The image of federal agents on downtown streets far from McCormick Place — in battle gear, weapons slung — three weeks before the summit is certain to have a chilling effect on those who live and work in the Loop. It also calls into question Host Committee Executive Director Lori Healey’s oft-repeated message that Chicago will remain “open for business” during the summit.
On Thursday, Healey found herself in the difficult position of having to convince the public that a scary headline that blindsided even her is not an indication that the feds are bracing for weeks of trouble.
“A lot of us were surprised to read that. Obviously, the federal government doesn’t consult with the city when they do this. Everybody was unaware of this,” she said.
“It’s common practice for the federal government to have protection around their own buildings. Everybody plans extensively … for lots of different events. This is just getting an undue amount of attention. I would guarantee you they do it for all sorts of events. It’s just that they decided to publicly release it.”
Asked whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel was also blindsided by the Red Zone decision, City Hall offered a one-line response.
“This was a security decision and we were not involved,” the mayor’s communications director Sarah Hamilton wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that the plan for “Operation Red Zone” kicks into high gear next week to protect a vast area in the Loop where thousands of federal employees and dozens of government offices are located.
The Federal Protective Service will deploy additional personnel beginning May 1, bringing in more people from out of town and outfitting them in “battle dress uniform.” They will be carrying “non-lethal” long guns — bean bag weapons — in a show of force that at the same time will allow people to move in and out of the zone freely, federal employees were told.
Healey called the news “a little bit distracting,” but not alarming. She stressed that the protective bubble was being created by the “landlord” for government buildings — not by the intelligence arm of the federal government.
The U.S. Secret Service plans to release its logistics plan — including specific boundaries of the security perimeter around McCormick Place — next week, she said. That’s when all the speculation about the inconvenience to everyday life in Chicago will finally be put to rest.