In the background is the majesty of the U.S. Capitol. Standing off to the side are armed Capitol policemen in mirrored sunglasses that can't hide the disgust the men feel for the youngsters in the red berets who are surrounded by TV cameras and tourists.

The youngsters are the Guardian Angels, by reputation able to leap tall buildings in a single karate kick to save grandmothers from purse snatchings. They have on sunglasses, too, but that's only one of their tassels. Their outfits are more rakish, with tight T-shirts over young muscles, military fatigue pants and combat boots. Topping off the costume is the red beret, with medals, rosary or feathers added -- not unlike a red cape on a skyblue constume.

The standoff between the Angels and Capitol police is a version of the little dance the Angels do with many people they meet. In the 17 cities where the Angels have tried to bring their home-grown fight against crime by enlisting youngsters to be Chicago Angels or Washington, D.C. Angels, city officials and police have usually turned angry with resentment. They argue that the kids can't handle professional criminals. They worry about the possibility of vigilante action and that the Angels might get hurt. But in truth, local officials seem to feel threatened that the new boys in town might make them out to be less than the best at fighting crime.

Young people often react with the same resentment, taunting the Angels, asking them to fight. On 14th Street, a District teen-ager approached Curtis Sliwa, leader of the Angels, and asked, "Let's see what you can do, man, you so bad." Sliwa kept walking.

"Listen," says Sliwa when he is told that Mayor Barry says no one invited the Angels to come to Washington, "you tell the mayor that the people invited the Angels to come. People like him are the ones always telling people not to go out late at night. And don't wear jewelry, get 50 million locks on your door. We're paying them to tell us that the criminals have won. What do we need that for? I'm telling people: 'Let's fight back. We're the good guys.'"

Sliwa, a 26-year-old from Brooklyn who was working in a McDonald's and leading a life that was going nowhere fast until he set up the Angels, is not only sending a message to criminals. He is also telling other young people with menial jobs and little education that they can be somebody, too. Yes, the Angels are always on TV and in the papers. Yes, the Angels wear tough uniforms. Yes, the Angels are heroes.

Sliwa's idea, now almost three years old, was to start a crops of young supermen to fill the need of people tired of living in fear and, at the same time, to help youngsters desperately wanting to be known as a part of something important. Sliwa's idea, when seen on Capitol Hill last week, seemed stronger than ever. Sliwa was asked to testify on crime before the Senate because he now has a national reputation as a crime fighter.

"But they put that comic down and they figure, 'Hey, that's not real. I ain't gonna be no sucker and fight for something that ain't none of my business. I might even rip someone off so I can get my own.'

"Even when a kid picks up a People magazine, a real life magazine," Sliwa adds, "what do they see but that Reggie Jackson or Rod Stewart or somebody just bought their sixth Rolls, is having a Jacuzzi put in the backyard of their house in the mountains? Now let's be realistic. Most kids are not going to get a Rolls unless some miracle happens to them. That doesn't fit in with the streets you and me are walking everyday unless you figure on stealing from somebody to get the money for a car. I want to give people a real hero, somebody they can see who is just like them who is out there doing good and getting in the papers. Like they can see Mary in an Angels shirt and say, 'Hey, isn't that Mary who was always in the park smoking weed and drinking, and now she's doing good. Maybe I can, too.'"

So the Angels were born in Curtis Sliwa's mind, and so he has stopped a mugging on a subway platform in New York by kicking a gun out of the mugger's hand with a karate kick. He fell and broke two ribs, but the mugging was stopped. And so the Angels have made over a hundred citizen's arrests in New York in two and a half years; about 30 of those arrests resulted in sentences of over a year for the criminals.

It is not a world-stopping anti-crime effort, but Superman can't be everywhere at once. And Sliwa is quick to admit that the Angels don't make arrests for drug dealing or prostitution for fear that the very bad guys will decide they have had enough of the Angels and start shooting them down.

"The Angels are targets," says Sliwa. "You can see us a mile away, and if we started going after more than street crime, then we'd be out there to get hit back." In a rare moment of humility, Sliwa adds: "Hey, we can only do so much."

But as Sliwa goes around the country, bringing headaches to local officials, he is finding that citizens' clubs and some politicians love him and his group. And he is finding as he sets up the nationwide network of Angels that the youngsters who idolize him, who want to become Angels like him, the guy they've seen on TV, are urging him to do more, maybe to run for political office.

"Everybody is upset about crime," he says, "and I want to do something about crime. It's no surprise that people look up to someone like that. A lot of people say that we're the children of the New Right, that we're Ronald Reagan's kids. . . . I've heard that said and people applaud. But it's nothing like that. We're for the people. The people want the Angels." i

And the Angels, youth without a name in a very big, fast-moving nation, want to be wanted, want to be supermen. Politicians and policemen who see Sliwa coming to their town would be wise to jump on his bandwagon and play along with the Superhero game. Too many people want it to be true.