On Wednesday, June 24, Althea Bernstein was driving in Madison, Wisconsin. When she stopped at a stoplight, she says four white men threw lighter fluid and a lighter at her face.
“I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the N-word really loud,” Althea told Madison 365. “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’s [home].”
The attack occurred around 1 a.m., and Althea believes it happened when she stopped at the State Street intersection while heading down W. Gorham Street.
After she drove home, she called her mom, who told her to go to the hospital. There, she was treated for burns. “Once it happened I don’t even remember anything, but your brain still has that fight or flight response that takes care of you. So I made it home, I called my mom, I drove myself to the ER,” Althea said.
Althea, 18, works as an EMT and is currently studying to be a paramedic and firefighter. She identifies as culturally Jewish and Unitarian.
“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.”
How can we support Althea?
Michael Johnson, the president of the Boys & Girls Club in Dane County, is currently working as the Bernstein family spokesman. A GoFundMe that started circulating was not authorized by the family; Johnson said her family doesn’t need financial support at this time. Rather than donate to support her directly, Althea wants people to “sign the petitions. Support the movement. Support Black lives.”
“Our family is saddened at what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body,” the family statement said. “At this time, our family is asking everyone to respect our privacy as Althea is recovering from the burns on her face and neck. Our family have asked the Boys & Girls Clubs CEO to serve as the contact for our family. The story on Madison 365 accurately depicts her experience and we feel it’s in the best interest of Althea to heal and to seek treatment.”
Johnson connected Althea to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who talked with her on the phone for 40 minutes.
“[Althea] and Meghan talked about the importance of self care and allowing herself to heal. And she applauded her for the way that she responded and pretty much said, ‘Hey Michael, give me her cellphone number. I want to stay in touch. And let me know when you want me to come back and talk to people in Wisconsin,'” Johnson told Channel 3000. “She’s struggling. It’s a challenge for her, it’s very, very emotional. I talked to her three or four times today, and I’ll tell you Meghan lifted her spirits.”
According to Johnson, “Markle also encouraged Bernstein to stay off social media to avoid reading negative comments, and they spoke about faith and formed a connection talking about being bi-racial.” And, he reports, she sounded like “a seasoned high school counselor.”
The Madison Police launched a hate crime investigation. No arrests have been made yet.
“We have detectives assigned to the case, and are following up on it,” Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl told NBC15 News. “We have been in contact with the victim and we are going to do a thorough investigation and do everything we can to identify whoever was involved, and take the appropriate action when that time comes.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway issued a statement: “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.”
“This hate crime is one of multiple recent downtown incidents where people’s safety and lives have been at risk,” Rhodes-Conway continued. “It is completely unacceptable and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Everybody in Madison deserves to feel safe, and it is up to every single one of us to make that true.”
Althea hopes the men realize their wrongs.
“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.”
Refua shlema, get well soon, Althea.
Header image of Althea via Bernstein Family, flowers via Yifei Fang/Getty Images.