The 36 Klansmen who showed up to rally here on Saturday looked impotent when you consider the Klan's vaunted history of lynching and violence. But the counterprotesters, many times the minuscule numbers of the Klan, sent a message of strong resolve: certain vulgarities, such as the appearance of the KKK, just won't be tolerated in the nation's capital.

It is unfortunate that the anti-Klan demonstrators became angry when they were denied a confrontation with the white-sheeted purveyors of hate and subsequently vented their fury on the most available symbol -- police authority. But it should be remembered that the crowd was orderly until its members were denied what they considered was their right to confront the Klan. Before that time, the protest was carried out in the orderly mode of the '60s civil rights movement, with speeches and singing and banners.

The looting did no credit to the anti-Klan movement. But in any war, no matter how heroic are the soldiers, there will be some among them who will rape, rob and plunder. And whenever you have a large crowd where you don't check credentials at the door, a certain criminal element may be drawn as well.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to let the looting and police battling detract from the central theme of the day: The masses were outraged at the Klan's presence and would not let the Klansmen flaunt it in their faces.

The sophistication of the masses was, in the end, a thing to behold. These were not bedraggled, straggling, drugged-out potheads. It was a strong racial and cultural mix: Latinos, blacks, whites, and Palestinians.

At one point, when a black man was grabbed by three policemen, the racially, economically and culturally mixed crowd chanted, "Turn him loose. He is not the Klan. Turn him loose." The police let the man go.

Historically, the Klan has been used to divide the races. On Saturday in Washington, the Klan, in a sense, united the races. The crowds were sophisticated enough to understand this attempt to divide and to make clear that the KKK symbolizes things that this community in total rejects: the attempt to divide people along racial lines and insult their dignity with something as vulgar as the Klan.

The crowd also understood that today's Rightwing Revival had given the Klan the nerve to come to the capital. The anti-Klan protestors were saying that they have had enough; that they were going to stand up, and were ready to battle in the streets. The message to the powers that be is they will have to deal with a more sophisticated mass than they did in the '60s.

And lest images of the '60s become fixed, Police Chief Maurice Turner was quite right when he stressed that "this was not a riot." A riot is senseless and purposeless. The anti-Klan protesters had a right to anger at this venerable inflammatory symbol of hatred, violence and white supremacy.

So despite the violence and looting, Saturday represented a kind of limited progress and a healthy sign. The anti-Klan demonstrators were angered because they did not want a hollow victory, they wanted to face the Klan and win by letting the Klan see their numbers and that they were not afraid.

It was clear, too, that Americans regard Washington as a home of all the people, and while it may be all right for the Klan to strut in Alabama, some things won't be permitted here.

It would be a shame if conservatives -- particularly the people in power who have created the climate in which the Klan rally could take place -- don't get the message of the masses. For on Saturday, in the speeches and banners, it rang out loud and clear: The KKK is part of a level of obscenity we won't tolerate. It was a memorable message.