Althea Bernstein, an 18-year-old Black woman working as an EMT, was on her way to her brother’s house around 1 a.m. Wednesday morning when she says she was attacked by four white men.
“I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the n-word really loud,” she told Madison365. Bernstein suffered second- and third-degree burns after the men allegedly used a spray bottle to soak her with lighter fluid before throwing a lighter at her.
“My neck caught on fire and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face,” Bernstein said. “I got it out and then I just blasted through the red light. … I just felt like I needed to get away. So I drove through the red light and just kept driving until I got to my brother.”
Bernstein said the men “looked like classic Wisconsin frat boys” and from the way they were walking, seemed to be intoxicated. She said two of them were wearing all black and the other two wore floral shirts.
Far right protesters in recent weeks have reportedly shown up in Hawaiian shirts to disrupt Black Lives Matter protests, but it was not clear if Bernstein’s alleged attackers were in any way connection to demonstrations.
Bernstein said she was able to drive herself to her brother’s house and back home immediately after the incident because she was in shock — an effect she normally sees in people other than herself. “It’s so incapacitating, you don’t even realize what’s going on. My brain still got me home and my brain still got me to call my mom. I just remember my face was bleeding.”
She drove herself to the hospital after telling her healthcare provider on the phone that she “got a little toasted.” Bernstein went through a decontamination routine to get the lighter fluid off her skin. “They had to pretty much scrub the skin off, which was extremely painful,” she said.
Bernstein called the police after getting home around 6 a.m. Wednesday. She said she was told they would start an investigation, but they couldn’t take a statement because they were too busy preparing for protests.
People disappointed with the city of Madison's lack of response to Bernstein's attack took to social media saying the attack on a young Black woman drew less condemnation than destruction of property allegedly tied to protests.
“The news has basically ignored it in favor of talk of statues and damaged businesses,” Chet Agni tweeted, the communications director for Wisconsin Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain confirmed that Bernstein had called the police and said officials took a statement Thursday morning. According to a police incident report, surveillance footage will be reviewed to see if the assault was captured on camera. Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway condemned the attack in a statement released on Thursday. "This is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison," she wrote.