A Black teenager is suffering from extensive second- and third-degree burns after a group of four white men wielding lighter fluid descended upon her car while she was stopped at a stoplight, and lit her neck and face on fire, she told police. She said that the men also used racial slurs, and the attack — which took place in Madison, Wisconsin — is being investigated as a hate crime.
Around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, 18-year-old Althea Bernstein, who works as an EMT, was driving to her brother’s friend’s home when she hit a red light, according to a police report. “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 told a local news outlet, after which she saw four white men she described as “classic Wisconsin frat boys” and whom she believes were intoxicated. After turning her head, Bernstein says she saw someone throw lighter fluid on her, and then a lighter. “My neck caught on fire, and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face,” she said. “Then I just blasted through the red light … I just felt like I needed to get away.” Per the police report, Bernstein drove home, where her mother urged her to seek immediate medical assistance.
At a nearby hospital, nurses “had to pretty much scrub the skin off, which was extremely painful,” Bernstein said. “Burn pain is something I can’t even really describe … It was horrible.” Bernstein returned home from the hospital on Wednesday morning, after which she called police to file a report. She says that authorities told her they could not take a statement from her at the time, as they were preoccupied preparing for the ongoing protests against racist police brutality but that they would eventually investigate the assault. Per the police report, investigators are examining surveillance images to see if the assault was captured on camera and are looking into whether it is a hate crime.
Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, who is helping Bernstein’s family work with press and local officials, decried the attack as “totally unacceptable, given everything that is going on this country,” in an interview with BuzzFeed News. Bernstein’s family also released its own statement, saying, “Our family is saddened at what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body.”
According to BuzzFeed News, Bernstein will be returning to the hospital every few days to have her burns treated and will eventually require plastic surgery. “I never really knew someone could hate you just by looking at you,” she said. “They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. I was just driving my car and minding my own business.”