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Hate crime probe underway after black woman says she was burned by lighter fluid and flame thrown by white man

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How race and justice are being covered in America 07:38

An assault on a black woman in Madison, Wisconsin was being investigated Thursday as a hate crime after the woman told police she was burned by lighter fluid thrown at her and ignited by a white man. The incident occurred just a few blocks from violent protests at the state Capitol.

Althea Bernstein told police she was driving near the Capitol about 1 a.m. Wednesday and had stopped at a red light with her driver's side window down. Bernstein, 18, told police she heard someone yell out a racial epithet, looked around and saw four white men.

Althea Bernstein suffered burns on her face after she said a white man tossed lighter fluid and a flame at her in Madison. WISC-TV

One sprayed liquid on her face and neck and threw a flaming lighter at her, she told police. Bernstein said she pulled forward, put out the flames and drove home where her mother encouraged her to go to the hospital. She was treated for burns. Hospital staff believe the liquid was lighter fluid, police said.

A call by The Associated Press to Bernstein's home was referred to Michael Johnson, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County. Johnson released a statement from Bernstein's family that they were "saddened at what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body. At this time, our family is asking everyone to respect our privacy as Althea is recovering from the burns on her face and neck."

Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called the crime "horrifying and absolutely unacceptable," reports CBS affiliate WISC-TV.

"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," Rhodes-Conway said.

WISC-TV reports the Madison Police Department is reviewing surveillance video in an attempt to locate the suspects. If found, they would face charges of attempted murder and recklessly endangering safety enhanced as hate crimes, which would make them eligible for more stringent sentencing. Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl told the station the investigation is a "high priority" for the department.

In an interview with the station, Johnson called the crime unacceptable and asked, "Where's the respect for humanity?"

"I hope the police apprehend these individuals," Johnson said. "We live in a time in America that we should be showing empathy and love."

The assault came amid a night of violence Tuesday that included the toppling of two statues outside the Capitol and an attack on a state senator. A group of 200 to 300 people protested the arrest of a Black man after he shouted at restaurant customers through a megaphone while carrying a baseball bat.

Someone also threw a Molotov cocktail into a government building and attempted to break into the Capitol, only to be repelled by pepper spray from police stationed inside. The violence prompted Gov. Tony Evers to activate the National Guard to protect state properties.

On Wednesday night, about 40 people gathered peacefully outside the county jail where the man was being held, calling for his release. A crowd of about 100 people congregated outside the Capitol.

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