A group of white men yelling racial slurs pulled up in a car next to a Black woman driver in Wisconsin, sprayed her with a flammable liquid and threw a lit lighter at her, engulfing her head and neck with flames. The driver, identified as 18-year-old Althea Bernstein, suffered serious burns on her face and neck.
The incident from early Wednesday morning was being investigated as a hate crime, according to the Madison Police Department.
Bernstein was targeted as protesters demonstrated against the capital city’s racist symbols, statues and monuments. The protests turned violent Tuesday night. No arrests had been announced as of Friday morning.
Bernstein spoke with local news outlet Madison 365 on Wednesday to say in her own words what happened. The EMT working to become a paramedic and firefighter said he was on her way to her brother’s house when she was attacked.
“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 said in the interview. “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.”
She described her assailants as looking “like classic Wisconsin frat boys” with two of them “wearing jeans and a floral shirt.” Madison 365 reported that “far-right counter-protesters have attended and disrupted Black Lives Matter protests wearing Hawaiian-style floral shirts.”
Bernstein said when he finally looked at herself after the attack, she saw her face was bleeding. She said doctors told her to expect to have to go through multiple medical procedures and ultimately plastic surgery.
Though there has not been any announcement about suspects, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black, tweeted that some participants in Madison’s protests were “far right provocateurs” who had “fanned the flames of hate.”
The protests turned violent in the hours before Bernstein was attacked. Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter tweeted that he had been “Punched/kicked in the head, neck, ribs” and the Associated Press reported that “a group of 200 to 300 people broke windows in multiple buildings, threw a Molotov cocktail into the city-county building, brought down the statues on the Capitol grounds, broke glass at a state office building and smashed windows and lights at the Capitol.”
Bernstein’s attack came amid nationwide protests against police, racism and the often time deadly combination of the two.
This is America.