Chicago Goes Into Security Lockdown Ahead of NATO Summit

Determined to make this weekend’s NATO summit peaceful, the city is taking extra precautions, with everything from greater security on trains to clearer trash bags to canceling some classes. But can expected protests still cause chaos? Plus, read David Frum's open letter to the Chicago protesters and Howard Kurtz's on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's liberation.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo

This Friday, Chicago will welcome the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the alliance’s annual summit. In anticipation of the thousands of protesters expected to flood the city alongside organization dignitaries, local authorities are doing everything they can to prevent the chaos that such meetings have attracted to other cities: Protesters have at times sought to disrupt the proceedings, and public-safety officials have frequently taken elaborate—sometimes violent—measures to stop them. Here are some of the areas Chicago authorities are addressing:

Public Transportation

Backpacks, bicycles, food and drinks are among the things banned this weekend from the Metra, the train system that caters to most parts of the city and outlying suburbs. Rail riders have been warned that they may be subject to airport-like security procedures just to board the train, and “searches and screenings” are a possibility for anyone, and especially those riding the Electric District Line that runs under McCormick Place, where the summit will take place. Passengers are each limited to carrying one bag, no bigger than 15 inches by 15 inches wide and four inches deep. This rules out things like suitcases, packages and large briefcases—especially inconvenient for people taking public transit to O’Hare International Airport.

Getting In and Out of the City

One Chicago resident we spoke to, who is flying out of O’Hare on Friday for the weekend, noted the adjustments she’s had to make to her normal travel plans.

“We are leaving four hours early,” she said. “Our flight is at 11a.m. and we are leaving at 6 a.m.” She would typically leave at 9 a.m. for a flight scheduled for that time. “I am only bringing a purse; I would normally bring a rolling suit case.”

Another Chicagoan flying in from Dallas on Friday passed along an email from United Airlines advising him to get the airport earlier than usual to allow for extra security, to expect potential delays or cancellations, and to consider the transit system’s weekend rules when packing, if he plans to take the train when he gets there.

“Banned Items”

If someone brings one of the “banned items” to the train station by mistake that person will not be allowed to store them and anything that is left behind will be disposed of. Additional officers and police dogs also will be present at rail stations, and several stations on the Electric District Line will be closed.


The Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department is replacing large, solid garbage cans with wire ones because they’re easier to check for dangerous materials, and 140 solar trash compactors are being removed for the weekend. In some areas even wire trash cans are being removed.


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In anticipation of possible riots, some schools in the area are either holding classes online or canceling them altogether. Students at St. Ignatius College Prep, some of whom travel from several counties away and even from Indiana to get to school, will instead have their lessons and turn in assignments online both Friday and Monday. However Chicago public schools, even those just blocks from McCormick Place, will be up and running both days, and expect students to plan their routes to school accordingly. “If there is a situation outside, all of the schools have emergency lockdown plans that would involve making sure the kids are safe and secure and that all the exterior entrance and exit points all sealed,” the Chicago Public Schools chief of safety and security told ABC Local.

But while those in the summit site’s neighborhood may not be overly concerned about the safety of their students, officials at Francis Parker School, located miles away from the venue in Lincoln Park, are anticipating late arrivals, and are even canceling all field trips and athletic events planned for Friday, May 18, and Monday, the 21st. Columbia College bumped its graduation ceremony up two weeks to avoid any NATO interference with its celebratory events.

Dress Code

Some businesses are encouraging their employees to “dress down,” and to not carry or wear anything with corporate logos on Friday and Monday to avoid being targeted by protesters.

Private Businesses and Tourist Attractions

Some private businesses are taking matters into their own hands. One restaurant owner told ABC Local News he’s removed the sidewalk patio and reinforced the windows at his restaurant. “We’re worried about the protesters, with Millennium Park and our proximity to all the government buildings. That scares us,” he said.

The Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago—some of the city’s most popular attractions—also plan to voluntarily close for at least part of the weekend.

Safe Homes

Apartments are issuing memos to tenants offering advice for staying safe. One co-op apartment building in the River North neighborhood sent a warning notice to its residents that no one will be allowed to move in or out over the weekend and that guest parking may also be blocked. The notice also warns residents to leave their expensive clothing or jewelry at home but to keep their personal belongings, and a current ID, on them at all times, and to make sure all visitors, housekeepers, babysitters and others also have identification. Other buildings closer to the venue reportedly have suggested that tenants carry their leases with them when leaving their buildings to guarantee access. One condo building even urged its residents to stay somewhere else while the summit is under way.

The NATO summit will mark the first time the international organization has met anywhere in the United States other than Washington, D.C. But given the turnout of protesters at other world summits, Chicago seems unwilling to leave much to chance. Ever since the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was derailed by protests that resulted in violent clashes between police and thousands of demonstrators, cities have been on their guard when controversial, multinational groups come to town.

Despite all the security measures that have left many Chicagoans frustrated, not to mention anxious, NATO officials have denied haviing any concerns about an actual threat against the summit.

Still, police reportedly have been preparing for this event since last year, when Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said he would be sending personnel to Pittsburgh and Seattle to train. In addition to the typical groups that protest organizations such as NATO, the G8 and the WTO, Occupy Wall Street is expected to bus thousands of demonstrators into the city, having already organized protests in the days ahead. Police and these protest groups alike are being warned to look out for the “Black Bloc”—demonstrators who allegedly latch onto bigger groups to blend in before breaking out into violence. Demonstrators aside, the Chicago Police Department has already faced hackers who protest from afar.

Chicago Police have their own history to reference as they prepare for the summit. Blogger John Greenfield at GridChicago says the preparations for this weekend’s NATO summit have brought to mind the Democratic convention in 1968, when brutality against protesters broadcast live on television, damaged Hubert Humphrey’s chances at winning the White House. “Because of this history, and the relatively tolerant attitude of the Rahm) Emanuel administration towards Occupy protesters, I’m pretty confident that the CPD response to protesters will be pretty restrained, with a minimum of excessive force,” Greenfield said in an email to The Daily Beast. “After all, a repeat of 1968 could have a negative effect on Obama’s reelection campaign, and a future run for president by Emanuel.”

McCarthy has promised the use of tear gas will be avoided. He hopes that taking to heart the lessons of violent protests past will keep the summit, and the demonstrations surrounding it, peaceful.