An 18-year old Black woman, Althea Bernstein, says she was attacked by four white men with lighter fluid as she was driving to visit her brother in the Madison, Wisconsin, suburb of Middleton. The alleged attack from the men, who were on foot, happened at 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, just as Bernstein reached a stoplight on Gorham Street near State Street in downtown Madison.
“I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the N-word really loud,” Bernstein, who is working as an EMT while she studies to become a paramedic and firefighter, told local outlet Madison365 on Wednesday. “I turned my head to look and somebody’s throwing lighter fluid on me. And then they threw a lighter at me, and my neck caught on fire and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face. 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 and Middleton.”
Bernstein, who says she drove back home from her brother’s residence before seeking treatment, suffered second- and third-degree burns and was treated at a local hospital. A police report states that her attackers used a spray bottle filled with lighter fluid to inflict the damage.
Bernstein detailed to Madison365 the painful decontamination process she had to endure at the hospital, saying, “They had to pretty much scrub the skin off, which was extremely painful. … Burn pain is something I can’t even really describe. I don’t know how to describe it. It was horrible.”
According to the victim, the assailants appeared to intoxicated. Two were dressed in all black clothing, while the other two men wore jeans and floral shirts. Recently, far-right protesters wearing Hawaiian shirts have shown up at Black Lives Matter events to disrupt the demonstrations. A link between the four men involved in Wednesday morning’s attack and the far-right protesters has not been confirmed.
Black Lives Matter protests remain prevalent throughout the city of Madison. On the same day as Bernstein’s attack, Republican State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos attended a news conference and condemned the destruction of the city’s statues. “The criminal acts we saw in Madison destroying parts of Capitol should never be tolerated,” he said.
As a result, some have criticized local officials’ response to the incident. “A Black woman named Althea Bernstein was set on fire by white men in downtown Madison, and the news has basically ignored it in favor of talk of statue and damaged businesses,” tweeted Chet Agni, the communications director from the Lieutenant Governor’s office.
The Madison Police Department is currently investigating the incident. The FBI has joined the investigation.