An 18-year-old Black woman says she was attacked with lighter fluid and flame early Wednesday morning by white men yelling racial slurs. She sustained second- and third-degree burns.
Althea Bernstein works as an EMT while studying to be a paramedic and firefighter. She says she was on her way to her brother’s house at around 1 am Wednesday when she reached a stoplight on Gorham Street near State Street in downtown Madison. She doesn’t remember for sure which intersection it was.
“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 said in an interview 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.”
A police incident report says the assailants used a spray bottle to spray lighter fluid on her face.
She said she’s reasonably certain it was four white men who “looked like classic Wisconsin frat boys … Two of them were wearing all black, and then the other two were wearing jeans and a floral shirt,” she said. She said the way they walked made her think they were intoxicated.
She said she was aware that protests had been happening, but wasn’t participating. Protests following the arrest of Yeshua Musa were just winding down at around 1 am Wednesday.
In recent weeks, far-right counter-protesters have attended and disrupted Black Lives Matter protests wearing Hawaiian-style floral shirts.
Bernstein said she was able to drive to her brother’s and back home without significant pain because she was in shock — something she sees in other people regularly.
“I’ve had patients in shock and I know what shock is based on the textbook,” she said. “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.”
Bernstein said her mother told her to call their health care provider, and the nurses on the line there told her she should call an ambulance.
“They were just like, ‘Wait a minute. Will you say that again? What’s happening?’ I was like, yeah, I got a little toasted,” she said.
She opted to drive herself to the UW Hospital emergency department rather than call for an ambulance as the nurses had suggested.
“I feel like fire (and) EMS workers make the worst patients,” she said.
Once there, she had to go through a decontamination routine to get the lighter fluid off her skin, as it was continuing to burn her.
“There was this guy and he washed my hair and scrubbed my back. And I was like, ‘Okay, this is not that bad. I’m going to have to come here more often for a shower,’” she said.
Then the painful part began.
“They had to pretty much scrub the skin off, which was extremely painful,” she said. “Burn pain is something I can’t even really describe. I don’t know how to describe it. It was horrible.”
And it’s not over yet — she will have appointments every few days to repeat the procedure, and will eventually need plastic surgery to repair the damage.
Bernstein said she was advised not to contact police right away “because I was high as a kite” on pain medication. She finally got home at around 6:00 Wednesday morning and called police later in the day. She said she was told they wouldn’t be able to take a statement because they were too busy preparing for protests, but that they would investigate.
In an email Thursday, a Madison police spokesman confirmed that Bernstein had called police and had taken a statement Thursday morning. According to a police incident report, “Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if any of the assault was captured on camera.”
She said beyond the physical pain is the pain of being the victim of a racist attack in her hometown.
“At first I didn’t even believe what had happened,” she said. 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. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. I was just driving my car and minding my own business.”
She struck a forgiving tone for the men who attacked her.
“I think everyone deserves a chance to improve. I hope they feel bad and make a change,” she said. “I’m glad it was me, and not someone like a pregnant woman, or a child, or someone who doesn’t have the health care that I do or the support system that I do.”
Bernstein said she and her family don’t need financial support at this time.
“We’ve thought about maybe a GoFundMe if there are legal expenses,” she said.
A GoFundMe campaign seeking to raise $10,000 for “medical and legal expenses, if they choose to,” was not authorized by the family, a family spokesperson said.
Rather than donate to support her directly, she said she wants people to “sign the petitions. Support the movement. Support Black lives.”
In a statement issued Thursday, Bernstein’s family said they have asked the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and its CEO, Michael Johnson, to publicly represent them.