OAKLAND -- More than 600 block parties will entertain Oakland residents on Tuesday night, providing the kind of neighborly socializing that city officials describe as the first defense against crime.
Others are beginning to question if the "neighborhood watch" philosophy guiding the popular National Night Out street parties is the right approach.
"I don't watch my neighbors. I see them," says a slogan crafted by Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which is organizing an alternative Night Out for Safety and Democracy event competing with the city-sponsored events.
At a time when more Oakland neighborhoods have hired private security to patrol their streets and gentrification is heightening concerns about racial profiling, a night once seen as a chance to host an ice cream social or barbecue has grown controversial.
The Ella Baker Center first hosted its alternative to National Night Out last August, not long after Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
"Community safety has to go beyond surveillance and suspicion of your neighbors," said Ella Baker organizer Maria Dominguez. "A lot of that has to come from putting more resources into the neighborhood, creating networks with each other."
City officials and some volunteer party hosts contend their idea for the street parties is not all that different from what the Ella Baker center proposes.
"National Night Out is definitely not about people snitching or ratting out or telling on their neighbors," said Felicia Verdin, the city's community programs supervisor. "It's about people getting to know their neighbors, meeting them, getting to see how their children are doing."
Block party hosts Carmen Barrera, her husband Mauricio Vivas, and their children, Jose, 17, and Andrea, 10, say the parties they have hosted for the past four years have improved safety on their block on 26th Avenue. Barrera's mother, Marta, who also lives on the street, plans to make home-cooked Guatemalan food for the party, and her grandchildren have been passing out fliers and preparing sports activities and games to play.
"It's about playing with the kids and letting them run in the neighborhood so they feel safe," said Barrera, who owns a flower shop in the nearby Fruitvale district. "They need to learn how to be involved in the community and not be scared to speak up and let people know if they're doing something wrong."
It's not just the one-night event, but the ongoing relationships with diverse neighbors -- Barrera now has a handy list of everyone's phone number -- that have made the block safer when police are not able to respond quickly enough to their concerns, she said.
More than 100 city police officers will be dropping in on the parties, "not from an enforcement perspective, but really from a true community policing perspective," Verdin said. "This is definitely a crime prevention event and an opportunity for people to have a good time and partner with the police."
Police officers, firefighters and paramedics from Hayward to Pittsburg are attending similar Tuesday night events in the cities they serve. The BART Police Department is also hosting activities at six stations, including the Fruitvale station in Oakland, where a BART officer shot and killed Oscar Grant III in 2009. BART police Chief Kenton Rainey brought the crime-prevention event with him from Fairfield when the transit district hired him in 2010.
Some neighbors inspired by the Ella Baker Center's message plan to attend their local street parties but hope to spark a more nuanced discussion about deterring crime.
"I want to live in a neighborhood that is safe from crime and also from racial profiling, " said Ginny Berson, a resident of the Upper Dimond district in the Oakland foothills. "We have to be cautious, we have to be careful, and we also have to be conscious."
Berson said she has been disturbed by some of the assumptions her neighbors make when they report supposedly suspicious activity on a neighborhood email group. In one case, she said, police were called to check on an African-American mother and her child who were waiting in a car for a friend to come home.
Berson said she understands fear of crime. She was once robbed at gunpoint in another city.
"It's not something I take lightly. It's terrifying, actually," Berson said. "But there's another kind of safety, particularly if you're a person of color. People need to feel safe from racial profiling. They need to feel like their kids can walk down the streets."
The city of Oakland declined to provide a list of its 625 registered National Night Out block parties, but for more information, call the city at 510-238-3091. The Ella Baker Center's Night Out for Safety and Democracy is from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater, Lake Merritt Boulevard and East 12th Street in Oakland.