By Alicia M. Cohn - 03/28/12 01:24 PM EDT
A member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on Wednesday called the shooting of Trayvon Martin a hate crime.
"I, personally, really truly believe this is a hate crime," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in a joint interview with CBC Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) on CNN.
Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was shot and killed in a Florida gated community by Neighborhood Watchman George Zimmerman. Zimmerman said he was acting in self-defense after the teen punched him and smashed his head into the pavement, which has been corroborated by witnesses, according to local reports.
Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with a crime, and his lawyer strongly denies that race played any part in the incident.
Waters and Cleaver condemned the "Stand Your Ground" law, a version of which exists in more than 20 states.
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"The evidence really points to a fact that you had a gung-ho so-called Neighborhood Watchman who wanted to be a cop, basically, who was following a young black man who was unarmed and had committed no crime," Waters said. "That's pretty stiff evidence that this is possibly a hate crime"
Martin's parents, who were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, also suggested that race was involved in the confrontation between their son and Zimmerman. Their lawyer said they have no doubt racial profiling was involved.
The incident has sparked national debate and outrage from lawmakers, as well as accusations that some are using Martin's death for political profit.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and others on Tuesday accused President Obama of taking advantage of Martin's death by selling "Obama 2012" sweatshirt hoodies as part of his campaign merchandise. The Obama campaign also sold hoodies in 2008.
Cleaver pushed back against the accusations that people are exploiting Martin's death.
"The issue is the low esteem in which black life is held, particularly black males," said Cleaver on CNN.
"Any time somebody is forcefully stepped up and speaking out against injustice, there are those who say they are using it for their own purposes," he added. "We have always had to face people making those accusations since the civil rights movement began; that's not going to stop."
On Tuesday, Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, urged House Democrats on a forum organized by members of the House Judiciary Committee to use Martin’s death as an opportunity to prevent similar incidents.
“Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon was your son,” she said.