Feb. 20, 2008 -- Editor's Note: The last name of each "What Would You Do?" participant was removed to protect his or her privacy.
It was an early spring afternoon in a suburban New Jersey park. Families, couples, runners and dog-walkers populated the area.
Attention was turned to a group of three white teenage boys walking toward a car — an older, well-kept model in an open parking lot. They laughed at the car's "vintage" appearance.
Zac vaulted up on the car's hood and Justin K. looked around, furtively eyeing passersby. Meanwhile, Sam pulled a Jimmy stick from his pants and began breaking into the car.
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"There it is! There it is!" The driver's side door popped open and the boys piled in, looking for anything worth taking.
People passed by but paid little or no attention to the mischief-makers, until the boys pulled out cans of paint and began spraying graffiti on the car.
A couple of women who engaged in brief conversation with the boys later said they were actually far more concerned about their well-being than they let on during the exchange.
"They [the boys] started getting increasingly strident and jumping on [the car] and pounding on it," said Laurette. "Then we said, 'Let's get away from this and call the police.'"
'You Got an Illegal Tool There!'
Shortly after, another couple of women noticed the boys. The women spoke, but both walked away from the scene.
While Maggie acknowledged, "I should have done something," Mary, the other woman, said she was reluctant to get involved.
"There have been times when I've been a witness to things and had to take off work, and it has been really involved. I try to mind my own business," said Mary.
Later, another middle-aged woman who seemed troubled by the teen vandals stopped a safe distance away from them and pulled out her cell phone. Was she typing a text message or contacting police?
When a fit middle-aged man who had just finished a run wandered past the boys and asked what they were up to, the boys bluntly told him to mind his own business.
As the man walked away, one of the boys yelled, "Adios, have a nice day," just to goad him. In doing so, the boys called the man's attention back to them and the car, angering him and heightening the confrontation.
And then he saw their Jimmy stick. "You got an illegal tool there! The cops would love to know that," he warned them. "That's a jimmy. That's an illegal tool. It's a felony. I suggest you pick it up and move on."
"We're not going nowhere," said Justin K., defiantly.
With that, the man walked off, and asked the woman with a cell phone to dial 911.
At that moment ABC News correspondent John Quinones jumped in, but the man, Brian, was pretty steamed at both the boys and at the "What Would You Do?" crew. When he finally cooled off, Brian and his wife, Dawn, stopped for a chat.
"I was keeping my eye on them. I was waiting for my husband to come back because I wasn't going to confront three boys by myself," Dawn told us.
Brian said he got involved because of a lesson his father taught him.
"You can't turn a blind eye or a deaf ear if somebody's in trouble," he said. "It wasn't [my property] but, you know, it was somebody's. We're all in this together."
Moments later, Brian and the actors exchanged apologies and handshakes.
Jack Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale University, applauded Brian's actions, in spite of the possible risk he took.
"He took action that was selfless and was about stopping something bad from happening. He made a difference," Dovidio said. "I don't think it was the smart thing to do necessarily, but I think it was the good and right thing to do."
Sleeping Kids Generate 911 Calls
Three separate 911 calls were placed from the park that day: One was about the three white teens vandalizing the car, and the other two calls were from a man reporting the occupants of another car parked in a lot about 100 yards away from the scenario.
"There's a couple of guys in the car lying down, like, they look like possibly they're getting ready to rob somebody," the caller said.
A few minutes later, the caller was back on the line. "We got three black kids lying in the car," he said. "We have a lot of little kids around. I'm just keeping an eye on things."
As it turned out, the "three black kids" were the relatives of Justin C., a young African-American actor whom ABC News had hired for a later portion of the experiment. They were sleeping in the car while they waited for Justin C.
Justin C. said it was a hurtful reminder that racism is alive and well, and that people are still frightened by the color of other people's skin.
"Whether it's because of the media, because of history, we as Americans have an association with blacks and crime," Dovidio said, emphasizing that "both blacks and whites have that association."
Though Justin C.'s relatives were doing nothing more sinister than sleeping in their car, Dovidio said, "We can make that into a potential criminal act."
Black Vandals vs. White Vandals
Soon after those 911 calls were placed, the next phase of the experiment began. The three white teen vandals were replaced with Justin C., Jelani and "Matlok," three African-American actors. Would the responses to the vandals in this mostly white suburb be any different?
Just as the white actors had done, the three African-American vandals jumped on the car, spray-painted graffiti and used the jimmy stick to break into it. Almost immediately we noticed an increase in direct interventions and calls to 911.
A woman and a man walked by the scene at nearly the same time, and without much hesitation each pulled out their cell phones and reported the vandals to 911.
And while these two opted not to confront the boys directly, the next woman did. While walking her dachshund, Christina asked the boys what they were doing, to which one of them responded, "Having fun."
She walked a few yards further, called 911 to report them for "beating up a car," then continued on her way.
We spoke to all three of these passersby and while they expressed anger that many others had not gotten involved, they also seemed to understand the risk of doing so.
"I was shocked that the park had so many people and nobody was doing anything," said Robin, the first caller.
Thomas, who called around the same time, said he was just more comfortable calling 911 than confronting the kids directly.
"Teenagers are kind of unpredictable," Haller said. "Who knows? You hear all sorts of crazy stories. Moreover, he said, "They seemed like they weren't afraid of being caught."
Christina, in spite of having spoken to them, said she felt the boys were aggressive and therefore thought it best to call 911 instead of risking a confrontation.
"I wasn't going to go especially right up to them, because they had tools that could be used against me and there's three of them and one of me." And, she added, "my little dog."
Act First, Think Later
For every group of more timid souls, there was someone perfectly willing to confront trouble head-on, even at personal risk.
"Hey, is that your car?" yelled a woman who approached the boys with her husband and children.
"No, is it yours?" retorted Matlok.
"No, but you shouldn't be doing that," the woman scolded him.
Vanessa said she felt an immediate sense of outrage at the brazen act of vandalism.
"How dare you come in our backyard and do something like that in the middle of the day in front of our kids?" she said after her encounter with the boys.
"I don't care where you're from. I don't care what color you are," Vanessa added. "You know you're doing something illegal … you better believe I'm still going to call the police."
Vanessa's husband was concerned that she had put herself in danger by confronting the kids.
"My husband was right to say, 'What if those kids had a gun?' And at that moment, honestly, I didn't think about it. The way I am," said Vanessa, "if I see something, I do something right away."
"She was angry and she was willing to act on that anger in a way that jeopardized her well-being," Dovidio said. "People think some of the time, but we operate on emotion all of the time."
Acting Like 'A Good Parent'
As the black teenage boys continued to inflict damage on the car, not only were they generating more 911 calls than the white vandals, many more people began to stop and intervene.
"We got to a point where there was like three people calling the cops at the exact same time," said Jelani, one of the actors.
Those brave enough to directly confront the African-American teens sometimes asked how the teens would feel if someone were vandalizing their car.
But Matlok was quick to quip, "This car's a piece of crap anyway."
Another particularly gutsy woman, walked right up to the boys to ask if they were locked out, but on closer inspection she realized they were up to no good.
"Stop," said the woman.
"Why?" asked Matlok.
"It's illegal. Somebody's going to call the cops."
Sang engaged in a four-minute conversation with the vandals and, when asked, even told them her name.
One of the boys then spray-painted her last name on the left quarter panel of the car.
"Now we're going to say that you did it!" Matlok told her gleefully. "Now we're gonna call the cops on you." The boys broke into laughter.
"I didn't want to antagonize them any further," Sang said later. "They did have a stick — whatever they were banging with — so at that point I stepped back and said, 'Okay, let me go, you know, get a cell phone.'"
Dovidio commended Sang for her bravery, but also for her clever approach.
"It was about engaging them, instructing them," Dovidio said. "It was about being what a good parent would be to those kids; that you shouldn't be doing this and I'm going to tell you to stop doing it."
Skin Color and the Public's Response
Clearly the number of interventions and 911 calls with the African-American youths exceeded those with their white counterparts. So we asked those who approached the black kids or reported them to police, "Would you have acted any differently if the boys were white?"
Sang said, "I would have done the same thing. Maybe I would have stopped them sooner."
Joan A. and Martha had a similar response: "I did notice they were African-American young boys in a white neighborhood," said Joan A. "But if they had been white kids, I mean, I would have done exactly the same thing."
Martha agreed, "I might have done it quicker if they were white kids."
"Actually, I probably hesitated because they were black," said Joan D. "I don't like to assume that three black kids are up to trouble. But they were clearly up to trouble," she recalled, laughing. "But had it been three white kids I'd have done the same thing. I might have called quicker."
The Actors' Perceptions
After two days of shooting, the six actors — three white and three African-American — gathered to reflect on the experiment that had become a learning experience they hadn't expected. They told us they were baffled by the people who saw the damage, yet didn't stop or call 911.
"Some people … it seemed like they were kinda, like, too nervous maybe to say something," Matlok said.
Justin K., a white actor, observed: "I was actually shocked to see how many people would actually take a good look at what we were doing and just walk on by without even interfering at all."
But what the all of the actors found most troubling were the calls made to 911 to report Justin C.'s relatives for sleeping in their car while he prepared to start work.
"That was ridiculous. Pretty low," said Zac, another of the white actors.
"It's wrong," said Justin K. "I mean, here we are breaking into a car and there they are sleeping, you know?"
"I was offended," said Sam, the third white actor. "They weren't bothering anyone so it's really disgraceful."
For these young African-American actors, it was simply a troubling new chapter in an old story, but one that still hurt.
"These kids [the white actors] were destroying this car and trying to break in" Justin C. said. "They're not even worried about it."
"Meanwhile, they're worrying about Justin's family over there," said Matlok.
"Sleeping while being black," Justin C. said, finishing Matlok's sentence and shaking his head, looking more sad than angry.