The Madison, Wis., police department is investigating a Wednesday assault as a hate crime after four white men allegedly poured lighter fluid on and threw a lighter at a biracial woman.
The police department said in a Wednesday incident report that “the victim believes she was driving on W. Gorham St. when she stopped for a red light at State St. Her driver's side window was down and she heard someone yell out a racial epithet."
The report adds that the victim, who has been identified in local reports as 18-year-old Althea Bernstein, said four white men used a spray bottle to “deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite.”
Bernstein told the local outlet Madison 365 that the alleged attackers yelled “the N-word really loud.” She said that she was driving to her brother’s house, and she “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.”
Her mother told her to seek medical treatment at a hospital, where staff treated her for burns and said they believed the liquid was lighter fluid, according to police.
Bernstein described the four white men as “classic Wisconsin frat boys. … Two of them were wearing all black, and then the other two were wearing jeans and a floral shirt.” She added that she thought they were intoxicated during the incident.
She told Madison365 that medical professionals “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,” Bernstein said.
“At first I didn’t even believe what had happened,” she added. “I grew up in Madison, on the East side, and my dad would take me to the Farmer’s Market every weekend, on those same streets. It just felt so weird to have these really happy memories there, and then now to have this memory that sort of ruined all of the childhood memories.
"I never really knew someone could hate you just by looking at you," she continued. "They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. I was just driving my car and minding my own business.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway (D) said in a Wednesday statement that “this is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison. While we are still learning more about the details, current information suggests this may have been a premeditated crime targeted toward people of color, which makes the incident even more disturbing.”
“I spoke this morning with the victim’s family, expressing my deep sympathies for the harm this incident has caused, my wishes for her healing, and my commitment to do all I can to bring justice,” Rhodes-Conway added.
Bernstein works as an EMT, Madison365 reported. She is studying to be a paramedic and a firefighter.
Madison has been the site of escalating protests this week amid nationwide demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) activated the National Guard on Wednesday after groups of demonstrators toppled two statues outside of the state Capitol, threw a Molotov cocktail into a government building and more.
State Sen. Tim Carpenter (D) said that he was assaulted by protesters and “kicked in the head” Tuesday night as he filmed demonstrators outside the state Capitol.