The City Council meeting in Hutto, Texas, had been in session for just a few minutes on Aug. 31 when local resident Nicole Calderone stepped up to the podium, moments after another speaker angrily rebuked Mayor Mike Snyder.
What happened next would plunge the city of less than 40,000 people, just a half-hour drive north of Austin, into a ferocious debate about racism. At the center of the controversy—improbably or inevitably, depending on where you stand—is a $20 banana holder that some see as a physical manifestation of the racist trope that compares Black people to monkeys.
Calderone’s three-minute speech began with a recounting of a visit to her cancer-stricken mother-in-law’s home, where she admired a banana stand and said she would love to give it to the mayor “as encouragement to continue the work he is trying to accomplish.” She then bent down to reveal the colorful holder, which featured a figurine of a cartoonish monkey at the base and five ripe bananas hanging from the hook.
“I’m one of the many monkeys who keep trying to climb the ladder for bananas, regardless of how many times other monkeys try to pull me down and beat me up,” Calderone said in the meeting. “To me, the bananas represent what I expect and what I’m willing to fight for: low taxes, keeping a roof over our heads, and food on the table. Authentic community.”
When she was done talking, Calderone took the banana holder up to the dais, where it sat in front of the mayor’s face for the rest of the two-hour meeting. Its prolonged presence there has since sparked outraged complaints of racism and calls for the mayor—who is white, like approximately 49 percent of his constituents—to resign.
“I believe the mayor has some racist tendencies that I think should be really alarming to the citizens he claims to represent,” Brian Thompson, one of two Black members of the seven-seat Hutto council, told The Daily Beast last week.
Calderone insisted that her gift’s monkey theme had no racial implications. Snyder apologized for offending anyone but claimed he wasn’t even aware of the monkey trope, and insisted that he was not racist.
“I tried everything I can do to understand things. For instance, I work at a company where our market is run by a Black man, and his boss, who runs the entire company, is a Black man. They know I’m in politics, and I run a lot of things by them,” Snyder said.
“Last winter, our Santa Claus got COVID… so we asked for a Santa. And they’re like, ‘Well, but he’s Black.’ And I’m like, ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’” he added. “So we made a decision that Black Santa is fine… and not one person made a comment.”
The uproar over the banana hanger did not come out of nowhere, and this was not the first time that Snyder, a Republican who was elected mayor in March 2021, has been accused of racial insensitivity. Three years ago, when he was a council member, Snyder was named in a race discrimination and breach-of-contract lawsuit against the city.
The December 2020 complaint filed in Texas federal court by Odis Jones detailed a host of allegations against the city, including the claim that Snyder created a “hostile work environment” after he was elected to the council. Jones was Hutto’s first Black city manager, and after complaining about his treatment, he negotiated a $412,000 severance package to vacate his post.
Days after the deal was approved by the council, the lawsuit alleges, Snyder and another council member launched a campaign to disparage Jones and scuttle the severance payout. They allegedly put out a press release that accused Jones of violating the agreement, trashed him in the media, and threatened to ruin his “life and career.”
What the suit described as a “racially motivated crusade” culminated with the city declaring the severance agreement void and demanding a refund of the money it paid Jones nearly a year earlier. Jones sued the city the following week, and after a four-day trial in March 2023, the jury sided with him, finding the city illegally breached his contract because of race. The jury voted for $12.5 million in damages for Jones; the city appealed in April and asked for a new trial, claiming there was no evidence to support the “excessive” award. (A judge dismissed individual claims against Snyder and the other individuals prior to trial, but the mayor did testify.)
In an interview last week, Snyder “100 percent” denied all the allegations made at trial, said there was “a lot of misunderstanding,” and predicted the truth would come out during the appeal. Jones disagreed—and seems to be well aware of the current race controversy enveloping Snyder.
“After a trial featuring testimony from multiple witnesses, including Mayor Mike Snyder, a federal jury considered the evidence presented and unanimously returned a historic verdict against the City of Hutto,” Ted Smith, one of his attorneys, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “The jury found that the City had breached its agreements with Odis Jones, the City’s first Black City Manager, and had taken that illegal action against him because of his race.
“Mr. Jones is saddened, but not surprised, to learn of this kind of reported racism continuing at Hutto City Hall.”
The lawsuit and the massive jury verdict—a sum that exceeds more than 10 percent of the city’s entire budget—put Snyder in a precarious position.
“The lawsuit confirmed to me what I had already seen happening, which was not upholding people’s civil rights,” Onnesha Williams, a community advocate and co-founder of Black Families of Hutto, told The Daily Beast. “The lawsuit had people holding their breath because the city is on the hook for it.”
Still, nobody could have foreseen that a special summertime council meeting to discuss a new revenue tax proposal would leave Snyder under such intense public scrutiny.
After the meeting kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance, the floor was given to a resident who sounded off on Snyder for ignoring “anyone who doesn’t agree” with him. “Every lawsuit this city has faced in the past few years has been a direct result of your actions,” the speaker told the mayor.
When Calderone walked up to the podium, she was carrying a teal shopping bag, which she set down before launching into her speech. After she pulled the banana holder out of the bag and presented it to Snyder, she continued her remarks, which included a series of things she wants for Hutto, from the preservation of natural resources to limited government.
Calderone, who ran for mayor in 2019 and lost, told The Daily Beast last week that her speech, gift, and explanation of it referred to the “five wet monkey experiment and challenging group think.” In this experiment, scientists placed monkeys in a cage that had a ladder with bananas at the top and would spray all the animals with cold water when one tried to climb for the fruit. The other monkeys would pull down and attack the climber until they all learned not to climb the ladder.
“To understand the five monkeys experiment is to understand a little bit of the politics that’s been happening in Hutto,” Calderone explained. “I refer to myself as a monkey trying to climb the ladder and getting pulled down, and then what those bananas represent.”
That is not how some others at the meeting viewed the gift or the fact that it sat in a place of prominence for the entire meeting.
Dana Wilcott, the other Black council member, said she froze in shock when Calderone whipped out the banana stand. She said that she and Thompson immediately stared at each other across the dais in disbelief. Their dismay only grew, she said, when Snyder not only accepted the gift but placed it right in front of his place before continuing the public comment section of the meeting.
Wilcott told The Daily Beast that she and Thompson texted each other, asking, “Did that really just happen?” but did not say anything publicly. Several meeting attendees told The Daily Beast that there was no obvious reaction in the audience.
“We chose not to respond at that moment because we wanted to remain professional,” Wilcott said.
Thompson said that he did not think the “over-the-top” gift was racially motivated until after Calderone stressed that it was specifically for Snyder. “Then I started to get very angry,” he said. “I understand bringing a prop and presenting it to get your point across, but then gifting it to a mayor, knowing that the mayor has had allegations of being racially biased?”
The councilman added that having to look at the fruit stand for the rest of the meeting made him feel like he had been “put in my place” and that if he spoke up, he would be perceived as “an angry Black man.” It was not until a private session after the public meeting that Thompson and Wilcott said they complained. Wilcott said that Snyder acted “really oblivious” and insisted that the gift was harmless. (Snyder denies talking to Wilcott and Thompson privately about the gift.)
“We’re not supposed to be accepting gifts anyway,” she added.
Before long, the banana stand with the monkey motif was the talk of Hutto—a town previously best known for its official symbol: a hippo.
The morning after the council meeting, Facebook posts featuring Calderone’s speech and her gift began to pop up. Several residents told The Daily Beast that they immediately thought the fruit stand was racially charged and an example of Snyder’s insensitivity to minorities.
“I was mortified, to be honest,” Heather Mack, a Hutto hair salon owner who saw the banana stand on Facebook, told The Daily Beast. “I couldn’t believe someone in this day and age was not better educated about what a banana and a monkey mean.” (There are a variety of monkey-themed banana holders available through retailers, including Walmart and Amazon.)
Onnesha Williams, the community advocate, called the banana holder the “straw that broke the camel’s back” when it came to Snyder. Calls for his resignation ballooned, as did the online tensions between Synder supporters and critics. “The mayor, in my opinion, has been highly harmful to marginalized people,” Williams said. “My immediate reaction is that it is one thing in a collection of issues that has been escalating.”
The imbroglio featured at the Sept. 7 council meeting, where one resident slammed Snyder for allowing “bananas on the dais with a monkey.”
Terrence Owens, a school board member, also skewered Snyder. “When he spoke, we saw bananas,” he said, demanding that the council get diversity training. “We have to do better.”
Thompson also addressed the matter at the September meeting, saying he was “deeply concerned and disappointed” that Snyder accepted the gift of bananas, which is a “historically racist symbol used to demean and dehumanize African Americans.” He demanded an apology.
In response, Snyder said he was sorry and that he could now see how the gift “could be taken wrong.” “Looking back, had I known it would be viewed or construed that way by other members of the community, then it’s an easy decision,” Snyder said at the meeting.
The anger over the banana stand initially surprised Calderone, she said, because nobody in the community reached out to her. “I did look inward, and I was like, maybe I am culturally insensitive,” she said. “So I started researching race relations and where do we go from here.”
Calderone said her research took her to the writing of Black conservative Shelby Steele, and she stressed that her message and gift to the mayor never had racial undertones. Despite the apologies and soul-searching, the furor does not appear to be dying down. At recent meetings, more residents demanded Snyder resign, and anger from both sides is bubbling over online and in person.
At the Sept. 28 meeting, Calderone once again stood at the podium, thankfully without a shopping bag this time. She slammed the anti-banana stand group for never reaching out to her and said they had “no intention of trying to make this into a teachable moment.”
“You have no intention of trying to bridge gaps between race; all you want to do is divide,” she said. Then she began to speak directly at Wilcott, whom she claimed was shaking her head on the said dais. “Is this a safe space for me? Are you trying to call me out and attack me? Fuck you,” Calderone said.
“As I was walking out, Onnesha was like, ‘Oh, that’s nice; I’ll tell that to my kids,’ and I was like, ‘Good, First Amendment, look it up. And fuck you, too,’” Calderone told The Daily Beast.
Despite the deepening discord, Snyder told The Daily Beast he has no intention of resigning because he does not believe that will solve the problem. He said he hears the community’s anger and wishes he had handled the gift, which he threw away at home after the meeting, differently. Also, he noted, he is allergic to bananas.
Meanwhile, residents are worried what Snyder’s refusal to resign and the continuing hostility will mean for a community centered around the “hippo way” of kindness and inclusiveness.
“Things have never been worse,” Wilcott said. “I have been here for 13 years, and it has never been so divided as it is right now.”