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Flint reacts to Snyder water charges: 'My whole hopes hit the ground'

Kayla Ruble
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — After state prosecutors charged former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder with two misdemeanor charges for his role in the lead contamination of Flint's water supply,  resident Cynthia Haynes was speechless.

 “Right now, I want to cry, Wow,” Haynes eventually said before choking back tears.

The Flint mother earlier this week was hopeful the Republican governor would be indicted when news reports first surfaced.

But in less than 36 hours, she said her optimism turned into disappointment that one of the men she believes is responsible for the poisoning of a major Michigan city was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty — which carry a maximum one year in jail or $1,000 fine each. 

Flint resident Cynthia Haynes, right, becomes emotional on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, as she said her son, Daniel, 11, (not pictured) was poisoned by Flint's lead-tainted water when he was 6. Flint Democracy Defense League member Laura MacIntyre, right, puts her head down while listening.

Downtown Flint was quiet Thursday morning, and the foot traffic in and out of city hall was sporadic amid COVID-19 restrictions. But across the street, energy buzzed among a small group of news cameras and reporters standing outside of the Genesee County jail as nine former state and local officials filed in and out of the facility getting arraigned on charges related to the water crisis.

Community activist Art Woodson stood in front of the entrance in a baseball cap and hoody broadcasting a Facebook Live video from the scene.

"Gov. Snyder, he’s charged, he’s charged,” Woodson said speaking into his phone. “Maybe those are charges that they know will stick, right?”

“We don’t know it’s still an open investigation,” he said, reminding his viewers that during the Flint water charges and preliminary exams under Republican then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, prosecutors added new charges and defendants on multiple occasions.

Arthur Woodson is a Flint activist who attended nearly every Flint water preliminary exam before charges were dropped in June 2019. Woodson did a Facebook live broadcast outside the Genesee County sheriff's office where former state and city officials were arraigned Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.

In the afternoon, Haynes gathered with two community activists, masked up, armed with hand sanitizer, and all the windows open despite being the middle of January, to discuss the Flint prosecution developments. 

Haynes, whose 5-year-old son was exposed to Flint's lead-contaminated water, was in tears again as she detailed the saga of her child who began exhibiting behavioral issues in 2015 before tests showed his blood lead levels were sky high. 

Daniel, who is on the autism spectrum and is now 11, loves eating noodles, which she boiled in water throughout the time the toxic water was unknowingly flowing through the city’s pipes. He was also hospitalized with severe pneumonia, which she believes was due to the water — from the Legionnaires' disease outbreak or due to a weakened immune system, a known side effect of lead poisoning.

While they sat and read through the list of other individuals charged, there was relief at seeing involuntary manslaughter charges laid against former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells, as well as the extortion and perjury charges against one of Snyder's top aides, Rich Baird. 

It stood out to Haynes, however, that former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, a Black man appointed by the Snyder administration to serve as Flint’s emergency manager at the time that the city switched to the Flint River, was facing three felony charges compared with Snyder’s misdemeanors.  

“If he’d been Black, they’d have locked him up for life like they did Kwame Kilpatrick,” Haynes said, comparing Snyder to the former Detroit mayor currently serving a 28-year sentence after being convicted on public corruption charges.  

Flint resident Cynthia Haynes reflected on Jan. 14, 2021, about the new charges filed against former state and city officials in the Flint water crisis investigation.

For Flint activist Gina Luster, the news has been like a roller coaster ride.

“I was elated to hear that he was being charged,” Luster said. “But then it was like that one second of joy and that next sentence was misdemeanor charges, one year and a 1,000 fine and my whole hopes hit the ground.”

Luster, who has a 12-year-old daughter still grappling with the health complications of the water crisis, compared the situation to the Demon Drop ride at Cedar Point park: When it drops, everything in your body comes up into your chest.

“And that’s how it feels right now," she said. "I can barely get my words out.”

There were even ups and downs over the course of the charges being announced this morning.

Luster couldn’t make sense of Snyder facing one year in prison when her daughter will face the effects of the water crisis for her entire life, or fines of up to $1,000, an amount she says she has spent more on for bottled water over the course of the last half decade. 

“Our lives are going to be affected forever," she said. "Their lives should be affected forever.”

At the same time, she wasn’t optimistic that Lyon would face new charges after two charges of involuntary manslaughter were dropped in June 2019 as Attorney General Dana Nessel's office rebooted the Flint investigation.

On Thursday, Lyon was charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter — with each charge carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years and/or $7,500 fine. He also was charged with willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Luster said she welcomed the news.

“It felt really good to hear those names,” she said.

Luster said it felt even better to hear that Baird faced charges including extortion and obstruction of justice. Flint native Baird led Snyder's recovery effort in the city. 

At the same time, Luster said she still struggles to reconcile that people so close to Snyder and his appointees face potentially harsher punishments than the ex-governor.

Jalil Carter, a student minister with the Flint chapter of The Nation of Islam, said the charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder are weak and easily paid.

Snyder is "the kingpin,” she said. “How is it that people who are taking orders from him end up with felony charges, but he ends up with only misdemeanor charges?”

Luster said her first thought was maybe prosecutors will bring more charges against Snyder later if his confidantes start snitching. But she said she doesn't have a lot of optimism left after four years of waiting for justice.

“It’s really hard to have hope,” Luster said.

Jalil Carter, who has two twin daughters who were 3 years old at the time of the water crisis, agreed, saying the charge was like “a traffic ticket” for the wealthy former governor, who was an executive at the Gateway computer company and a venture capitalist before running for electd office.

“He’s a millionaire," Carter said, "so the little fine that you could give him, he made that in two seconds."