Former Anaheim police officer Jerry O’Keefe was ready for Yippie Day at Disneyland 26 years ago when he was called in to help keep a high-spirited Vietnam War protest from getting out of hand.
He was a veteran protester himself by then.
O’Keefe had spent the previous decade taking part in demonstrations against British rule in Northern Ireland. But as an ambitious 29-year-old police officer looking to make sergeant, he was well aware that his political activism was a threat to his law-enforcement career. It was a double life of sorts, O’Keefe said. He worked both sides of the protest lines.
“I arrested 26 people that day,” he said, recalling the takeover of Tom Sawyer’s Island by members of the Youth International Party who hoisted the Viet Cong flag above the island and shouted antiwar slogans.
“I didn’t really have any second thoughts about it. It was my duty to the city and to the people at Disneyland. I was pretty much used to wearing more than one hat and trying to balance it all.”
O’Keefe was also called to the scene of a violent confrontation between police and antiwar protesters that same year at Cal State Fullerton. Student demonstrators heckled then-Gov. Ronald Reagan during a campus appearance and held a sit-in to protest U.S. military incursions into Cambodia. Nineteen students were arrested.
“The bosses I had at the Anaheim Police Department knew I was an activist, but they sort of looked the other way. I was expected to keep it very low-key in the department. I always tried to do my job responsibly. But I just took it one day at a time.”
Since his retirement from law enforcement in 1982, O’Keefe has become a full-time activist in the fight against British rule in Northern Ireland.
The 55-year-old Anaheim Hills resident recently held a fund-raiser at his home to rally support for Irish political prisoners who are fighting extradition from the United States after escape from a British prison in Northern Ireland.
And he frequently hosts Irish nationalist leaders during their U.S. visits.
In July, O’Keefe was elected national director of the Ancient Order of Hibernians--a 160-year-old Irish American fraternal organization--pledging to boost support for Irish independence in California and other Western states where he says awareness of the struggle is “shockingly poor.”
The two Orange County divisions of the Hibernians have 100 active members and a mailing list of 2,000, O’Keefe said.
“We don’t have the membership out here that they do on the East Coast. I want to see 100 divisions of the Hibernians in California, in every major metropolitan area. And I’d like to see each division with 1,000 members, just like the Elks, just like Kiwanis.”
O’Keefe was born in Youghal, County Cork, home to a commercial seaport in southern Ireland.
His father had fought the British as a young boy in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose members later joined other nationalist groups to form the Irish Republican Army.
His family moved to New Jersey when he was 2 years old, but he spent most of his childhood in Garden Grove and Anaheim. He was curious about his homeland, but his parents were tight-lipped.
“My parents were just too quiet about it. Everybody talks about their background, so the less they said, the more I wanted to know.”
By age 12, O’Keefe had struck up a friendship with a neighbor woman from Belfast who was not shy in talking about the conflict in Northern Ireland.
“She could see that I wanted to know about my heritage. She taught me the words to Irish songs and I just milked this woman for everything she knew. I just drank it in. My brother was 8 years old, and I started giving him lectures on Irish history. Finally, by the time I was 19, I was a passionate advocate of Irish civil rights. I had protested at the British Embassy and written a lot of letters. If I heard of a guy who was an activist, then I found that person out, and I sat and listened to find out that information. Finally, my parents totally cooperated and I was told everything then.”
O’Keefe now concentrates on organizing demonstrations, raising funds and increasing political pressure in the United States to end British rule in Northern Ireland.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you go back to Ireland and do this?’ But I can say things here that I could never say in Ireland.
“The fight for Irish freedom will be won in America.”
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Profile: Jerry O’Keefe
Hometown: Youghal, County Cork, Ireland
Family: Wife Jeri and two adult sons
Education: Bachelor’s degree in European history, Cal State Fullerton
Background: Became an Anaheim police officer in 1967, rising to rank of sergeant in 1973; chief of police at Cal State Fullerton, 1974-1982; several years as a real estate lecturer; now manages his own real estate holdings.
Activism: Participated in demonstrations for Irish independence since age 19; director of the South Western States region of Irish Northern Aid; co-founded first Orange County division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1971, becoming state president in 1973, and national director in July 1996; president of a second Orange County Hibernian division he founded one year ago; chairman of the 7-month-old Irish American Political Action Committee in Orange County.
On America’s role in Irish freedom: “People say, ‘Why don’t you go back to Ireland and do this?’ But I can say things here that I could never say in Ireland. The fight for Irish freedom will be won in America.”