Donald Trump has refused to back down from recent comments that “thousands and thousands” of people in New Jersey (“where you have large Arab populations”) cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, despite this claim having been thoroughly, completely, utterly debunked.
"It was on television,” the Republican presidential frontrunner told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday (Nov. 22). “I saw it. ... It was well covered at the time, George.”
On Monday (Nov. 23), Trump went so far as to demand an apology via Twitter, quoting a 2001 article from the Washington Post and writing, "Many people have tweeted that I am right!"
The Post responded to the article in Trump’s tweet by reminding him that there was never any proof of such activities, and that “a number of people” actually isn’t the same thing as “thousands and thousands” of jubilant Muslims.
But as the publication points out in a separate piece, Trump’s comments (as well as the coverage he mentions) are thematically linked to a persistent strain of conspiracy theories about Arab and Muslim Americans celebrating 9/11. Some of these cite as evidence a column from controversial anti-Muslim commentator Debbie Schlussel, which “makes a reference to an MTV broadcast of protests and riots in Paterson, N.J.” -- a claim, the Post continues, that “has never been authenticated.”
We dug up the footage in question, and the truth is that these protests and riots never happened -- at least not in the manner depicted by Schlussel and Trump.
Schlussel writes, “even leftist MTV News (yes, that MTV) broadcast news reports showing thousands of Palestinian Muslims outside Paterson’s town hall, cheering the 9/11 attacks against America (and starting a riot using cement garbage cans and metal poles, which they used to attack police)."
This is not true. The reports to which Schlussel refers are part of a documentary called “Fight For Your Rights: Aftermath of Terror,” which first aired on MTV on Nov. 17, 2001. Here’s what the footage actually shows: a Paterson resident and high school senior named Emily Acevedo telling MTV that she saw “a lot of people ... chanting and raving," "holding rocks and sticks" and "saying 'burn America.'"
Schlussel, like Trump, seems to have confused "a lot of people" with "thousands of Palestinian Muslims," despite the fact that Acevedo doesn't mention the peoples' race nor their religion. What’s more, Acevedo goes on to say, “Everyone that was out there, they were only 13 or 14 at most. They were kids. They didn’t know what they were doing."
Acevedo also points out damage like chips on a metal railing and a roughed up garbage can to support her claims, but there is no actual evidence of the events in question. In fact, despite what Acevedo says she saw, a reporter quoted in the footage immediately after Acevedo’s interview says her team couldn't find "one person" who had witnessed celebrations that day. A clip of then-mayor Martin Barnes shows him similarly affirming that there was "no jubilee in the streets," nor "anybody out in the neighborhoods having fun or thinking this was a great or glorious idea."
On Wednesday (Nov. 25), MTV tracked down Acevedo to see if her story or perspective has changed in the 14 years since her interview. It had, slightly. Acevedo told MTV that on the night of Sept. 11, she "saw probably about a dozen or so kids" between the ages of 12 and 13, "hanging out" and "being very loud, being very rambunctious. A couple of them had sticks and maybe a bat. They were breaking a little bit of public property."
Acevedo added that this was "not entirely uncommon for this part of Paterson," and that what she "saw that night [was] not anything any different than would've happened on any other summer night, on any other day where school was let out early. These were kids acting out because they had the time to, because they could."
Acevedo could not recall hearing the kids say "burn America," though she remembered hearing the phrase on the news.
She also addressed Trump's recent invocation of New Jersey's alleged response to the terror attacks. "There's someone currently running for president who swore up and down that he saw everything," she said. "It's nothing more than another privileged white male ... who never lived a day or a night in a city like Paterson or Jersey City trying to speak for the masses and not really understanding what they’re saying."
Stories like this -- in which one witness' claim about a group of rowdy kids banging on a trash can after 9/11 gets warped into the accusation that thousands of Muslims cheered one of the darkest days in American history -- are more than some twisted game of telephone. For Trump, they’re a blatant attempt to pander to a base that has embraced the increasingly brazen, and increasingly dangerous, Islamophobic rhetoric of its leaders.
When he’s not busy spouting urban legends meant to dehumanize Muslims, Trump has been calling for surveillance of mosques and for Muslim Americans to carry special identification cards. He’s doing this because it works: Trump rose in national polls following the Paris attacks.
But whether you call it ignorance, stubborn delusion or an outright lie, there’s no avoiding the truth: Donald Trump is wrong.