy. I’ve always said that every great comedian has three phases: joke-teller, then storyteller, then truth-teller. I’m transitioning from storyteller to truth-teller.

So you’re not worried about losing your audience?

No, not really. The more I reflect on it, the people who are sympathizers of the Confederacy, and people who may share that ideology—I want them as far away from me as possible until there’s a change of heart. It’s been challenging. But I think now I’m at a point where I’ve just drawn the line in the sand and decided that I’m going to be me, regardless of who may be pushed away. I’ve got to tell my truth, and I’ve got to live in it, and I’m willing to do that.

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